Solving Problems

Village Roadshow Finance Director, Julie Raffe has ridden a 30-year roller coaster with a business that spans cinemas, theme parks, film production and much more. Her love of solving problems, understanding how people think and the magic of the entertainment industry have all combined to give her the ride of her life.

Julie’s career started out in the north of England where she worked in audit for accounting firm, Stoy Hayward. Very early on in her career, she discovered the importance of looking beyond the numbers to understand the commercial drivers.

Look beyond numbers – know the drivers

Julie recalls a 6-month, financial controller secondment to a leisure travel business that played a defining role in preparing her for the CFO journey.

“I worked for an amazing CFO who taught me the importance of understanding what drove the numbers rather than just focusing on the output. Drilling into cause and effect is critical and this opened my mind to the opportunity to use financial skills to support the business.”

The time with Stoy Hayward also introduced Julie to the entertainment sector where she worked on the audit of Live Aid, the high-profile charity led by the charismatic and unconventional, Sir Bob Geldof.

The seeds were sown and the stage set for an exciting career in the entertainment industry.

Finding her village

Julie has an instinctive drive to explore new things and when the opportunity of a secondment to sister firm in Melbourne, Horwath and Horwath came up, she grabbed it with both hands.

It was not long before Julie’s passion to be more involved in the decisions of a business led her to look for an industry role and two years after arriving in Melbourne, she joined Village Roadshow.

“They needed someone for a statutory reporting role and with a background in audit and a passion for the entertainment sector. I was a perfect fit.”

Back then Village Roadshow was a small but very ambitious cinema chain and Julie had no idea of the roller coaster ride that was ahead of her or the length of time she would spend working with the business.

“In the first 5 years we doubled in size every year. We have raised money around the world, set up JV partnerships, built tax efficient structures, listed then delisted and bought or sold countless businesses.”

Julie describes the culture at Village Roadshow (“Village”) as inclusive and collegiate and one where individual skill sets are very much appreciated.

“Village is the most dynamic and interesting company I can imagine. I thrive on new challenges and intellectual stimulation and despite being here for so long, I am always learning something new.”

Immense wins and bad scars

Despite loving the company and industry it has not all been plane sailing. Julie has had “immense wins” but also some very tough times and a “perfect storm” that hit in 2016.

“There was a fatal accident at a competitor park, Dreamworld which impacted our theme parks severely and at the same time, a downturn in the film distribution business and we had to raise capital. We always believed that the strength of the business would come back and that this was just a timing issue.”

Julie’s instinct was right but the business had to adapt quickly and Julie played a lead role in enabling Village to weather the storm.

“We looked at every cost and explored revenue driving initiatives. It was really tough, and we had to let people go. We were working incredibly long hours, but I always believed that we would get to the other side because the business is so fundamentally strong.”

Developing people and building the best team

Reflecting back on her career, it is the development of people that Julie is most proud of.

“I will always build the best team I can because I rely on them so much. As a leader, you are only as good as the people around you, so I will always have people who are superb.”

Julie values the growth and contribution that people make as part of her team and is very proud of their achievements long after they have left Village to take on new roles.

“There are people who I have mentored all the way through their career at Village who I am still in touch with. Many of them who have gone on to have amazing careers. Seeing my divisional CFO’s go on to lead finance in big companies is immensely rewarding.”

Humility and self-awareness are critical skills for Julie when she is building a high preforming team.

“One of the things that I do really well is knowing what I am not good at. I always make sure that I bring people in to fill those gaps so that it frees me up to do what I do best.”

Leadership and the importance of not jumping to answers

Embodying the values of her long-time mentor at Village, she describes herself as very practical, sometimes tough and prepared to make difficult decisions when they need to be taken.

“I had a very inspiring mentor and his total passion for the business rubbed off on me. It made me want to grow and be the best I could to support the business.”

Julie’s leadership style has evolved over time and she has grown to realise the importance of giving people space and time to reach answers themselves.

“I had a tendency to jump to the answer but sometimes you need to give people time to reach the answer themselves rather than short cut it for them. If you always give people the answer, they stop thinking and wait for you to come up with the solution.”

Building patience and listening skills enabled Julie to address her desire to get straight to the solution. If Julie could give her younger self one piece of advice, she would say,

“you don’t know everything and need to listen to others to hear what they think.”

Julie believes that overcoming this pattern has made her a better leader but also changed who she is in her personal life.

“As a mother, you want to save your children from making mistakes but that is your view of the world not theirs. I have become more patient to listen to their views and respect that they have very different opinions and see the world differently to me.”

Communication and relationships – the heart of successful finance functions

Whilst all the basics of accuracy, timeliness, efficient systems and processes need to be in place, understanding that finance is a service function supporting the business is the key for Julie.

“Relationships are key to our impact as a function and I want my team to develop them throughout the business. We need to see the business as our customer and work with them collaboratively.”

Julie is a natural and engaging communicator who thrives on interaction with people of all walks of life, but she acknowledges that this is not always the case for people in finance teams. In order to build this critical capability, her entire team are currently going through communication training.

“Good communication is the foundation for good relationships. We have to think about how what we say and do is perceived. Finance teams need to think about and understand how our requests for input and information are received.”

Advice for current and aspiring CFO’s

Julie has seen the CFO role change a lot over the years and whilst there are many different types of CFO role today, she believes that most require business partner and strategist skills.

“You have to find your own style and know your strengths – identify what you are not good at and make sure the gaps are filled with the right people. Be proactive in shaping the role to suit you and the needs of the business – this is something I have done at Village.”

Julie says that spending time in and understanding the business is critical for a CFO.

“My biggest advice is to have lots of conversations with the business. Talk to people you might not otherwise talk to. It is always interesting to hear what is happening and make sure you open your mind to business messages and not just financial ones.”

Giving back to her community

When Julie arrived in Melbourne, she wanted to build her network and connect with other senior finance executives. This led her to discover the mentoring, training and connecting organisation, Finance Executives Institute (“FEI”).

“I loved what the organisation stood for and wanted to play a more active role in shaping their agenda, so I put myself forward for the Melbourne chapter board.”

Over 20 years on, Julie is still heavily involved with FEI and is now the President of the Victorian chapter and National Vice President.

Julie’s fascination with people and what makes them tick is evident in every part of our conversation. Being a mentor is clearly a passion for Julie, but she gets just as much from the process as she puts in.

“The mentoring program has been a joy. I like that people are so different to me and have different views. You can learn so much from people who think and act differently, and I love learning how young talent sees the world. I learn so much from my mentees.”

Julie’s fascination with people and her desire to support them extends well beyond mentoring and she is also the Vice Chair of the Australian based mental health charity, Entertainment Assist.

“Through my work at Village and with my children being in the sector, I really understand the unique challenges workers in entertainment face. Many people need a second career to support themselves financially and who they are is entwined with their work so rejection and criticism can be taken very personally.”

Julie quotes hard hitting research about mental health in the entertainment industry.

“Suicide attempts are double that of the general population, anxiety symptoms are 10 times higher and levels of depression symptoms five times higher. Rates of suicide ideation and planning are extremely high and indicate the need for intervention programs tailored to the industry.”

Supporting Entertainment Assist is more than just giving back to her industry, it is something that sits at the core of who Julie is. It combines her fascination with people, her instinctive ability to solve problems and a genuine compassion for the people who create the industry that has entertained her and thousands of others.

Julie is well known in the finance world in Australia and especially Melbourne. If you are fortunate enough to meet her on your journey, be sure to tell her what you are thinking and listen carefully to any insight and advice she shares.

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.