Meet the CFO: Fiona Tee, Currency Cloud

Alex McKay - Soldo •

This interview is part of prepaid corporate card provider Soldo’s CFO series, which highlights the finance professionals leading the digital transformation charge.

Interview with Fiona Tee

Fiona is in her fourth year as CFO of Currencycloud, the global payments platform that takes the complexity out of moving money cross-border. She originally qualified at KPMG; and throughout her career has taken senior finance roles in technology companies; particularly those with a focus on disruption in financial services… Big names on her CV include Mastercard and Cap Gemini, but her credits include a wide range of VC-backed ventures in mobile, payments and contactless.

What attracted you to Currencycloud?

Currencycloud offers something new to the market which is very tangible: a tech-based platform for cross-border payments that can service the businesses that in turn service anyone – to make the process faster, cost-effective and more connected.  I would see the £30 charge that was attached to, say, sending money to a friend in Canada, and the opportunity for change immediately resonated with me. There is a very clear product/market fit, and the business already had great growth and a strong brand.

The content of the role mattered to me too: I have always taken fairly broad remits in order to broaden my skillsets, and when I took on the role, I was given Payment Operations and Compliance alongside the traditional CFO responsibilities.

Another consideration for me was the culture of the company. The structure is flat: empowering but with accountability and really talented people that are respectful of each other. If I had to say it in one sentence, it’s “growth around a clearly defined market proposition and the clear ability of a team to execute on it.”

You say you were attracted by the breadth of the role. CFOs must at least understand the levers by which other functions in a business work, and you clearly enjoy that. What constitutes this broader role today for a CFO?

Breadth isn’t the same as getting involved in too much detail. There are still organisations where the finance role is almost like accounting, and that’s not appealing!

The breadth depends on the organisation, but I think there are often natural combinations, depending on the size of the business.  Legal and commercial are an obvious fit, and HR is quite often in there as well. Historically, IT was often part of the remit, but the digital opportunity is now so universal and strategic that the IT role has matured to touch every part of the business.

My combination – compliance and payment operations – is unusual; but then, my role is borderline COO in some ways. I’m strong on my foundational pillar of finance – I love the numbers – but what matters is that they are the single source of truth that enables connections and decision-making across the whole business.

The other important piece for a CFO is to operate not just across disciplines but to consider the level at which you’re operating, which should be strategic. In one of my roles at Mastercard, for example, I worked in a very commercial role featuring strategy and pricing. I did it deliberately to get rid of the black fog in my head that there was something magical or mystical about strategy: it was like doing a paid MBA! With the foundations of financial discipline from the operational finance function, you can then step back and apply your skills and the numbers to the bigger strategic questions: developing whole propositions and finding ways to finance them.

Finding that time to step back and see the bigger picture of the business, the story that’s being told in the numbers, is unbelievably important. I try hard to do that every single day. To do so, I need the resources to support that thinking, to make it reliable, and to help other people in the business act on it. So the processes, data and systems that support rational, strategic insight are essential.

You’ve worked consistently in disruptive businesses. But what felt disruptive 20 years ago is positively stable compared to today. How do you make decisions in a world where the management horizon is so short and unpredictable?

We do live in a world of perpetual change; and when everything is moving you just want to be able to nail one thing to the floor and stand on it!

The first thing I’ve noticed is that planning cycles have shrunk in terms of timelines. Planning for a year is too far out: you lose control because the budget becomes a forecast. So our planning cycle at Currencycloud runs to six months. We do set budgets for a year, but we absolutely know we’ll have to iterate. That might frighten some people, but when you’re growing you’re learning about your product/market fit. You’re learning about what you can do to adjust it and capture the market that is emerging.

Our planning cycle at Currencycloud runs to six months. We do set budgets for a year, but we absolutely know we’ll have to iterate. That might frighten some people, but when you’re growing you’re learning about your product/market fit.

