The Bruce Column — How to ensure that finance takes you into the future

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23 May, 2017

In a wide-ranging video interview about the Finance for the Future Awards with our regular, resident, columnist, Robert Bruce, Jessica Fries, Executive Chairman of the Prince’s Accounting for Sustainability Project and Alan Stewart, one of the lead judges of the awards, and CFO at Tesco, looked at the achievements and growing value of the programme.

The Finance for the Future awards, which recognise and celebrate the role that finance and finance teams can play in creating sustainable businesses and in turn a sustainable economy, are back and open for entries.

Over half a decade of achievement in many types of business, small and large, not-for-profit and public sector, has created a formidable series of case studies of examples to inspire organisations all around the world.

The addition of Deloitte as the awards’ major sponsor widened the scope to include the recognition of the importance of communicating the use of integrated thinking and investing and financing. But overall: ‘The key word is finance’, said Jessica Fries. ‘Whether it is large businesses and the role that the CFOs and finance teams can play, through to small businesses, the public sector and indeed how do you actually finance a sustainable business’.

‘Finance is changing, the role of finance is changing’, said Alan Stewart. ‘The forward looking element, the linkage into the businesses, and particularly in the field of sustainability as companies and customers become more focused on the need for sustainable businesses and sustainable practices. These awards really help put the focus on that’, he said. And they also provide, through the gradual creation of case studies from winners and entrants, a mass of examples. ‘And that counters the view that we sometimes got that felt finance was a blocker rather than making a positive contribution’, he said. ‘The awards really highlight those case studies and bring the stories to life’, said Fries. And it all helps the communication of the integrated thinking which brings much of this about by helping explain how ‘environmental and the social issues and indeed economic issues are at the heart of the decision-making process’, she said. ‘That for me is the key of integration. What are you thinking on a day-to-day basis, how can those types of issues really enhance the outcomes which are achieved?’

Fries talks about some of the entries that stood out for her in the large business, not for profit, and smaller business category. ‘Some examples where an organisation has embedded and developed a new sustainability strategy that the finance team has been part and parcel of creating and often really heavily involved in’, she said, ‘and how do you monitor and measure success both in the development stage of setting the targets and the outcomes you are trying to achieve, and then driving an integrated strategy.’ She went on to say that there were examples of specific projects or case studies that embedded sustainability, for example through innovative ways of thinking about capital expenditure, or ways of measuring the outcomes achieved.

Of the public sector and not for profit sectors, Stewart comments that ‘they sometimes have longer horizons and that is also helpful for businesses which have shorter horizons to help them to see how a longer horizon can change your analysis and how it is important to recognise that long term impact’.

They thought communicating integrated thinking was the area which brought forward the most competitive and most international elements last year. Fries was enthusiastic. ‘It was very interesting to see the different approaches’, she said. ‘How could you really capture that essence of what you were doing internally within the organisation, and find a way to engage that wider audience on how you were really embedding it. How can you do that in a way that is credible, that is consistent year-on-year, and that is consistent across different types of communication. It’s really about how you are communicating an integrated approach across every form of communication’, she said. In the words of Alan Stewart: ‘I think that the communication part is where the integrated reporting really touches the accounting for sustainability and the awards most directly and in that sense it is important to have the differentiation between integrated reporting, which is very well established and very well known, and bringing it back into finance’. The global reach of the awards ‘proves that sustainability is something which is important no matter where you are in the world’, said Stewart, ‘and no matter what sort of business you are in. Sustainability is important for everybody and that importance is felt by finance functions wherever they are’.

They also talked of the benefits which the awards, and ‘integrated thinking’ had brought to companies. Fries said that ‘the evidence is that it costs you less to really be demonstrating to your investors a sustainable approach to investing. And many investors would say the same. Companies that are managing these issues well and in a strategic way, they are a much sounder investment.’

And Stewart adds ‘The benefit is in the thinking that comes from involving the finance function in it. And you don’t know what you are going to get when you set out on this’, said Stewart. ‘The winners are the ones which have started from a genuine business issue which they are trying to resolve which then translates into a project or a piece of work which the finance function has led and then there is a business benefit. It has to come from the ground up’.

And then there is the value of the case studies. ‘It is those case studies, that story-telling, those examples, that people really want to see’, said Fries. And that brings the finance for the future element into it says Stewart. ‘It is that building of the knowledge and thinking. Some people will learn from it, some will adopt exactly what’s there from it. The finance for the future is the essence of what we are looking for’. When entering the awards ‘make sure it is finance led’, said Fries. ‘Make sure the finance team is front and centre absolutely, and within a partnership across the business’.

The video interview is available here.

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