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Rising stars: ‘Soft skills’ key to finance role

The role of the finance director for many small to medium- sized businesses, encompassing most companies in the automotive retail and repair industry, has become a hybrid position.

“It is no longer the traditional bean counter role,” says Keith Onslow, director of finance at Thatcham and Rising Stars finance judge. “It’s often also about overseeing HR, IT and facilities. You have to be multi-skilled.”

At Thatcham, Onslow spends around half his time focusing on finance issues, 30% on HR and 20% on strategy. As the finance role becomes increasingly complex, with more bureaucracy, rules and regulations, taxation, corporate governance and company law to observe, spreading his time becomes more difficult, however.

“It is very time consuming but you have to balance that with being dynamic and able to lead the company forward,” he says.

Onslow has the benefit of a finance department to delegate tasks. The finance managers at many retailers and repairers will have sole responsibility. And they also have to cope with a changing profession.

“The finance department is changing from transactional – paying bills, raising invoices – to become more analytical,” Onslow says. “It’s being driven by the board – you have to be able to justify the figures.”

He is looking for a Rising Star who can balance the various tasks demanded of the modern finance manager with the ‘soft skills’ necessary to influence company strategy.

“They have to be able to communicate the commercial element of the role and add value to the company. They also need to prove they are close to the business and that they understand it. As well as good communication skills they need to have a good relationship with the other elements of the business – they can’t just spend all day in the finance department.”

Of all the Rising Stars categories, finance is the one where the skills are most easily transferable across any type of business sector. Most finance managers are graduates who join an audit company before moving into the industry.

Onslow’s background is one working across a variety of companies, picking up different cultures and experiences. He spent 12 years working at PHH, latterly as European financial controller for the vehicle leasing division, leaving to join a telecoms company founded by a maverick Texan millionaire. He then went to a PR subsidiary of a plc before joining Thatcham.

“After working at PHH, with a finance team of 130, I looked for a role where I could make more of a difference to the company. It’s those roles that attract me,” Onslow says.

There will always be an element of boundary crossing for finance managers. The experience gained by working for a variety of companies is invaluable, and something Onslow will be looking for.

How to enter

Visit the Rising Stars website at www.automotive-risingstars.com and complete the nomination form. You can nominate either yourself, your boss or a colleague. Entrants must be under 40 years old.

Finalists will be selected from six categories: finance, HR, sales, PR, marketing and general management. The deadline is June 20, 2007.

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