Taking Finance from Good to Great

Matthew Needham: The award-winning CFO literally putting a roof over the heads of New Zealand’s most vulnerable.

By Nina Hendy.

The initial rumblings of Covid impacting Europe two years ago prompted Matthew Needham to contemplate how he could cushion his own finance team from the possibility of a lockdown.

The New Zealander organised additional computer equipment and remote access for his teams and announced a trial run. Everyone was to spend a day working from home.

Before long, Covid had arrived on his shores, and it was his turn for a real lockdown scenario. “We were prepared. We had ironed out the issues. We knew what to do,” he says.

Needham says leaders need the ability to see around corners and prepare for unforeseen circumstances. It’s this approach that has won him accolades in his role.

Who is Matthew Needham?

Matthew Needham is the CFO for Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities. The buck stops with him for 68,000 public housing properties collectively worth $39.2 billion, which are home-sweet-home to more than 186,000 New Zealanders. Last financial year, the organisation placed 4,700 people into housing.

The homes are owned by the Crown and the turnover is about $1.8 billion, making the organisation the country’s largest residential landlord.

It’s a world away from where UK-born Needham set out. He started his career as a graduate trainee with aircraft engine maker Rolls Royce, giving him experience in supply, manufacturing, internal audits and more.

He then went on to work for the world’s largest credit referencing organisation, Experian as head of finance, before working in head of finance contract roles in the UK for OpenReach, the University of Lincoln, DHL, University of Hull and De Montfort University.

The finance dynamo accepted the role after relocating to New Zealand in 2012. He initially accepted a finance role for the Department of Internal Affairs as the manager of strategic finance, rising to the CFO role within a couple of years.

With responsibilities for strategic financial management, financial control, procurement and purchasing, he led substantial re-engineering of the 65+ finance team, including introducing new operating model for finance and overseeing a SAP implementation.

He’s forged a name for himself as a transformational change agent who creates strategic plans in collaboration with C-suite teams to disrupt markets and deliver results. He’s a collaborator who inspires others and drives innovation.

He’s adept at shaping the big picture and building a strong culture that embraces diversity, high performance and innovative thinking in dynamic and evolving markets.

Needham was named as the finalist of the New Zealand CFO of the Year in 2020 and 2021 and winner of finance team, culture, talent management and diversity award 2021, and finalist in 2020. He is also the immediate New Zealand past president of CPA Australia and former Chair of the CPA Australia Council of Presidents.

The pandemic impact

Covid has impacted New Zealand’s housing market significantly, with public housing waitlists  ballooning from 7,000 in 2017 to 26,000 now. It’s a massive nationwide problem to solve.

“Of course nowadays, a lot of people have multiple issues, which makes their case even more acute. Aside from employment issues, there could be mental health issues, addiction problems. Or victims of domestic violence. It can be very complex. Our job is putting people in an environment that is successful for them.

Complicating the job is the fact that public housing properties are on average, 45 years of age, with about 48,000 homes due for replacement over the next 20 years because they’re reaching the end of their life. “We invest around $10 million a day in capital investment for redevelopment, new construction and retrofitting existing properties, which equates to almost $3 billion a year.

The government has allowed Kāinga Ora to borrow in its own name on the debt capital markets. “My job essentially is investor relations, very similar to a commercial or ASX or NZX-listed company,” he says.

Like Australia, New Zealand is suffering the effects of Covid now after two years of implementing stringent lockdowns, which has impacted the construction sector, complicating his job.

Needham explains that when the pandemic began, New Zealand’s government decided that no one would be homeless, which meant there are now around 10,000 people in transitional housing, mostly existing or repurposed motels, he says.

“The idea is that we take people off the streets into emergency accommodation. They’re going to be in these properties for a period of time because sadly, because there’s no homes to put them in. And keeping them in these homes for too long creates further challenges. motel rooms aren’t ideal for kids,” he says.

Evicting tenants in permanent housing is a last result, too. As evicting people with no homes to go to leads to worse outcomes. For example, people living in cars or couch surfing with friends and relatives leading to overcrowding situations. Instead, the team works with tenants to help people live well in their home. “The costs of providing those different services aren’t necessarily funded, so we have a deterioration of our operating margin,” he says.

The hybrid approach

Needham has been a big advocate for a hybrid approach to work, supporting his team to do what works best for them.

“I personally see no point in going into the office just to spend all of your day talking to your colleagues on Teams or Zoom, when you could just as easily be doing that work more efficient from home. This approach was really well received and engagement indicators have risen over the past year or so.”

Matthew Needham CFO | Kāinga Ora – Homes & Communities,

Maintaining connection has been a key focus, with a daily virtual meeting to communicate key priorities, actions or blockers followed by some fun facts and social interaction working well. “This approach makes people feel safe and connected,” he says.

He attributes his success to implementing PwC’s Perform methodology, which is an operational excellence approach that combines agile and lean techniques. “That’s been a real game changer for us,” he says.

“We’re always looking to improve stuff that gets in the way of getting the job done,” he says.

For example, staff told him that one spreadsheet took so long to open that it slowed them down. “This finance team member would go and make a cuppa, come back, and the document still hadn’t opened. So, we spent some time fixing the spreadsheet and making it work in a more efficient way, and eliminating the legacy detail that was slowing it down, not just for this team member, but everyone else who used it across the team too”

He systematically seeks out issues from his team, reserving time in his calendar each week to address them, and then handling that process. This is replicated team by team, across the whole of the Finance Team.

“Once it’s fixed, it’s done, and then we move onto the next problem, and prioritise the next one. It works. We essentially got the equivalent of 10 extra people in our core finance team by following this approach,” he says.

He advises other CFOs to implement specific processes to ensure structure for teams. “If you’re sending a weekly email out to your team and you have that in your plan, then building that repetition into your week ensures it gets done,” he says.