Wild Geese: ‘I walked into Virgin and that’s where it all started’
Self-made CFO Caroline Williams took accountancy and ran with it – all the way to Soho
Caroline Williams: “There are companies that need my expertise but can’t afford somebody like me,” she says of her firm, CFO Lean. Photograph: Jason Clarke
“I think the accountancy profession needs to jazz up the image of accountants. We’re all stereotyped as dull and boring.” That’s the view of London-based Caroline Williams. Not that she wants to go too far. “There was a film out recently called The Accountant and it looks really bloody. I mean, they might not want to go that far in rebranding.”
Williams is far from “dull and boring”, and if she’s keen to see a change in people’s view of accountants she is most certainly going the right way about it. Then again, she didn’t take a normal route into her profession. So maybe she has given herself an edge.
Growing up in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, Williams completed her Leaving Cert, filled out her CAO application and went off to England to work in a hotel for the summer. When her mother rang her to tell her she had secured a place in what was then known as the College of Commerce in Rathmines (now DIT Rathmines) to study business, it came as quite the surprise – she thought she’d applied to do science.
Still, on the basis that you take what you’re given, she moved to Dublin to begin her studies. At least, that was the intention.
“In truth, the first year of college is very simple in comparison to the slog you have when you’re doing your Leaving Cert, which is quite an intense process. I probably left Dublin that year being qualified in the game of pool. I could beat anybody at pool.”
Action in Acton
Having failed her exams, Williams spent the summer in New Jersey on a J1 student working visa. A friend then invited her to London. So off she went to find bar work. “I arrived in Acton and that’s where I’ve stayed, which is very unusual because most people who blow into London find an area and then generally move on. I’ve actually never moved on.”
Still in student mode, but with no enthusiasm to return to her studies, Williams dropped out of college and took up temporary jobs as an accounts clerk. She worked her way to the West End, where she eventually struck gold.
“In April 1987, I was given a temp assignment. I walked into Virgin and the television industry and that’s where it all started. It’s funny how those moments in time work; there is one moment and then your whole life is determined from that. I’m a great believer in fate, and that was my moment of fate.
“I got really hungry to learn. All of a sudden I got the bit between my teeth and actually realised I was in a place I really liked.”
Within six months, Williams was looking after the accounts payable for a centralised finance department of eight different companies, all within television and media.
“I was in a company that was moving really fast itself. Richard Branson is a great innovator. He was disrupting the whole market and the market chain – this was 1987 in the heart of Soho, which is where the whole of the media industry takes place.”
Williams went on to study her accountancy exams while learning on the job, which resulted in a Cima fellowship by the time she was 30. Holding various financial roles throughout the Virgin Group, Teddington Studios and Film Light, she proved a tough negotiator in the boardroom and a financial expert in the postproduction and media industry.
Niche in the market
In 2014, Williams set up her own company, CFO Lean, offering her expertise to firms without a full-time financial director. “There are companies that need my expertise but can’t afford somebody like me,” she says. “So I thought there’s a bit of a niche in the market to be a freelance consultant finance director and that’s what I did.”
The job has brought Williams back to Ireland. Working with Egg Post Production Company (Damo and Ivor, Moone Boy, Red Rock) requires Williams to return to Dublin on a monthly basis.
With her experience in the UK, Williams does find doing business in Ireland rather different. “I’m talking about the compliance issues of doing business in this country. It takes a long time to get a company VAT registered in Dublin – an unbelievable length of time.
“There’s also a very big difference dealing with a bank in the UK and dealing with a bank here. In the two years that I’ve been in Egg, we’ve had three changes of [bank] manager. The consistency isn’t there and I’m really shocked by that. That’s not supportive to business.”
From college dropout to a successful account manager in film and television, Williams surely isn’t your stereotypical accountant. She’s keen to shake up the image that the public have of accountants.
“Just because you are an accountant, you’re not just a safe pair of hands. You can be as commercial as the next person, and we are commercial. If you look at my experience, for instance, there’s nothing dull about it.”