From waiter to CFO

aat comment

Stefan Payne, Chief Financial Officer at Titan Airways, studied AAT with Gareth John, Director and tutor at First Intuition.

Gareth recently met with Stefan and asked him a few questions about how his successful career in finance started.

What attracted you to a career in accountancy?

I was looking for a career with opportunities, a career that could satisfy my ambitious nature and that paid well too. I chose accountancy as it provides all of those things whilst perfectly suiting my analytical, logical nature and my desire to be involved in the heart of a business.

How did you get started?

My route into accounting was not a typical one. After my A levels I worked in the hotel and retail industries for six years in an operational capacity. I started as a waiter working my way up to management level, before deciding on a change of career. In 2005 I joined the accounting firm Price Bailey as a trainee auditor.

How long did it take you to move from that position to your current role as CFO?

Eight and a half years.

What qualifications do you have?

I didn’t do a degree, which surprises a lot of people. When I was in full-time employment I studied and completed my AAT assessments before going on to complete the ICAEW qualification.

I chose to start with the AAT qualification because it seemed to be the logical choice for me. AAT provided me with all of the fundamental knowledge and core skills I needed to become a good accountant and it also perfectly complemented my workplace learning. This combination of technical and practical skills turned out to be the ideal preparation for the ICAEW studies that followed.

What do you enjoy most about your position?

The variety and being at the heart of an interesting, fun, dynamic business. Yes, I’m a qualified accountant, but the role of CFO becomes so much more than this. For me, becoming an accountant was always the route to open the doors to business leadership. However being an accountant at heart, I still enjoy rolling my sleeves up and getting stuck into the accountancy work, especially on the technical and tax side.

What is unique about working for an airline as an accountant?

Personally I love the aviation industry – it’s so interesting and varied, and with such complexities you only truly appreciate once you’re in it. The airline industry means that my role has to cover so much that may not exist in other business of similar size. Items such as aircraft purchase agreements with Singapore, regular cross-border transactions, with their tax and legislative complexities, managing business financial risks from significant but fluid foreign currency and fuel price movements, large debt funding for aircraft purchases.

What are some of the surprising elements of your role?

I get involved in a wide variety of areas, in fact probably spending more of my time on the non-typical finance functions. These would include, legal, HR, IT, recruitment, resource planning and commercial. Recent examples include being project sponsor and mentor for our new cabin crew uniform. This involved everything from being involved in the supplier selection process, uniform design and selection of final design as well as pricing and contract negotiations. Alongside this I work closely with our legal team, on anything from aircraft purchase agreements, loan documentation, commercial agreements, premise leases and complex aviation specific insurance policy documents.

What advice would you give to someone who aspired to a similar role?

Have goals and aspirations, both short and long term, but ensure you regularly review these and don’t be afraid to revise them as and when necessary. There will be multiple paths to your goal, and you should keep your options open.

Grab opportunities to develop and learn with both hands. Every day, and every task should be seen as an opportunity to learn. This especially includes those days and tasks that didn’t go to plan. The old adage that you learn most from your mistakes is true.

Seek a mentor and learn from your peers and bosses, both the good and the bad – you will have both. You can then develop an understanding of what you like and what works and what doesn’t.

Don’t neglect the soft non-technical skills. As your career progresses these become far more important, especially if you move into a business. Communication skills and team/people management skills become paramount. Find opportunities to develop these, whether it is a part time job grafting in a restaurant teaching you valuable life lessons or volunteering at a local club or charity. Do something that tests you and puts you outside your comfort zone. As painful as it may seem on day one, it won’t take long and you’ll be developing new valuable skills you didn’t know you could.

Be confident and believe in yourself. If at first you don’t succeed. Life is a series of small decisions over a long period of time. Most days will not be obviously pivotal in the grand scheme of it, but the accumulation of each of those small decisions becomes important, as these are what drive you along your chosen path.

And don’t forget, good old fashioned hard work, be a master of your own destiny.

You now send your staff to courses at First Intuition. How do they find it?

The feedback that I get from my team members about their studies at First Intuition is always excellent. The tutors are always willing to go the extra mile if a student needs that little extra help. The brilliant tutors are what makes First Intuition an excellent place to study, which is backed up with first class exam success rates. As an employer, the support I receive from First Intuition is fantastic.

What benefit do you see to your business when your employees have a qualification?

It goes without saying that employees studying for, or that already have, qualifications can add significant value to the team and business. Part of this benefit comes from the motivational aspect, but only when matched with the right attitudes, which is why recruitment is critical to success. Beyond just the motivational aspect, the core skills and technical knowledge gained from studying for AAT (and latterly ACA/CIMA/ACCA) has a direct benefit in their ability to perform in their role.

With a finance team of nine in a complex business, we all have to get involved in so much, so having a team with a good qualification level is essential. It allows us to perform collectively to a much higher standard, delivering a far superior output to the business to support the critical business decisions being made all the time.

How do you motivate and inspire your employees?

Motivation comes in many forms. I have been managing teams now for 17 years. One thing you learn is we are all individuals, unique in many ways, but also alike in many others. Any good team is built with a good blend of personalities, which can thrive off each other, drive and inspire each other, but ultimately get along too. With motivation being very personal to each individual, you have to understand and respect what their drives, want and needs are. Then if possible you can work to fulfilling these in some way.

Inspiration comes from my motto, to lead by example with passion and belief in what we do, striving to be the best we can, wanting to be successful (however you define success). Having common combined goals and objectives that as a collective you are part of is hugely inspirational. It can be small short term tasks or large long term aims, in fact a mix of most is best.

Working hard is essential, but so also is having fun. We all spend enough of our lives at work, that we should try enjoy it too, know when to take a situation very seriously and equally when to have a laugh.

Photo: Gareth John director of First Intuition (left) and Stefan Payne, CFO of Titan Airways. 

Gareth John is a qualified chartered accountant and tutor at First Intuition.

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