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Sophia Steiger has progressed from working at London’s largest sewage plant to managing assets worth billions for a global bank. She traces her journey from serious muck to serious money

What’s your role at Credit Suisse?
I’m responsible for managing a multi-billion-dollar global cost base. This includes the costs relating to the IT programmes that deliver the innovative solutions for the future; the IT applications that are relied upon every day; and the infrastructure that we all assume will be there, such as computers, phones and the buildings we work in.

I am concerned with both efficiency and effectiveness, ensuring that we get the best value from our investments. This requires a focus on financial accounting and management reporting, plus the ability to understand M&As and drive programme management.

It’s a complex environment that’s similar to those of other financial services companies, big firms such as BP and large government departments.

The challenge is to optimise spending while ensuring that operational risks are minimised, enabling our people to innovate while meeting ever-extending regulatory requirements such as Basel III.

To match up to this challenge, I have a global team based in Zurich, London, New York, Singapore, Pune (India) and Wroclaw (Poland). It’s a combination of strong business partners working across IT and real estate who understand all the business issues.

They analyse the data, providing insight and decision support to the business with rigorous accounting, control frameworks and straight-through processes. The requirement for sufficient controls and processes to ensure that we meet all our global regulatory requirements is significant.

For IT alone we process more than CHF300m (£207m) of accruals monthly and manage nearly CHF2bn-worth of assets on the balance sheet.

What are the secrets of managing finance successfully for a global banking giant?
There are two key ingredients: being a subject expert and having a great team. Genuinely, to get to the heart of helping any business to be more efficient and effective it’s essential that the finance team has a thorough understanding of the business.

My degree in IT and my years with Deloitte focusing on cutting IT costs have been key.

Persuading CIOs and COOs to trust my opinion from day one, enabling me to challenge the status quo, was another challenge. Weaving this trust with that of my team is essential.

I recognise that building the best team comes from finding opportunities for individuals to demonstrate their full potential.

Because of the hierarchies in which we work, particularly in banking, some of the best talents are hidden. Each quarter I ask the whole team to gain an understanding of what they are working on and dive deep into various topics.

This way I can really find out what people are capable of. It does take time, but it pays dividends over and over.

Combining this with Credit Suisse’s formal internal-mobility and grow-your-own programmes means that we have a greater flow of talent across all levels. In addition, you cannot forget to have fun.

For me that happens in the office and outside. I’m fortunate to have a very supportive husband and kids who understand that mummy works, but that when she is at home she is 100 per cent there.

We’re rigorous in ensuring that the weekend is for family time, whether we spend it swimming in the lake, skiing in the mountains or travelling across Europe.

How important is CIMA training to your team?
As we increasingly use locations such as Pune and Wroclaw, the need for a common language becomes more important.

We’ve launched a pilot programme to provide CIMA training to those who haven’t had access to it. This gives everyone the chance to learn together and gain access to a professional qualification that they can use in my team, other parts of Credit Suisse or elsewhere later down the line.

With internal mobility being a focus at the bank, the CIMA qualification is like a passport that signals the depth of the holder’s skills.

For my department it means that, whether a member is in the business partnering team or in accounting and controls, each person knows all the basics. More crucially for me, it means that they know when to ask other subject experts for help.

I don’t expect everyone in my team to be a specialist in software capitalisation, for example, but I do expect them to understand the concept and know where to go for detailed answers.

How much of an impact can management accountants make in financial services?
When the business needs to save money or be innovative, it’s a fantastic time for management accountants – no longer is it only about preparing accounts or monthly reports. In today’s dynamic environment the business is relying on our insight and it challenges us to take decisions that make the difference.

This is when good accountants become valued business partners. The change agenda across financial services is evolving continually, giving everyone the chance to develop.

For most of my team that’s about showing their potential and that they can actually grow faster than they would have done before the financial crisis. With increased accountability and delegation, individuals have got more involved and closer to the business than ever.

It’s exciting to see how much we are getting done and the tremendous impact we are making on the bottom line.

Were you born to be a management accountant?
After gaining a first-class degree from my business studies and IT course at the University of Kent, I knew I could do anything.

Although I was offered the chance to pursue a PhD in neurological programming, the lure of gaining a CIMA qualification led me to take a “proper job” in accounting for a public utility, Thames Water, at the largest sewage works in London.

Through my experience with the student Industrial Society and having worked for two summers as a junior accountant at the Ministry of Defence, I knew what I was getting myself into.

In almost two years of finance rotations across the business and studying every Saturday for CIMA lectures, I had acquired a lot of knowledge in group planning, internal auditing and management accounting.

