Change For Good – Transforming Businesses and Lives – CFO Interview Kerrie Parker CFO Deakin University

Kerrie Parker, CFO Deakin University

Deakin CFO, Kerrie Parker comes across as understated and humble and not someone you would expect to have led many successful business transformations in her career….

What gives Kerrie an edge is her ability to connect with people, inspire them to follow her and involve them in transforming the organisations she works for.

Initially commencing in manufacturing, Kerrie had a choice early in her career to take on a leadership role during change or to step away, she chose the former and it has created a theme for the rest of her career.

Kerrie has been recognised throughout her career, by both peers and colleagues, for significant contributions to process and procedure improvement and forward thinking technologically based solutions.

Her most recent achievement as CFO of Deakin University, resulted in complete transformation of Deakin University’s finance function and an industry leading ERP change, the first Workday cloud implementation in the higher education sector in Australia.

Despite a long list many significant achievements, it has not not been an easy path.

“My career did not come easily, I worked full time while studying for my degree and it took me a few years to come out of my shell. I have spent a lot of my working life building the confidence to step out and be assured when I am speaking.”

Talent recognised from an early age

There have been many influential people through Kerrie’s career but the first person who really shaped who she is today, was one of her year 11 teachers.

“I was from a single parent family and money was tight. My teacher could see that I had potential but recognised that I was struggling financially so he organised a scholarship and helped me find a part time job so I could stay.”

“I was the first person in my family to attend university and without the support of my teacher, my career would not be where it is today.”

Kerrie spend her early career at Sara Lee Corporation, a global organisation, where her hard work and abilities were recognised, valued and rewarded. She joined the business as an Assistant Accountant and rose through to CFO and finally CEO.

Kerrie recalls the CEO of Sara Lee, Denis Shelley as having a big impact on her career.

“Denis appointed me to the CFO role whilst I was on maternity leave – this was 22 years ago and a courageous move. Denis was a diversity champion before his time and he was a strong mentor for me.”

The ability to deliver results through people has clearly had an impact on Kerrie and she says that her success is tied to the success of the people around her.

Transforming businesses and lives

The role at Sara Lee taught Kerrie that an organisation has impact well beyond the immediate stakeholders of employees and shareholders.

Three months after being appointed CEO, a decision was taken by Sara Lee to consolidate the Australian and New Zealand operations into one base in Sydney. Kerrie did not want to move to Sydney, so she chose to stay and close the Melbourne operations down.

“It was not just the employees and their families who were impacted – it was the whole community and economy around the area of the factory. The way you treat people through that process is really, really important.” The closure was widely recognised as a success, with all staff who wanted to successfully redeployed and supported for their next move.

After a short break to recharge, Kerrie joined a turnaround team to rescue the pineapple and beetroot producer, Golden Circle from the edge of bankruptcy.

“When I joined Golden Circle, the business had a valuation of forty cents a share but no one was buying at that price – it had been losing money for 8-9 years. We initially sold to private equity at eighty cents a share and then to Heinz at $1.65 a share.”

A return of 350% in two years is impressive and the shareholders including the PE firm were delighted with the result. Although a huge financial success, this was not just about the numbers for Kerrie.

“We were owned by 800 pineapple and beetroot growers and this business represented their superannuation and for some, their entire family wealth was in that shareholding. What I look back on is the impact we had on the shareholders and the fact that they managed to remain financially secure.

Kerrie went on to take the CFO role at the Australian Agricultural Company (“AA Co”).

Her reputation preceded her and at her first shareholder meeting, one of the shareholders introduced himself and said, “you don’t know me, but I was a shareholder in Golden Circle. I am so pleased you are here.”

Founded in 1824, AA Co is Australia’s second oldest company and operates cattle stations in some of the most remote parts of Australia.

“It was such a privilege to work with ‘Salt of the Earth people’. I would fly into remote cattle stations and was in awe of the people who ran them – they are the backbone of Australia.”

Kerrie was so struck by the pivotal role that women played on the stations, she got twenty of them together for a “Women in Agriculture” conference in Brisbane.

“These women really run the stations. They often managed the station’s financials and the logistics but are also the cook, the nurse, the governess and anything else needed. The first day was very practical but the second was about them and how they worked – the experience had a big impact.”

In 2015 Kerrie joined Deakin University as the CFO. The Vice Chancellor (CEO) wanted someone from outside of the sector who would bring a new perspective. Kerrie believes that it was her cross-industry experience, a whole of business perspective and her transformation experience that secured the role.

