- Author: Emma Foster
- Posted: January 22, 2024
Putting Finance into Top Gear > Andrew Yee, Group CFO | The Walkinshaw Group
While many people may baulk at the idea of joining an industry that’s assumed to be dying, CFO Andrew Yee saw it as a challenge – and his gamble paid off.
In 2017, as news headlines shouted about the end of the Australian car manufacturing era, Andrew Yee opted to join the seemingly troubled industry, stepping in as general manager finance for renowned automotive player Holden Special Vehicles – or HSV.
It was the same year that General Motors (GM) shut down the last of Holden’s local assembly lines that had made the iconic Aussie car brand since the 1940s. Not long before, rival car maker Ford had also closed its Australian manufacturing plant after 90 years, as had Toyota. As a result, thousands of workers lost their jobs.
Most people may have shied away from an industry going through so much disruption, but Yee leaned into the opportunity.
“I saw it as a really interesting challenge,” says Yee, who in 2021 was promoted to Group CFO of Walkinshaw Automotive Group, the private company behind HSV.
“I met with the CFO at the time, and it was pretty clear that there was passion from the employees, all of them die-hard fans who were really committed to seeing the business change and succeed.”
And change and succeed it did.
Not long after Yee joined HSV, the business model it had operated for the previous 30 years – building modified Holden-based performance sedans powered by V8 engines – ended. GM soon established a new company, GMSV, displacing the HSV brand.
Since then, while Walkinshaw continues to re-engineer cars in partnership with GM such as its Chevrolet Silverado range, the family-owned business founded by the late racing driver Tom Walkinshaw has spread its wings. It now designs, engineers and remanufactures for the Australian market the vehicles of a range of automotive partners, such as Toyota, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen, primarily in the full-sized truck market. In addition, Walkinshaw is also well known for its racing team, Walkinshaw Andretti United Supercars, and also has a growing caravan business – New Age Caravans – and sports business Walkinshaw Sports.
“In the seven years that I’ve been here, the business has grown exponentially,” says Yee,
“It’s been exciting to be a part of such a big turnaround, growing the business in an environment where people thought it might not work and proving that the model is successful. We’ve also kept a lot of those local manufacturing jobs which might not have existed if the company didn’t succeed.”
“The one thing I’ve learned in this industry is that you can’t ever just rely on what you’re doing now. You’ve always got to look at what’s coming and be prepared.”
In fact, Walkinshaw’s team has grown from around 450 people in 2018 to more than 1200, operating at five sites, up from two. Some experts estimate that the traction gained by Walkinshaw and its smaller automotive peers has meant more people are now employed in the industry than before Holden and Ford shut down local manufacturing operations.
Meeting the needs of the expanding business has required Yee to ramp up his team – which now numbers more than 20 – along with their processes and governance controls, across finance, treasury, tax, legal and payroll.
“The variety of challenges has been the thing I’ve loved the most,” says Yee, who was selected as a finalist in the 2023 CFO of the Year Awards.
Embracing Challenge & Change
Yee is no stranger to taking on new challenges, having held a variety of finance industry roles in the UK and Australia, after starting his career at PwC Australia in 2009. These roles broadened his knowledge of different sectors, regulations, laws, standards and leadership styles, standing him in good stead to tackle his expanding remit as Group CFO at Walkinshaw.
On top of wrapping his arms around his accountabilities, along with the metrics associated with a rapidly evolving business, and finance-adjacent responsibilities such as ESG, Yee was thrown the added curveball of uncertainty created by the Covid pandemic early in his CFO tenure.
“On one hand, the business faced supply chain disruptions, soaring cost of freight, Victoria’s strict lockdown policies which intermittently shut down operations, and labour shortages,” he says.
“But on the other, we found this wave of people who had money to spend on discretionary items like our vehicles, caravans, and golf and sports equipment. Of course, those dynamics have again changed in the past year, as the economy’s been dealing with rising inflation which is putting pressure on the cost of living.”
These forces often dominate the agenda of Walkinshaw’s board, which Yee has joined as an executive director, alongside experienced chairman Jeff Browne, also President of Collingwood Football Club; Owner Ryan Walkinshaw (Tom Walkinshaw’s son); and other seasoned directors such as Greg Roebuck, founder of Carsales.com.au.
“I’ve learnt that the key is to prepare for as many questions from the board as you can, have the facts ready to go, keep answers short, and if you don’t know the answer, it’s okay to say so because there’s no easier way to lose your credibility than by having a guess.”Andrew Yee, Group CFO | The Walkinshaw Group
The key challenges ahead for Yee’s finance team is making sure the business is well capitalised with a strong balance sheet to support the next 12 to 24 months of rising customer demand, while also being ready to support the group to pursue new opportunities.
“We currently have a good pipeline of programs,” says Yee, who admits while he’s never really been a “car person”, he’s been taught much by his car-enthusiast co-workers and enjoys the buzz of being trackside with the Walkinshaw Andretti United Supercars team.
“But the one thing I’ve learned in this industry is that you can’t ever just rely on what you’re doing now. You’ve always got to look at what’s coming and be prepared.”
Among Walkinshaw’s opportunities on the horizon include the quickening pace of take-up of electric vehicles (EVs) and other new technologies such as hydrogen-powered trucks and prime movers for the Australian market.
“With EVs, we’re seeing a lot of investment going into EV platforms for sedans and smaller cars. We haven’t seen it as much in that full-size truck market – which is the space we’re in – but I think it will pick up speed really quickly,” he says.
“We’re also looking at hydrogen, which is very new for us. There are growing conversations about hydrogen highways (hydrogen refuelling networks for heavy transport along the heavy haulage transport routes), so hydrogen powered trucks is another avenue for us.
“It’s all about positioning the company to take advantage of those opportunities as they come.”