My time at the sewage works was never going to be the sexiest part of my CV, but it was great experience. I was the only accountant on site, responsible for everything from invoice processing to capex programmes of more than £200m.

Thames Water certainly taught me that if you don’t ask, you won’t get. I have sought the full range of skills necessary to be an exceptional CFO. One needs to have financial accounting and management reporting expertise complemented by experience of change and programme management and M&As.

You ran finance at a joint venture for a leading retailer. What were the big challenges there?
I joined supermarket group Safeway in 1997 to be head of fixed-asset accounting, responsible for all investment accounting, processes and systems. This was an opportunity to combine my IT programming knowledge with my accounting training.

Being responsible for all the investment business cases gave me a great insight into the business strategy, the investments and the direction of the company, whether it was building new stores or deciding to close down its loyalty-card programme.

The most challenging and exciting aspect was the formation of the joint venture between Safeway Stores (Ireland) and Wellworths. This encompassed the acquisition, integration, rebranding and operations of 13 stores in Northern Ireland.

My first foray into M&As was a fascinating experience. I worked closely with the CFO and along the way I experienced everything from complex modelling to the related media relations that come with a joint venture.

When the deal was done I was offered the role of financial controller with involvement at board level.

The job taught me the importance of having a tight leadership group. From day one we learnt lessons from moving into an unknown market, experiencing local politics, cultures and different employment regulations.

We quickly established that for every similarity there was a difference. Together we had to act pragmatically as we stepped through the first six months, making tough decisions to drive the business towards a sustainable profit.

Balancing the need to focus on operational cost reduction and supporting a joint-venture board was developmental. Under a great mentor, I learnt to do both while managing the associated workload and dynamics.

How did you fare when you ran a dotcom at the height of the internet boom?
In 1999 I was approached to join Toyzone, a start-up with an eclectic set of shareholders. With the safety net of knowing that Safeway would take me back, I joined to gain experience of balancing the rigours of finance with those of innovation and entrepreneurship

I was 27, with no kids and no commitments, so I stepped away from the traditional accounting career path I had been taking until then.

As commercial director I was responsible for the finances and had oversight of the IT that supported the organisation. By the time that I arrived there and drew up the firm’s first set of management accounts, many of the trials and tribulations experienced by other e-commerce companies were very evident in this one.

The margins were thin, the volumes depended heavily on advertising and the competition was massive. For nine months we renegotiated every single contract, realigned delivery channels, worked with our shareholders for preferential treatment and stripped the enterprise back to a solid business model, but retaining an innovative toy brand and selling via new channels, including cable TV.

My joint-venture experience at Safeway proved enormously valuable as I stepped through more potential M&A deals – especially my dealings with board members with multiple agendas and the daily practicalities of keeping a business afloat.

After my experience at Safeway and Toyzone, I had a thirst to learn more about programme management and managing change.

My move to Deloitte in 2001 gave me the chance to build on my retail experience in other sectors – and the firm had attracted some very experienced professionals from whom I thought I could learn a lot.

What do you count as your biggest achievements with Deloitte?
My 12 years at Deloitte, where I was a partner, provided me with a lifetime experience and a lot of achievements. I was lucky enough to work with some of the biggest clients it has, including Habitat, Vodafone, Transport for London, the Department for Work and Pensions, Santander, Barclays, Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse.

I was responsible for delivering some of the largest cost reductions and programmes achieved in Europe, designing and executing finance transformations and operating-model projects, undertaking global process excellence initiatives and implementing market-leading financial management solutions.

Recognised as a thought leader in the field by my peers, clients and the competition, I was asked to become a CIMA Mastercourse tutor and share my experience with other members of the institute.

Deloitte’s recognition that diversity is a key differentiator – notably in the search for talent and in delivering the best results for clients – meant that I learnt a huge amount about being mentored, being a good mentor and promoting the career progression of women.

I developed and led the firm’s parenting programme, providing access to information about balancing family and work, and tracking metrics. Internal initiatives were also key in demonstrating the organisation’s support for its people, including the publication of employees’ stories and the introduction of fridges to store breast milk and in-vitro fertility medicines.

One of my early career goals was to gain global experience. After the birth of my second child, Deloitte offered me the opportunity to move to Switzerland and build its financial consultancy business.

Because the office there also had a truly international workforce, I was able to experience many different cultures. In 18 months my financial consulting business team had grown six-fold and was a real contributor to the global firm.

Building something from the ground up in banking, healthcare and manufacturing was extremely rewarding.

After 12 years at Deloitte, I decided to return to industry and I believe that I’m making a real difference at Credit Suisse. I bring the rigour of being a management accountant together with my experience of challenging the status quo and delivering significant cost savings.

Photo: Adrian Samson

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