Ben, on broadening his skills and experience in finance at Experian
Ben, UK Financial Controller at Experian, shares his experience of going from practice to industry, and the variety and work-life balance it’s given him.
What was your path to Experian?
I joined in March 2014, prior to that, I was with KPMG for 12 years. Half my time was spent in audit and half my time in transaction services doing mergers and acquisitions due diligence.
One of the main motivations for me to come across to Experian was that I was working away from home a lot. I had a young family, so my priorities changed. And in that regard Experian is a great place to work; there's more flexibility here than there is in the traditional accounting practice environment. It's more accommodating towards different peoples' personal circumstances. That was a key draw.
At the time, I thought I was sacrificing the variety and interesting nature of work that I had become accustomed to. But, what I've actually found is the work is really varied. There's lots of change, lots of interest, and lots of things to get your teeth stuck into.
And I think it's an environment where you get as much out as you're willing to put in. Yes, you might have a role and a job description, but if things capture your interest that are affiliated to that role or you want to look at different things, there's massive encouragement to really challenge the status quo and find different and better ways of doing things. That really appealed to my nature and still does.
What is your career progression at Experian?
I came in as the UK Chief Accountant then moved to be a Senior Finance Business Partner with the consumer division. Then I moved into the Head of Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A) role before going back to the consumer business as interim Finance Director and I'm now the UK Financial Controller, so as you can see my roles have really varied.
I've probably had more roles in the last four years than is typical. I said at the start, you get as much out as you're willing to put in. If you can demonstrate your strengths and your capabilities and stretch yourself, there are opportunities to slot into vacancies, whether they're short term or permanent, as they become available. As you prove yourself, there's a world of opportunity. If you’re flexible and able to change locations a few days a week or relocate, you’ll have even more options.
I’ve seen in other companies that you can get pigeonholed and then it becomes more difficult to move across or within functions. Whereas my experience with Experian is that it's much easier to move to different roles within your department. Chief Accountant was very much a technical role, Senior Finance Business Partner hugely commercial, and then the Head of FP&A was all about planning and analysis and more of a corporate role. And the Financial Controller has a huge amount of governance to it that I've not come across previously.
There’s a positive culture here of championing and rewarding and promoting from within.
How does Experian differ from an accounting practice?
When you come into an environment like Experian, you're no longer just a team of accountants. There's also a marketing team, there's a technology department, there's a commercial team, there's a product team, and there's a whole breadth of different personalities. And having to learn how to deal and interact with a much wider, diverse demographic of people is a huge change when making the initial leap from a role with a big four or any other accountancy practice.
I have found working at Experian has meant I’m more aware of the different personalities around me. Accountants naturally gravitate towards the left. Quite analytical, not highly emotional. You get into an environment where there are many roles and personalities who are on the other side of the profile. I think that's a cultural change that people need to transition into, but I’ve found it to be rewarding. It helps you develop and grow different skillsets.
What do you think sets Experian apart?
The community focus is a big selling point. I think PLCs probably all have the same kind of CSR programme and initiatives, but I was actually surprised at the level and volume of initiatives in that regard. It’s fantastic, you can use your allocated time to do something you really care about. They embrace all kinds of different things. I use my volunteering hours to go and read at my children’s school.
And, I've already mentioned the variety of work, and the fact you get out what you put in in terms of your career progression. So, if you’re ambitious, there's all kinds of things you can chase after. If you're just happy to be steady, there's a place for that as well. There's a wide spectrum of personalities and characters in the team.
There’s also the benefits of flexible working. I do the school run two or three times a week and get into work slightly after nine. I think the workplace has changed and Experian is at the forefront of that.
It's healthy that there is a culture here where the executive team know everything isn't perfect, but they want to understand what isn't working and how we can improve it. Also, what's working well, but could we do better? There is an intent and a desire to affect change. They're always thinking about what could they do differently.
What sorts of people do you think are happy and successful at Experian?
People who've got a heightened sense of natural curiosity do well. If you're willing to challenge things and not just say: "Well, that's the way that we do it. We've always done it like that. We'll always do it like this." Finance is trying to adopt and adapt with some of the tools that are becoming more prevalent and available. If somebody's more adaptable and willing to hit change head-on, that type of personality will thrive and prosper.
Also, people with good communication skills who can mould their communication style for different personalities and characters. You'll be talking to people who are two, three, four levels more senior than you are, but in finance, you're in charge of the governance and safekeeping of the company's assets. You're in a function that requires you to ask challenging questions. So, you have to be able to learn quickly how to have the right conversations with people who are more senior than you.
And not to just take information at face value. People who don’t just take the first answer but look behind that.
I think networking is hugely important too. Networking internally in Experian means you know how to get things done, whether it's in finance, with systems, or with your business stakeholders. You need to know who you should be challenging, who you should ask the questions of and who best to go to when there are opportunities or issues that need escalating.
What's the workload like?
It's challenging, but no more so than any other company. There are peaks and troughs, but I find my workload and work/life balance is a world apart and better than it was in previous companies.
Like I said, you shouldn’t just do things because that's the way they’ve always been done. If you're having to work too many hours, you need to have a voice and challenge your managers. Or you need to find a way of taking acceptable shortcuts and finding process efficiencies.
What would you tell someone who’s considering a career here?
If somebody's ambitious and wants to progress, I'd say to come in and prove your worth. Put the hard yards in over the first 12-18 months. Really establish your reputation. And then you'll have every opportunity to accelerate and move on to other things, other opportunities.
It's surprising how quickly opportunities arise. But that's partly because it's a big company with a wide number of finance individuals across different work streams and regional teams, with different specialisations you can move towards and move between.
There’s the opportunity to move not just upwards, but sideways. There's all kinds of things you can do. You can go into more commercial roles, outside of core finance such as into pricing support roles. I think that's something you wouldn't necessarily consider if you're in practice or perhaps a smaller company.
For more junior roles, there's a culture of promoting from within. There's a wealth of opportunity and materials for training and development. Whether it's web access, whether it's internal courses, whether it's online training that people can go off and self-study for. There's all kinds of things that people can tap into there.
If I look back on my career, I think with hindsight, I would've joined Experian two or three years earlier than I did. I think in practice, there's a point in time where you stop learning things. Where you don't learn as much as you could do. I've learnt so much more in the last four years.
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