“The higher education sector has been through huge change and is now going through much more. When commencing at Deakin Government funding had been tightened and the market for international students was becoming far more competitive”

The stage was set for yet more transformation.

Transformation through people and a clear vision

The experiences of Kerrie’s career have shaped how she works today. She sees herself as an “enabler” who provides strategic guidance and brings a commercial lens to situations where it is sometimes overlooked.

“I have been through more than my fair share of transformational projects – Factory rationalisations, Y2K, GST introduction and ERP’s. Being able to articulate a vision and bring people on the journey is critical to success.”

Successful transformation for Kerrie is all about people and vision.

“I look to recruit great people and trust them to do the job. You need a clear vision with buy in from the top and you need people in your team who can share that vision in a compelling way.”

This attitude is reflected in the teams around her, with those who work with her describing Kerrie as a leader whose trust results in bravery, an essential element of leading change. “Knowing that your voice will be heard, your views valued and supported gives you the ability to be courageous in your own leadership style, have the honest conversations and make the hard calls it takes to transform organisations”.

The journey for Deakin in transforming its finance function perfectly reflects this, as well as Kerrie’s own belief that good systems should be a foundation that frees up time from producing numbers.

New ERP – using technology as a platform to transform the way people work

When Kerrie arrived at Deakin, she was told that their ERP (Oracle) needed a “small upgrade.” Further investigation revealed a complex integration environment, that it was 10 years since the last upgrade had taken place and that the system had not only been heavily customised but also decades of processes adapting around technology that meant layers of duplication.

“Our current system was old and needed to be replaced, but it gave us the unique opportunity to plan and develop a solution for the future. Rarely do organisations have an opportunity to stop and reflect on what they do now, what are the needs moving into the future and then develop a solution to enable this to happen.”

It was clear to Kerrie that they needed to transform, creating a program that focused on not only the system but also processes and people.

“Our transformation objectives were simple, provide faster and more insightful analysis and decision making information that allows us to enhance our business partnering to the University. We wanted to improve the speed, accuracy and efficiency of what we do. In short we wanted to create more time for what matters.”

The stage was set for transformation of Deakin Finance but this wasn’t a process to be rushed.

“It was all about the planning for us. We spent a full year looking at everything we did and why we did it. By looking in to the latest cloud technology, it would enable us to stay current and remove the need for heavy customisation but it also meant we needed to bring our people on the journey and shift to a common way of working.”

KPMG and Workday were selected and supported by a Deakin led Financial Business Transformation team who successfully implemented in March 2019, just over a year after its commencement.

Leading a technical implementation from a customer viewpoint was one of Kerrie’s biggest challenges.

“One of the most significant differences with a cloud-based implementation is it moves away from being a traditional IT driven implementation to a functional-led program.”

There was significant change resistance, reluctance to adopt new ways of working and remove old practices. Kerrie overcame this challenge by engaging with key stakeholders, providing strong capable leadership across the program and providing demonstrative benefits with strong finance systems and capability for the future.

The buy in from the executive team was paramount and not underestimating the impact of change in the organisation was key to success.

“You need a clear vision for the future and enrol others in its importance and what it can provide for them. Success for me is when finance people are being asked to support non-finance related projects – this is a key part of the ‘business partnering’ goal.”

Kerrie’s leadership through this major program for Deakin earnt her a finalist placing for CFO of the Year at the 2019 CEO Magazine Executive of the Year Awards.

Finding your voice and trust in yourself

Kerrie’s advice to aspiring CFO’s and women in particular, is to believe in yourself and not hold back.

“Confidence in yourself is key. You can do more than you think and if you are not sure, ask others for input – it is OK not to have all the answers. Don’t worry what others think and stay true to your values.”

Kerrie has been on a journey that has touched the lives not only of those who worked directly for her but also indirectly many others as a result of the change she has led throughout her career.

It has not been an easy journey but one that leaves a legacy to be proud of.

Author – Jay Orsborn

Jay has spent 25 years working in commercial and finance leadership roles for companies operating throughout Europe, the UK, the US and Australia including PwC, Time Warner, Culture Amp, Envato and Open Universities Australia. Working in high growth, entrepreneurial companies at the forefront of disruption and transformation, has given Jay a unique insight into the challenges facing the modern-day finance leader that seeks to deliver a robust finance function that genuinely supports and drives business performance.

Jay is a regular contributor to the Strategic CFO magazine and runs a coaching and consulting practice to help CEOs, CFO’s and finance teams to have greater impact on the businesses they are leading and supporting.