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Dramatic impetus: Gill Charnley, ACMA, CGMA, finance partner, drama production at the BBC.

What were your first impressions of the BBC?

I got a contract at the BBC as a finance manager in the specialist factual department. This produces factual programming in areas such as history, natural history and science. My first impression was one of awe at the sheer scale of the BBC and the breadth of the content it produces. The BBC has a mission to inform, educate and entertain. It has established itself as a global brand and is recognised for its quality, reliability and creativity.

It's a privilege to work with the passionate, dedicated, creative people who make this happen. Working for an organisation that is so ingrained in the fabric of our society, with its unique funding model, is also fascinating. Everyone I meet has an opinion about what we do, and often some suggestions for change to take back to the director-general. I love being part of the debate.

How did you build your career at the BBC?

When I started at the BBC, finance was involved in an extensive transformation programme to streamline its ways of working and produce a tighter, more focused operation, promoting both efficiency and greater effectiveness. In essence, this was establishing a new business-partnering model, which continues to develop to this day.

Transaction processing has been outsourced, an in-house shared services centre in Cardiff manages the accounting, reporting and running of financial systems, and we have a team of "partners" embedded in the business divisions performing a primarily advisory role, using their accountancy expertise to solve business problems and add value to decision-making.

The value generated for the licence fee-payer was a more effective finance operation that reduced its costs by almost 50 per cent and benchmarked well against external best practice at well under 1 per cent of annual income. The value for me was the chance to leave the more traditional aspects of accounting and move into a new business-partnering role with a broader remit.

Luckily, I was successful in applying for a finance partner role in factual, a new department that was formed to bring specialist factual and other types of factual programming together under one roof, covering production bases in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol.

Working closely with the business teams enabled me to develop a greater understanding of factual production and its needs and to eventually streamline finance partnering support to reduce costs further. Without the opportunity to develop key relationships and become a trusted partner of the business, this would have been difficult. I also learned how to better communicate financial concepts in a creative environment.

We continue to ask ourselves how we can improve and are currently reorganising ourselves again to increase the remit of our team in Cardiff to include more of the everyday financial support to promote even more effective business partnering.

What's your role in drama?

In 2010, I moved across to be the finance partner in drama production. The department is the largest producer of television drama in the UK and is responsible for producing long-running drama series such as EastEnders, Casualty, Holby City and Doctors. Other recent shows include Dr Who, Silk, The Paradise, The Secret of Crickley Hall and Our Girl. Last year, we also produced two short films for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, the second of which was that memorable moment when the Queen met James Bond.

The remit of the role is similar, but it offered me the opportunity to work in another genre of programming with a different business model.

One key difference is that drama has a smaller, fixed-staff base and draws in specialists for its productions from the external market, including writers and on-screen talent. While this provides us with a more flexible resourcing model, it means that we are operating in a competitive market that extends across commercial television and film, both here and abroad.

Has budgeting for drama changed significantly in recent years?

The constraints around the level of the licence fee mean that we have been looking at how we can make the same programmes for less, while ensuring that we maintain quality. This makes budgeting challenging and means working closely with the business to ensure we make the right decisions. We have been rigorous in examining what we do across the organisation, how we do it, why we do it and whether we could do it differently to ensure value for money.

In drama, this can include maximising our commissioning times, where we try to enable more efficient planning and use of resources, driving better procurement deals or using new technologies. For example, the judicious use of special effects to create a location or sense of place on screen that may be too expensive to film.

How are you involved with the BBC's commercial strategy?

Like all producers, we are always looking to find sources of co-production and other commercial funding to maximise value. I work closely with production teams and our commercial partners to look at opportunities.

There is a balance to be struck between commerciality and maintaining our public service remit. However, specific types of programming, such as high-end drama and natural history, can marry these two aims successfully and provide enormous value for the licence fee.

What are the biggest challenges?

The BBC is unlike many publicly funded organisations in that it has to be innovative, flexible and responsive to compete with commercial production companies and broadcasters in a highly competitive and creative media sector, with an ever-increasing pace of change. At the same time, we have a fairly fixed funding model and must respond to the high standards of editorial and financial compliance required of us.

On a day-to-day basis, we have to demystify finance within a creative environment and encourage creativity to flourish within a stringent control environment, while increasing pressure on budgets can be challenging.

What guidance would you offer CIMA members looking at working in a business-partnering role?

I would pass on a piece of advice from a former manager. Look for the story in the numbers, learn the language of the business and tailor your communications to your audience. This will help you communicate with non-financial people, make the numbers relevant to their world and result in better decision-making.

