Over the weekend I watched the film, Castaway. Afterwards, I had a wry smile as I reflected on the similarities between Tom Hank’s predicament to that of both recruitment providers and many senior finance & transformation professionals not in a contract when lockdown started.
Let’s be frank. The last eight months has invariably been one of long, lonely, repetitive days doing whatever was needed to survive.
It is the reason why the last time I provided a market update was back in the Spring. There seemed to me little point offering an update at any stage up to now as it would have been frankly as depressing for the reader as well; Tom’s first few nights on the island were.
It was specifically Tom’s battle to make a fire that drove me to offer this update at this time. I believe the dynamics of the interim market is finally changing, and I am feeling confident enough for the first time to stick my neck out and say the interim market is stirring. This time the flame will take hold, and we will see a sustained period of recovery.
Back to Tom, and his efforts to make a fire, to explain my new found confidence. For what seemed like an eternity Tom huffed and puffed, making his hands bleed in a futile effort to get even a spark. When eventually he got a spark the straw frustratingly never caught alight. All of his efforts were futile until he realised he needed to get more oxygen to turn the spark into a fire. Here is where the analogy is, in my opinion, to the state of the interim market now and going forward.
The interim market needed its own form of oxygen to catch fire, and I believe the positive news on multiple vaccines coming down the track very soon is that oxygen. I do not believe it is a coincidence that the strong anecdotal evidence I have picked up in the last two weeks has coincided with the positive news on vaccines.
Yes, I have had several new assignments in a short time, which of course improves my mood and I have had other mini runs of assignments during the last eight months. Equally, I must also caveat the opinion I am sharing with the reader by noting that the anecdotal evidence is over a very short two week period.
When you get a run of assignments, the focus shifts from client-focused engagement (endeavouring to obtain assignments), to increased engagement with interim professionals. This time around, and noticeably different to my previous mini-runs, is the frequency I hear from interims (not in all markets which I will expand on below) that their phones are significantly ‘hotter’ and not just with discussions about potential assignments. The mood music is different because the noise & talk of potential assignments is significantly louder & more consistent. Critically the noise is being backed up by increases in both the volume of interviews being arranged and importantly, the numbers of professionals that are obtaining new assignments.
So, in which area is the market starting to catch fire? The second movie offers readers a clue.
Some readers, those not with children or grandchildren of a certain age, may not know the picture is from the film Transformers. It is my engagement with interims operating in the transformation arena where I see the most noticeable increase in activity. I believe enterprises are starting to invest their time and monies in instigating the necessary transformation projects to take them to ‘The New Normal’ post-Covid.
The legacy of Covid in terms of the changes to society and the short to medium-term scarring on economies is yet to be fully determined, but enterprises can see an end to the extreme volatility and start to plan forward with increasing certainty, or what feels to enterprises certainty, relative to the last eight months.
A majority of enterprises will have cut their cost base back to the bare minimum to remain profitable to in many cases, ensure survival. With growth afoot as early as Q1 2021, it would be reasonable to expect the psyche of enterprises to swiftly move to investment, to ensure they are right-sized to the improved trading conditions they envisage. Investment in people, systems & processes to ensure they remain both competitive in their existing markets, and I believe, allow them also to explore new markets where they see opportunities. Many enterprises, given Government support either directly via grants, VAT deferments, JRS and tax breaks, in addition to the enormous support offered via the banks with the various lending schemes the Government put in place, find themselves coming out of Covis financially in good positions. They have the Balance Sheet strength to invest.
The speed of the expected revival allied to enterprises, after cost-cutting previously, operating on reduced staffing levels will necessitate interims supporting C-Suite Executives with their strategies and then executing their plans. It will quickly flow through to the hiring of other interims to support the execution.
Other factors I see significantly pushing the transformation agenda and therefore, the need for interims include:
- The ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) Agenda & Reporting is increasingly moving to the very top of the agenda for Executive teams. (So much so I am committing shortly, with the support of leading professional figures currently supporting enterprises, to provide our executive stakeholders with further oversight and support where we can).
