Q&A » Q&A: CFO of Assura

Q&A: CFO of Assura

FTSE 250 CFO talks about her journey, working from home and issuing a social bond

Financial Director sat down with Jayne Cottam, CFO of Assura to discuss her path to CFO and how the pandemic has affected her business. A FTSE 250 company, Assura recently issued a social bond worth £300m. It is a real estate firm aimed at providing primary health facilities to GPs.

What put you on the path of becoming CFO of a FTSE 250?

I always had ambition in my mind of where I wanted to be in my career, though they were goals that I didn’t share with anybody. I always made sure when I took a job, it benefited my personal life, but also that I could gain something out of that position, that I would grow my knowledge and skills.

A couple of jobs ago, I worked for a company called EMR, European Metal Recycling. I had quite an inspirational CFO. He supported me and made sure I had all of the skills needed to be a finance director, not just doing the accounts but making sure I had all of the relationship experience with people like the banks, the advisors and the auditors. He also involved me in strategic decision making. I had a number of roles there, one of which was finance director for their European operations, which is where I got my finance director experience.

Then I moved on to a house builder firm to be one of their regional FDs. After 12 months, I was promoted to FD for operations, I gained lot of operational experience within that group.

That brought me to Assura. I have been sat here three years now as their CFO. From my perspective, it’s probably not traditional in the sense that people in my role usually have been in one particular industry for quite a long time, while that’s not the case for me.

My overarching comment would be; you kind of make your own luck. You have to work hard, be focused and have a goal but I think you have to have a good employer. I’ve been lucky enough to have some very good employers and inspirational people which really does help because it drives you forward.

What do you think are big differences in finance now compared to when you first started?

I think the approach to things like diversity are better now, I think companies recognise that a more diverse workforce in all of levels of an organisation are incredibly important and valuable to a business.  Now there is also this perception that you have to have this level of education, etc. That’s stronger now than it was 25 years ago, when I started on my career.  Whilst I didn’t initially get the job I wanted, I felt like I still had a chance.  Maybe it’s just the environment we’re in, leaving everybody a little less optimistic than 12 months ago.

Equally, I think employers are more open to looking for something a bit different. I know I try and do that when I look to recruit.

How has the working from home transition been for your finance team?

It’s quite challenging. Anybody who says it’s not challenging is not telling the truth. What it has brought about for our business is a real sense of camaraderie. We have a really important job, we own 576 medical centres, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. For us, it’s really important that we do our jobs but we want to make sure that our business is supporting the GPs and the NHS. That creates an additional motivation for our teams. It’s actually worked, I wouldn’t say better than we expected because we had no idea what to expect, but it worked out well because we communicated with the team.

Everybody can work from home in this kind of world. We’re on computers all day anyway. That transition is probably not quite as hard as maybe some other people have experienced. Systems is always an issue. You have to find workarounds for things, but we got through that.

The key for us is communication. Communication every week from the chief executive or myself to the team. That makes them feel involved, because it would be very easy to lose people if we hadn’t communicated in the way we have. Talking to them about our key messages and what we’re trying to do.

What this crisis has done has made some of those doubters realise that actually, we can run the business remotely. As a finance team, we have done our year end results since were a listed business. We organised all the presentations, we have raised equity, we have done our audit and internal audit.

We’ve done a very good job of that. It has proven to people that we can work effectively like this. What we’ll find in future is that we’ll have a very fluid and flexible working process once we get back to normality, whenever that will be.

You work primarily with the NHS, how has your business fared during the pandemic?

From our perspective, we are very fortunate. We have been impacted as a business, but it has been largely workforce related. A number of our developments had to stop whilst they made the workplace coronavirus- secure.

Mostly we have been unaffected, our rent collections have been in line with previous quarters. We have given a few rent holidays to some smaller businesses that operate within our buildings. We’re largely NHS back so there’s only been a limited impact there.

If you compare us to other real estate sectors, absolutely. We are very strong during this time but we have always been a strong steady business during normal times. We don’t experience the peaks and troughs of our peers. Other friends of mine who are finance directors are having much more challenging experiences than we are.

I wouldn’t say we are unscathed. We never take it for granted but we’ve come through this well. It’s a great sector and we’ve got a fantastic business model. We will continue what we’re doing, with our social impact strategy and supporting the NHS and building fantastic buildings to them.

You recently put on a social bond, how does that differ from a regular bond?

We have a regular bond which we issued two years ago, and we’ve just done a social bond. If I wind back to 2019’s year end, we announced our ‘six by six’ social impact strategy, with the goal of reaching six million people in six years throughout our buildings. We’re looking at things like health, well being and sustainability. We’re also looking at our supply chain and financing.

For our social bond, we had to pull together a social finance framework. We looked at the UN goals and we had to see if we could utilise our funds against some of these goals. Primarily under the health and well being because that’s what Assura does, we could attach this into our social finance framework. We raised the money from bond investors in the same way you would a regular bond, but that money has to be spent within accordance to our social finance framework.

It was very well received in the market, a heavily oversubscribed transaction. From a pricing point of view, it was a good price at 1.5 percent. What the social bond has given us is £300 million that we will spend on projects linked to health and well being, which we have very strong development pipeline for.

In addition to our social bond, we also had vacant space. We offered that to the NHS for free, said ‘if you need it, it’s there’. We also put £2.5 million into the Assura Community fund. Our employees are engaged with this and helps keeps them motivated. That’s £2.5m for good causes, looking at things like mental health and well being.

What piece of advice would you give to other FDs for what looks to be another difficult period?

What’s worked for me is communication and I know that probably sounds quite bland. If you don’t communicate with your team, they could easily just get lost in the noise. Especially for junior members of the team who are processing and things like that. If you don’t communicate with them, they could just sit at their desk on their own very much in isolation. We made sure we communicate with our teams regularly, I have a weekly catch up with every member of the team, we have communication with the chief executive and myself to the whole of the business every week.

We’ve done well-being programs and have had a virtual away day. The team very much came back to us and said communication and involvement, the feeling like they’re still part of the business was incredibly important to them, to keep them both motivated and to stop them from feeling isolated. We’re very much checking in with teams from a well-being perspective. Their own well-being is more important to us than anything else that is out there.

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