With a 25-year accounting and finance career milestone approaching, we talked to Financial Director of BOFA International, James Oliver about his journey, achievements and challenges.
Did you always know you wanted to get into the Accounting and Finance sector?
Shortly after the Big Bang, when traditional face-to-face share dealing switched to electronic trading, I really liked the idea of becoming a merchant banker. I was about 14 at the time and a friend of the family arranged a visit for me to Morgan Grenfell which peaked my interest even more.
I worked hard through school and then eventually went to the University of Oxford and studied chemistry. I believed getting in to a great university was probably more important than covering a business focused degree. Whilst I enjoyed chemistry, I decided I still wanted to stay close to my earlier instincts and pursue a business-related career. From having attended career fairs at university I thought mergers and acquisitions (M&A) looked interesting. I could either still follow a banking route or go via an accounting qualification. I settled on the accounting route as I thought it offered a wider grounding.
What route did you take to become chartered?
When I graduated from university, I spent a year temping at Barclays in the chief accounts department. It was a great way to learn and get a taste of whether I would enjoy accounting as a career.
Deciding I would, I joined a smaller accountancy practice, then called Burnett Swayne, on a training contract where I studied the ACA qualification. It was hard work and you had to be very disciplined, but it did enable me to gain a broad understanding of many accounting functions. Once I’d qualified, I decided I wanted to get back to my original goals of M&A.
James Oliver – Pic: Chris Balcombe
You joined Deloitte in 2000. What was that like?
I spent 12 years at Deloitte, going from junior executive up to Director, and really enjoyed my time there. Corporate finance, doing deals and helping clients to raise capital, buy and sell companies was much more the kind of work I was interested in. I also I worked with a lot of Private Equity Houses investing up to £100 million as well as with the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and James Caan and Deborah Meaden from Dragon’s Den.
How did you go from Deloitte to Financial Director of BOFA International?
In 2012 I had the opportunity to join an unloved business and turn its fortunes around. Together with the CEO, I was able to take the business, a plastics manufacturer, from break-even to 10% profit. It was a great achievement. From there, I was approached to join BOFA in 2015. At the time, it was a family-run business and they wanted to sell, while getting the best deal for their employees, whom they were very close to.
What’s been your biggest challenge at BOFA?
The first challenge was to organise a management buy-out and professionalise the business. The workforce had a great attitude, but processes and systems were archaic, and there was just a part-time bookkeeper, for instance. Following the buyout for £23 million, a new management team was hired and the business went from strength to strength. Revenue increased from £16 million to £27 million in two years. In October last year, it was sold to an American filtration company for £90 million.
What’s been your biggest achievement to date?
Definitely the sale of BOFA International. It’s gone to a good home in terms of the acquiring business, which also provides the existing workforce with great opportunities.
How do you think the Accounting and Finance sector has changed over the years?
Technology has changed dramatically and enabled everything to happen much quicker. The ‘Big Four’, as they are referred to, have also consolidated their position compared to when I joined the sector, which is making it much harder for smaller firms to have a significant impact.
From an FD’s perspective, the world is getting riskier and the challenge moving forward will be ensuring the day to day needs of the business are met, while getting the balance right between being diligent and adapting fast enough so you don’t get left behind.
Everyone thinks this sector is boring – why do you find it so exciting?
Aspects of every job are boring, and accounting is a means to an end. It really depends what kind of person you are and what you want to do, but it can be extremely exciting.
For me, private equity and structuring deals is really varied and good fun with lots of layers to consider. Each deal is different in terms of financing, risk profile and covenants for example. You not only have to be able to technically structure a deal, but also anticipate how the various parties will react. Likewise, looking at how you can grow a business faster and make it more profitable is far from boring.
What characteristics would make a good Financial Director, in your opinion?
Technically ability alone is not enough. You need to have a steely edge, grit and determination. You can be nice, fair and sympathetic but also prepared to make difficult decisions – all while being open, honest and a team player.
Creative thinking is a must, because there will always be situations where you can’t change the cards you have been dealt, but you can change the way you play them.
If you look at the FTSE 100 Index, the most common routes into becoming a CEO are accounting and engineering, so you really can get to the top.
BOFA International is an international and market-leading manufacturer of fume and dust extraction systems. The company employs around 250 people locally at its new head office in Poole, which was officially opened in 2018 by the Duke of Kent, and has received two Queen’s Awards for Enterprise.
Louise Woodward (Chartered MCIPD)
Louise is an experienced specialist accounting & finance recruitment professional with over 30 years’ experience specialising in the sector during which time she has gained an esteemed reputation as one of the region’s leading recruiters evidenced by her long list of loyal and happy clients. Louise is also Group Secretary …