In 2020, AFP announced the formation of its APAC FP&A Advisory Council (FPAAC). The networking and advisory group meets three to four times a year to discuss best practices, common challenges and innovative initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region. We’ll be profiling individual members of the council every month. This month we spoke with Connagh Hopkins, head of Business Planning and Reporting for Western Power.
AFP: Connagh, tell us a little about yourself and your current position.Hopkins: I've worked as a finance professional for over 20 years. I've worked in London and Australia, and in varying industries over that time, ranging from TV production and licensing to property and logistics. Currently I’m head of business planning and reporting at Western Power, and I've been here for nine years.
AFP: You've moved from industry to industry; what is it about finance that allows you to move from place to place?Hopkins: When you are responsible for the whole operations of a business, it makes you realize how much you need information — and quickly — to understand whether you should be concerned or not, or if there is an opportunity to follow up on. When I was running a real estate business in Darwin, and the responsibility for paying people's wages fell on me, well, you realize how important holistic oversight is.
What that brought into sharp focus for me is that we need to always be cognizant of the fact that we, as finance professionals, are there to bring that information out as quickly and as accurately as possible or as timely as possible to the decision-makers who need it.
AFP: Yes, people notice when you miss payroll!Hopkins: Yeah. And when you're in a big organization, you can lose sight of that. You get very focused on whether your spreadsheet is right. You can get yourself bogged down in the details and overlook the bigger message you should be getting out.
AFP: Do you think you've learned more from being in smaller companies where you can see the end to end or in larger companies where maybe you can pick up more specialty skills?Hopkins: Joining a bigger organization, I felt like I'd lost control because I wasn't responsible for the balance sheet anymore. I wasn't pulling the trial balance together, and I wasn't doing all of that reporting, but on the flip side, your focus changes to the operational and that forward thinking of how do I help the business move in the right direction. I've had the best of both worlds, actually.
AFP: From our previous conversations, I know that you don't like to tell some of your business partners that you're in finance, because then they get scared. Can you talk about that dynamic?Hopkins: It’s not so much about playing down the finance piece, it's more about promoting the fact that we are more than finance — beyond finance. In a way, we're there to look after and understand the performance of the organization, and guide that performance with the information that we can gather. It’s about changing the erroneous idea that I’m an accountant coming out to audit you. Rather, I'm a business professional who's coming out to help you get your job done, get it done well and help you make the right decisions. We can bring a business-wide perspective.
We work with more than numbers. We work with a lot of non-financial information, particularly when supporting operational areas of the business, so it was an acknowledgement of that as well. We're really seeing that with some of the ESG reporting coming through. Most of that is non financial in nature and is becoming more important for organizations to look at and report on for stakeholders. It's the FP&A functions in businesses that are really well placed to pull that reporting together and make it more visible and useful for stakeholders internally and externally.
As the head of business planning and reporting, I have oversight of the teams who work with the business to create the longer-term plans, consolidated business plans or integrated plans, and we coordinate forecasts and internal budgets for the more near-term periods also. We also have a finance partnering group, and we have a group that's dedicated to reporting and reporting governance.
AFP: And you said in one of our other meetings that the group purposely did not have “finance” in the title. Can you elaborate on that?Hopkins: The person who previously held my role was very keen on not having “finance” in there. We have got finance professionals in the function, but likewise, we have a lot of other professionals who are not coming from finance backgrounds. We've got engineers, data analysts, and reporting analysts who do not have accounting as their background, but they have a lot of the data sciences and the information disciplines in their experience. And some of our finance partners are also not necessarily qualified through the CPA or the financial accounting route. They might come with business degrees or commerce degrees. And because their focus is more on the relationships and having that face-to-face contact, their communication skills are probably more important than whether they can create a P&L. They understand finance, they understand broadly what it means, and they know how to connect the dots, but their role is more to pick up on things. And, if they need to go to the SME on fixed-asset accounting or corporate accounting or corporate finance, they will reach out to that person and bring them into the conversation.
Everything relates back to the numbers. You can't escape that. Any performance or change in the business will have a financial impact somewhere. This was about not being limited by people thinking that you are only about finance and financial performance. You're about the performance of the business as a whole, the KPIs, the PIs, the planning. If you narrow yourself down to just finance, people will misunderstand or maybe not come to you for all the things that we can actually offer the business.
AFP: What is the career path for those people who are in finance but not qualified accountants?Hopkins: At Western Power they get poached by other functions because they usually understand the part of the business that they partner with to the point that they’re able to pull through fairly complex information and understand what it means. They have the ability to critically analyze the data, and they know how to build relationships. These things are difficult to recruit for. They also know how to use systems and processes, and they can drill down and to figure out the root cause of an issue.
I’ve had people move into operations improvement, working with our field crews and ops team, project management, implementation of change and transformation, governance and assurance, and commercial supply chain management. We've also had people move into roles outside of the business, such as more senior analyst roles in large mining companies, because they've built a really solid foundation of both technical and soft skills.
I see it as part of my role to make sure that we get out there and educate the business regarding what we do, whether that's through lunchbox sessions or finding those communication channels. I've got three area managers I've been talking to about how to structure ourselves for maximum value. We've got so much demand from the business for strategic reporting, external reporting, ESG reporting, new KPIs and operational reporting — in addition to all the normal reports and performance reports we do. We need to continually ask ourselves if we are focusing on the right things.
AFP: I have a feeling that in the future, as more basic jobs get automated, finance is going to become internal consultants. It's going to be the job of finance to find a problem, find something to research, and then go and solve it. I envision these fluid teams that form based on expertise to provide that quantitative analysis and then move on to the next project.Hopkins: Absolutely. We are doing that now, and we've formed another team just this year to start on that path. We've agreed that the team may look different. It might change in three months’ time; we might need a different type of skill set or mix in the team. That's going to be the new normal because some people feel a little bit uncomfortable when what they know as their role and their chain of command or hierarchy gets moved and changed. It's uncomfortable for some. So, it's just making them aware that this is the new normal, it's fine, and they're going to learn a lot.
AFP: What's next for you? Where do you see your career going?Hopkins: For me, the next logical step is CFO. And I wonder if I would add the value that I want to that role. I've been thinking about that a lot recently, and challenging myself to think about where I add value and where can I add value? I am passionate about the transformation of finance and that will influence my next career step.
Learn more about the financial planning and analysis profession in the Asia-Pacific region through original content and resources available only on AFP’s website. You can also get started on your journey to earning the FPAC here.