Gocompare CFO on how early boardroom experience put him in the fast lane

CFO Interview: Kevin Hughes, CFO of Gocompare.com

By Michelle Perry | CFO UK | Published 11:43, 25 July 11

Gaining boardroom experience early in his career is the one skill that Kevin Hughes reckons helped catapult him – aged 30 – into the role of chief financial officer. That, and getting on with people, says the CFO of comparison website Gocompare.com.

Hughes, who has spent the best part of his career in the insurance industry, became CFO of Gocompare in 2007, shortly after the website’s launch by founder and CEO Hayley Parsons – a former work colleague of Hughes’.

The two qualities together with a strong focus on marketing helped Hughes develop the business alongside Parsons from a start up business with a large loan from esure into a 96-strong workforce with a turnover of £101.6 million – a rise of 35 percent on 2009 – in five short years.

Kevin Hughes, CFO of Gocompare“It’s been tough for wider economy but Gocompare managed to sustain significant growth in a tough economy. Our product is a grudge purchase so we have been able to save money for customers.

Recently we had an email from someone who said we had saved them £1000 on car insurance! It’s a recession-proof business. The last year and a half and for the next year it’s all about building the business and investing,” Hughes says.

His enthusiasm for the job is palpable, but then he is still 35 years old. “My career couldn’t be any better than it is at the moment. I’m at the pinnacle of what I wanted to achieve,” the Pontypridd-born CFO says.

Brand awareness has escalated since the company launched its infamous advertising campaign fronted by Welsh opera singer Wynne Evans, better known as his alter ego GioCompario with over-sized moustache. It might be one of the most annoying campaigns to be launched on to British TV screens but it boosted brand awareness by 450 percent a year after its launch.

It was a necessary evil in a tough and highly competitive insurance comparison market after the runaway success of Comparethemarket’s equally annoying meerkat ad campaign. A big marketing campaign was also interestingly championed by the CFO who oversees marketing.

“We started off with more educational ads with a great response rate but we got to a point where there was little differentiation between all the competitors. So we decided to come up with something new. We felt it was time when we needed to differentiate ourselves very strongly. Hence the opera singer was born,” says Hughes, an ACCA-qualified accountant and enthusiastic sportsman.

It wasn’t just brand awareness that GioCompario helped with however. Thanks to the ad campaign’s success the company was able to repay early a £30 million loan facility secured from esure, says Hughes. In April Gocompare posted a 2010 full year pre-tax profit rise of 84 percent to £29.9 million.

Hughes is confident that there remains a lot more room for growth despite the crowded marketplace. “Over 25 percent of consumers have not yet used a comparison website so there’s still so much room for growth.”

Aim high

Hughes’ began his career as an accounts clerk at Admiral in Cardiff, after eight months and a hunger for greater things once he’d learned the basics of business, he moved to Cardiff-based Avana Bakeries as a trainee accountant where he began his accountancy training. But 18 months later Hughes got itchy feet again and began searching for another post.
“Set yourself five year plans in which you outline key goals for your career. Five years is a sensible time frame to achieve big objectives but if you don’t meet your goals, be patient and persevere.

“Know that if you want to achieve ambitious goals, you’ll need to put in the hours. That said, working smarter is the way forward; why spend hours on basic tasks when a simple process can be put in place, freeing up time to focus on bigger projects,” he says.

Again his sociability and penchant for sports – he had previously played football on Admiral’s football team – secured him a role back at Admiral in the finance department.

“I got the interview and the guy who interviewed me was the goalie on [Admiral’s] football team. I got the job. The key thing in working life is to make friends and get on with people,” he says.

At Admiral, under the guidance of former company accountant Adrian Hamilton, Hughes’ commercial knowledge grew swiftly. “He was an amazing mentor. The principles he taught me back then we still hold true in my finance function today,” Hughes explains.

Hughes quickly became financial controller for Admiral’s Gladiator Commercial and went on to form part of the launch team, together with Parsons, responsible for the launch of Confused.com in 2000.

“There I dealt with all the senior management including the finance director. There was no one else in the organisation that had access in that kind of way. I learnt the board skills while working on the subsidiaries looking at how board members made decisions and worked together, which was so beneficial to me at that age.”

Go larger

Hughes’ biggest challenge ahead is ensuring growth. “We have cash in the business for investment opportunities. We are very healthy. If anything, we have banks chasing us. And we have a good bank balance at a time when rates aren’t great to invest,” he adds.

For now it’s all about building the business and although there is no defined exit strategy, he’s not ruling out a possible initial public offering or trade sale but for now he’s enjoying being out of the goldfish bowl.

“Being private gives us so much more strengths. Now having private investors to look after has allowed us to grow faster. [Investors] wouldn’t have stomached our growth plans.

“We have no IPO planned but we wouldn’t discount it in the future,” he adds.

Despite Hughes strong work ethic, he’s no early riser for several reasons, he explains. Firstly he’s a night owl so he receives the previous day’s figures at 12.45am before going to bed, so he doesn’t have to rise early – as is the habit of many CFOs – to ensure that all is well for the day ahead.

Equally importantly for Hughes however is that he gets to take his daughter to school in the mornings every day meaning that he gets into work at around 9.30 am and spend his free time rock climbing, which sometimes involves night rock climbing – perfect for a night owl.
CV – Kevin Hughes

1996 – 1997 Accounts clerk, Admiral
1997 – 1998 Trainee Accountant, Avana Bakeries
1998 – 2007 Financial Controller, Confused.com & Gladiator Commercial, Admiral
2007 – to date Chief Financial Officer and Marketing Director, Gocompare.com

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