- Brexit, whether deal or no deal, enterprises will need to adjust…. And there I will leave Brexit for now!
- Significant increases in M&A. There is a wall of cash that has, for the most part, sat on the side-lines whilst the state of uncertainty existed. It can be expected that given the vaccine now brings increased certainty, this wall of cash will be put to use. In addition, potential taxation changes regarding CGT and owner fatigue will no doubt drive sell-side activity.
- As a result of restructuring that happened apace since March, management teams are leaner with little spare capacity to oversee and manage major change programmes. They are increasingly likely to be suffering from the fatigue of the last eight months and therefore far more likely to hire interims to help share the workload going forward.
As referenced above a surge in M&A activity is expected. Professionals with skills and experience in this area should be confident of seeing increased activity in 2021.
It is very frustrating for those focused on this niche market to report that, in short, there really isn’t a market. Distress is not a word that I hear in the lexicon outside of the enterprises that quickly found themselves in difficulty because of the sector they operate in. I make this statement with a high degree of authority from the consistent engagement I am having with our extensive turnaround network built since the last recession of 2008. There are multiple factors at play to this perplexing paradox relative to the severity of the downturn the economy has experienced. In short:
- Enterprises not impacted severely (such as leisure, hospitality, etc.), invariably have found trading levels whilst tough not as severe as they initially thought and the drastic action many took to reduce their cost base has resulted in better than expected operating performance & cash generation.
- Cash is flowing far better than expected between enterprises. Stimulus programmes and massive support from banks has not resulted in the expected credit crunch.
- JRS has been a major support to enterprises and staved off the worst for many enterprises.
- Additional government support in terms of VAT deferment and, relaxing wrongful trading rules has given enterprises time to act and adjust.
The consensus amongst the turnaround community is that the ‘rubber won’t hit the road’ in terms of a noticeable increase in turnaround situations until probably H2 2021 at the earliest.
Financial planning & analysis
This market has been exceptionally quiet up until now. The reason why I suggest it also offers hope for a strong resurgence going forward.
Enterprises very quickly secured control of their cost bases back in March. It has remained the case up until now as the JRS scheme has kept a lid on staff costs there being minimal appetite for increased spending outside anything essential ‘to keep the lights on’.
I, for example, as a business owner, can with a high degree of confidence forecast within 5% what my cost base will be each month.
Enterprises have struggled with visibility on the revenue side. If the owners and Executives of enterprises cannot necessarily forecast that themselves why engage an outside interim to help them forecast and model quite frankly guesstimates? Control cost has been the focus until visibility is restored.
If we are approaching that point, then enterprises will need to forward plan to make decisions on investment and adjusting their, until recent, static cost bases… and this is where FP&A skills will become a necessity.
Interim SME CFOs & Finance Directors
How subdued this market has been is perhaps the biggest surprise for me. Back in March, I expected very high demand for interim CFO’s, either full-time or part-time to support business owners navigate their way through Covid. Looking back and trying to understand why this has not been the case is not easy but here goes:
- Little stress or distress in the market (for the reasons given in Turnaround).
- External advisors, audit firms, alternative funders and the banks themselves have taken a prominent place in supporting enterprises with their applications for Government funding (CLBILS & CBILS ) therefore negating the need of senior finance interims to assist.
- SME business owners and executives invariably know their business and have not seen the additional cost a necessity.
- Many owners will have parked plans to make changes until they obtained better visibility on what they are facing. For that matter, many incumbent CFOs will have parked their searches for the same reason.
- There has been little churn in the permanent CFO / Finance Director market thus negating the need for interim cover to fill the gaps whilst a permanent replacement is found.
Interims to cover permanent churn
The permanent market, as to be expected, has been subdued. The reasons are obvious. As this market picks up, more likely driven as professionals regain the confidence that it is safe to move jobs, then this market will improve. That noted, there will be a significant number of professionals who seek permanent work available immediately, so the pick-up may not be as pronounced as would normally be expected.