We try our hardest to keep abreast of what’s happening in the market: who’s doing what, how should we react and how that fits into our road map, our products and our alliances.  

That feeds across the business with other cycles: appraisals, objective settings etc.; many of which run on 3-month cycles; and our project roadmap which operates on just a six-week cycle.  And you’re continually balancing the money, because fundamentally, the key discipline is how much cash you’ve got. Cash is a matter of fact, and we’ve got to make it work.  

Maybe some industries find it easier than others, but that’s what we do. Our space is quite hot and that makes it crucial for us firstly to have that discipline and secondly to have the information on hand to make sense of the business and the environment we work in.

The other key here is that while some rules are hard, some have to be more flexible. Remuneration in fintech is a great example – it’s such a hot space that it’s exceptionally hard to lock down costs. 

So rather than being obsessively hard, the rules are there to stop people making decisions more complicated or difficult to track than they need to be. If teams work with me within the parameters we set, then we can repay them with the space and time to be flexible; to iterate the org chart and associated costs. You need agile organisational design if you’re a growth company. It’s the difference between manageable risk/complexity, and chaos. And of course, cash is always a hard rule for a growing business.

You operate in a highly regulated sector. How do you deal with the fact that regulators don’t necessarily have the language or the toolkit to support your growth requirements? How do you manage the business in that respect?

There’s no doubt about it: it’s an overhead that traditionally fast-moving tech businesses don’t endure, both in cost and in time. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Firstly, regulation can be our friend because it can also be a barrier to competition and an opportunity for us to create models and get revenue. And fintechs are deadly serious about regulation. 

But we also came to realise that some regulators don’t necessarily know what’s best to move the consumer experience forward. They could do with our help in understanding what our business does and how it fits within rules that weren’t necessarily written for that market; what the models are and how the rules could be interpreted.  The important part is having that dialogue.

Also, only get regulated when you need to get regulated. It’s like a privacy notice: only ask for consent when you need to ask for consent. We began by thinking that we needed to be regulated in all our territories and contexts, when actually, for our business model, we don’t need to be regulated in endless situations because we don’t operate direct-to-consumer. As a result, we’ve focused on the key markets, which cover us for most scenarios.

A good question is: what are the three things that I need to wake up and read? Getting the right metrics in front of the right people at the most useful time is an art form in itself.

What are your metrics and how do you judge the health of the business? One of the challenges we find most interesting is that people can get really bogged down in one set of metrics that leave other aspects of the business falling apart or unloved. What can you rely on in changeable, high- growth times?

We talk about this all the time; our metrics are always iterating. There are new ones, and there are ones that we retire out.  Interestingly, it’s not the finance function that owns them. Finance is a major pillar, but we didn’t want the metrics to be exclusively financially driven – it’s far broader than that in our business. 

Yes, we’re obsessed with top line growth, but we also look at customer churn (by logo and by revenue), growth in existing customers vs. new signings and plenty more in terms of new business pipeline conversion and quality. We also look closely at gross margin – businesses will vary depending on their cost of sale.  

Segmentation is a new landscape across all of these metrics, and as we get more data we’ll start cutting them all more effectively by segment.  

Then there’s our growth path to profitability: our revenue growth rate, OpEx growth rate, employee growth rate etc. Of course we’re looking for the rate of revenue to be accelerating, the rate of OpEx growth to be comparatively declining and thus improving margin.  

And as a technology business, other metrics for us include technology-specific KPIs around availability, platform performance etc.

Some of these will apply to most businesses, some won’t. But there is some universal advice. First, we value the leading indicators as opposed to the lags. The numbers that help you understand the future are increasingly important. Second, they need to be easy to measure. Anything with months of complex extraction is either going to take too much effort to repeatedly assess, or is eventually going to go wrong thanks to errors or sheer complexity. Finally – and we’ve not totally cracked this yet ourselves – a good question is: what are the three things that I need to wake up and read? Getting the right metrics in front of the right people at the most useful time is an art form in itself.