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Neil Morling

Neil Morling, Chief Financial Officer of Handley House

About Handley House

Handley House is the parent company overseeing four global architectural businesses.

Bringing together commercial advice and strategic research, and technical knowledge and design expertise, the company delivers a holistic approach from data analysis, master planning and architecture, to urban and landscape design, interior design and wayfinding.

Everything it does is driven by economic prosperity, social wellbeing and sustainable development, to meet the needs of those who live in, work in and use the places it creates.

About Neil Morling

Neil has over 30 years’ experience across Europe, North America, the Middle East and Asia, operating in dynamic, global professional service organisations, dealing with a wide range of – often conflicting – stakeholder requirements.

In 2007, Neil joined EC Harris LLP as Chief Financial Officer and was integral to the merger of EC Harris into Arcadis NV in 2011, which created a leading global built asset consultancy which now employs 28,000 professionals with a turnover of three billion euros. He later joined Olswang LLP as the CFO, and in 2017, worked with the CEO to secure the iconic tripartite merger with Nabarro LLP and CMS LLP to form the sixth largest global law firm.

Neil was appointed Chief Financial Officer of Handley House in September 2018 – just prior to which, he had helped Slater & Gordon, one of the UK's largest consumer law firms, through a challenging transitional phase following their acquisition by the private equity firm, Anchorage Capital Europe LLP.

Other notable companies Neil has worked for include Anglian Water Plc, Alstom SA, Invensys Plc, Jarvis Plc and Ricardo Plc.

The big questions:

Q: What’s your greatest career achievement so far?

A: Aside from the longevity of my career (not wishing to age myself), I always seem to recall the most recent events as my biggest success. Last month, we successfully concluded our acquisition of a group of privately owned businesses operating across North America, to complement our UK base with Middle East and Asian operations. It survived a five-year gestation period (I took it on three years ago) a pandemic with its associated economic downturn.

The biggest challenge was developing a commercial model that was acceptable to both parties, when clearly some of the more traditional valuation models were challenged themselves, during this time.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge in your career?

A: In truth, it was the period just after I joined Olswang LLP as CFO in 2015. Unfortunately, there remains much I am still unable to disclose – read the press and imagine!

A close second was the recession and property crash of 2009 – working as CFO of a large property consultancy at that time was interesting. Overnight, our biggest and most profitable market, Dubai, simply stopped – with all payments out of the UAE blocked. At that time 60% of our costs were people with 20% invested in long-term property leases.

I have been extremely lucky in working where I have worked, with whom I have worked, and on what, so in the round, I have no regrets, but I wish I would have had the chance deliver an initial public offering (IPO). Having led several mergers and acquisitions (both the buy and sell side), the sense of achievement when you get the nod from the lawyers that you have completed it is quite something. I sense an IPO might be up a notch or two – but I may be wrong!

Q: How do you develop your skills and knowledge?

A: I have been very lucky in what I have had the chance to do. That in itself has probably delivered 75% of what I know today.

The biggest lessons I learnt were from two of my seniors, who I won't name, to save their blushes. Per their advice, I always look for opportunities to get outside my comfort zone – speaking at conferences is a good example – and I try to take on something new once a year.

To illustrate the lasting impact their advice had on me, one was from the mid ‘90s and the latter was more than 10 years ago.

Q: What has been the biggest learning opportunity of your career?

A: Moving to Paris in the mid ‘90s with Alstom SA. This was really my big move away from technical accounting into the commercial world and broader business management. Everything that came with living and working in Paris was a learning opportunity for me, and I was working in a very senior environment.

Q: Who have you learnt most from? What have you learnt and why has this been useful to you?

A: The gentleman who offered me the role in Paris. It was certainly not accounting skills – they were a given. The lessons I learned were all about:

  • The way you carried yourself and how to project self-confidence, even in unknown territory

  • Maintaining a sense of humour

  • Treating others as you would wish to be treated

  • Following the cash

  • Always working to ensure that the right people made the right decisions at the right time.

Q: What's the biggest challenge in your marketplace at the moment and how are you working to overcome it?

A: I speak at various conferences, and my most sought-after session is “why are we finding it ever more challenging to recruit and retain professionals?”

There are a few reasons I believe this is the case: the needs and expectations of Generation Z are certainly different to those of Millennials and Generation X, who probably make up 90% of today’s managers and directors. Things are about to get even more interesting with the Alpha Generation.

Post pandemic, there are still questions around ‘What does a normal working day look like?’ and ‘Where are people working?’ and there and other factors such as Brexit and the skills shortages which are also presenting challenges.

Tips from the top:

Q: What advice would you give to your younger self?

A: The first piece of advice I’d give my younger self is to never lose focus on cash. That’s because cash is one of the very few truly objective measures in a set of accounts and businesses will only ever run out of cash once.

Also, to understand what really makes the business tick, so that you can bring context to whatever you do, and always remain relevant to where you work.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring CEO/CFO/COO?

A: To others, I’d say: always ensure you have a totally trustworthy and reliable team of direct reports and make it your business to spend time with all your employees.

In terms of strategy, having a good personal and company brand is important. People’s perceptions can influence their expectations. If you or your company promises something, it must be followed through for your employees and anyone else who interacts with you or your company.

Always have key data in your mind and know how it can be impacted by the basic drivers of your business, your markets, and clients.

Q: What do you think is key to managing a successful team?

A: There are multiple answers to this:

  • Authenticity

  • Communication

  • Availability

  • Authority

  • Honesty

  • Treat employees as you would wish to be treated

Q: What's your top tip for managing work-life balance?

A: To-do lists: to ensure you know what, where, when and how, and to remove any unknowns, which could distract from your priorities.

Timetables: so that everyone is clear what is required of them and by when.

Boundaries: designate times when you are happy to work, and when you’re not, and be disciplined in your boundaries.

Future gazing:

Q: How do you see the CEO/CFO/COO role changing in the next five years?

A: C-suite roles will always take on the most responsibility and accountability in the company; I don’t see this changing. I also believe that, while core skills and role division are still necessary, we can expect a shift towards more of an overlap of c-suite role execution.

Q: What technological advances do you foresee within your role?

A: Expectations are likely to demand greater speed from technology while providing greater insight for better decision-making, such as AI or data collection. Currently, much of technology is still transaction-focused, but I think we will see it being used to further support the insight of company leaders.

I used to quote 80:20 (i.e., 80% planning for the future, 20% learning from the past), but this could go to 90:10 in the future.

While there’s no way of knowing where we will end up – whether that’s with outsourcing or cloud technology – all I know is, it won't revert.

Q: What do you see as the future of work in the UK?

A: Careers are already becoming more of a series of experiences, rather than a well-trodden path that is the same for everyone, as it once was. I believe there will also be better work-life balance for the UK workforce in the future.

Love Mondays: at Reed, we are on a mission to help everyone love their job:

Q: What do you love most about your role and why?

A: I love that my role calls upon my experience and makes use of what I have learned over the last 30 years. It’s not a volume-driven role, but it’s intellectually challenging, which I appreciate.

Q: What does your average Monday look like?

A: I always start the week with a team call, which is a little challenging now that I have direct reports in Canada, the UK and Hong Kong, but they still happen.

We work through the ‘who, what and by when’ for the forthcoming week. Then, we focus on what the challenges are likely to be.

Late in the morning, I have a call with the CEO. This is all about expectations and challenges, rather than covering old ground. After that, it all depends!

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