If you're qualified as an accountant, it's a given that you're technically competent. However, you can't add value unless the information is going to the right person at the right time and they understand what it means. I would also advise looking at the culture and ways of working in organisations, and choose those that suit your strengths and personality.

What are your favourites?

I like working with the continuing dramas, such as EastEnders and Holby City. The quality and the hours of programming they deliver week in, week out and the level of organisation it takes to do this is phenomenal. I watch a wide variety of things but I am partial to observational documentaries, and I love a bit of crime. Luther does this particularly well, in my opinion. It has a strong cast and is beautifully shot.

How did your career start?

After graduating with a degree in chemistry from King's College, London, I decided that life in a laboratory wasn't for me. I thought I'd get out into the temping market to experience a variety of jobs.

After a few interesting roles I found myself in the payroll office at the Institute of Education, a graduate college of the University of London offering research, teacher training, higher degrees and consultancy in education and education-related areas of social science.

I'd always had an aptitude for numbers but I discovered that I also enjoyed meeting the people who came to my office--from professors to porters--and helping them understand everything from payslips to pensions. Very soon, I was acting as the payroll manager to cover maternity leave and led a small team. To gain more experience I moved to a role in research administration, helping academics with their applications for research grants by finding out what they wanted to achieve, costing it and preparing a bid.

At what point did you study CIMA and how did it help you in the next stage of your career?

I started to think about what I wanted to do next and made the decision to build my career within finance. I applied for a senior management accountant role so that I could be at the heart of the business and better understand how it worked. I also decided to study for a formal qualification. I chose CIMA as it had a broad syllabus and was directly related to the skills needed in business, rather than being geared towards working in practice. It also seemed to be the most versatile in terms of recognition across industry sectors.

Studying for CIMA helped me gain further promotion to be the head of a newly created management accounts team. Leading and developing this team and establishing new accounting systems from previously disparate activities gave me the invaluable experience of putting what I was learning into practice.

Although my manager was unable to support me directly in terms of providing study leave or funding courses, he was very supportive in providing opportunities for me to develop and apply my CIMA knowledge. This helped me to expand the remit of the role to encompass the preparation of the annual financial statements.

CIMA training has been very useful in my career. Early on, it provided me with a thorough grounding in financial management and enabled me to understand the entire accounting process.

It has given me a better understanding of the operational, management and strategic business frameworks used in organisations. The skills I have developed enable me to interpret the numbers, and support and drive decision-making.

How did you broaden your experience?

After passing my CIMA exams I went to work as accounts manager at the Australian Tourist Commission. I was based in the UK, covering Europe, South Africa and the Middle East, subsequently expanded to include New Zealand and the Americas. Working alongside the marketing, PR and consumer event planning teams, and helping them to understand their results and how they could be used to shape future decisions, allowed me to develop my influencing, persuading and storytelling skills. By far the most memorable thing about my time there was the energy and buzz created by a relatively small creative team.

Following a restructuring of the business and the consolidation of financial support into the head office in Sydney, I decided to try something completely different. Giving contract working another whirl, my next role was at BT as financial analyst on a high-profile, large-scale IT project set up to computerise NHS records.

It was really interesting to gain an insight into how large-scale commercial projects and, indeed, large companies, work. But I was working in a small location, isolated from a virtual project team and I learned that I much prefer leading teams, working alongside the business and helping shape the decision-making as opposed to just providing the information, crucial though that is.

Gill Charnley manages funding for some of the BBC's best-known productions. She tells FM how the organisation finds value for money while delivering high-quality programming

RELATED ARTICLE: GILL CHARNLEY

2010: Became finance partner, drama production.

2006: Became a finance partner in factual production. Promoted to sole finance partner.

2005: Joined the BBC as finance manager, specialist factual.

2004: Contracted with BT as financial analyst.

2000: Joined the Australian Tourist Commission as accounts manager for Europe, South Africa and the Middle East. Subsequently became finance manager, western hemisphere.

1995: Promoted to senior management accountant, then to management accounts team leader.

1994: Moved to research administration.

1991: Joined the Institute of Education, University of London, as payroll assistant; subsequently promoted to payroll manager (interim).

1990: Various contract roles, including one at a video production company in Soho.

1989: Graduated from King's College, University of London, with a degree in chemistry.

Photographs by Matthew Stylianou
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Author:Holmes, Lawrie
Publication:Financial Management (UK)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 1, 2013
Words:1996
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