Possible action plan for interims
If my projection of a sustained upswing in activity is correct, then what advice can I offer?
Proactively engage with recruiters
Come January recruiters rested will be back and very much client focussed. In the run-up to Christmas sales activity will drop off. It always does. These next few weeks are ideal for strengthening existing relationships and trying and building new ones.
Back in May, I penned an article discussing the issues around engaging with recruiters (links to the article are below)
CV Review – keep it relevant to the market
Follow market trends and continually review your CV/Bio on LinkedIn to marry/highlight your skills, experiences and achievements to the areas where there is demand. I will highlight two by way of example.
Turnaround professionals – The skills and experiences they possess are equally suitable for delivering at pace transformation and managing high growth scenarios. The likely upswing in revenue for many enterprises can be likened to managing high growth.
Generalist CFO & Finance Directors – Professionals who may otherwise be considered generalist CFO/FD’s may want to give greater prominence to transformational and M&A expertise.
If anyone would like further CV advice and even a template to follow, please contact me, and I will happily assist.
Target in house recruiters
The difference between this recession and the last is the ability for enterprises to utilise the power of LinkedIn to attract professionals directly. More and more large enterprises are employing in house resourcing to attract talent. Sometimes this is reactionary to a need; the better in-house teams are likely to be proactive and seeking out connections to likely future requirements. Professionals should look for organisations where their skills and experiences offer a competitive advantage and then explore if they have internal resource staff. Reach out and in your invite in the short number of words allowed make the case to connect.
Alongside this (and if you haven’t already) set up searches on LinkedIn jobs. Increasingly large enterprises are advertising opportunities directly on LinkedIn.
Other points of note
It’s coming again in April 2021. I do not believe it is all doom and gloom. Greenwell Gleeson is taking a very proactive approach to ensuring we are educated on the subject and thus able to influence our clients to consider engaging an interim outside of IR35. We are partnering a business that specialises in helping ascertain the correct status of whether an assignment is inside or outside of IR35, and if outside, offering insurance to protect all parties in the chain. In the coming weeks, I will be providing a detailed update on our stance and plans to ensure the professional community can retain its ability to work outside IR35.
I am yet to see any clear picture/trend on rates. As and when I feel comfortable offering an opinion, I will make my opinion known.
Analysis of opportunity flows
Since September Greenwell Gleeson has been charting the volume of opportunities in the West Midlands in each of the three markets, we extensively cover, namely, Executive, Qualified and Part/Qualified Transactional. To do so, we used two of the most prominent portal sites GAAPWEB and Reed online.
GAAPWEB shows a near 50% drop in senior roles advertised presently compared to the start of September. 80% of the opportunities posted on the site were permanent, and the reduction is wholly down to the volume of permanent opportunities being posted.
Around three weeks ago, I expanded this to start monitoring opportunities nationally on these sites and also included Exec Appointments. The analysis is early-stage, and we do not feel comfortable in offering a view on trends yet. The latest analysis can be found on our website …. And we will publish updated information, including monthly graphs. I will inform our audience when the latest update is available.
Greenwell Gleeson new website & social media
Mea Culpa. Our social media engagement to date is not what it should have been and reflecting my view that enterprises are ready to invest. Greenwell Gleeson has set about putting this right. We are going live with a new website in December, and we are committed to offering consistent updates, information and advice to our stakeholders via the website, our company LinkedIn page and Facebook.
We hope you find the content stimulating and of relevance. If I can suggest, please feel free to follow our LinkedIn company page: https://www.linkedin.com/company/31194
I hope you found this article of interest only one more thing to add… You’re the man Tom; you’re the man!
Managing Director, Greenwell Gleeson
*Photograph taken from the film Cast Away by MGM – a film l highly recommend you watch if you haven’t seen it already.