Heather Thompson is the Chief Financial Officer for Maxima Group, a national not-for-profit entity based in South Australia that provides employment services and training.
Its five-year strategic plan is focused on improving employment outcomes for people wanting to start a career through a traineeship or apprenticeship. Many of Maxima's clients face special challenges to improving their skills and gaining employment - many come from indigenous communities or people who have had an injury, a disability or other health condition.
“We started out as a small, South Australian not-for-profit, and we have grown to become a national organisation," says Thompson.
After first joining as the accountant and payroll clerk, Thompson has been with Maxima Group for 25 of its 32-year history. Thompson has seen the business grow from six employees to 130 today. With a current tender tabled, that number could soon grow close to 200 employees nationally.
Thompson remembers her early days at Maxima; “I was chief cook and bottle washer. I was promoted as the business has grown, and I was appointed as CFO 18 years ago. I have subsequently taken on the role of general manager of corporate services, as well as acting CEO when the CEO is not here. So, it is a very full-on position," she says.
Over time, she has undertaken substantial professional development to acquire the right skills to be a successful CFO.
“I have done extra study, but I have also learned on the job, especially when it comes to understanding contracts. As a not-for-profit, a lot of what we do is about winning government tenders and contracts," she says.
Maxima Group started life as an organisation that placed apprentices into local government roles.
“There was a lot of demand from local councils for tradespeople at the time. We grew from there to placing temporary staff, for instance to replace apprentice supervisors taking leave," says Thompson.
“We then moved into training and became a registered training organisation. From there, we've grown and moved into disability employment. We've bought a few businesses along the way and I have grown with the business by being prepared to get out there and learn about the industry. Prior to coming here, I worked in for-profit businesses, which was a very different experience. I thoroughly enjoy my role now," she adds.
A day in the life
Thompson says her day starts early in the morning and finishes late in the evening.
“The role is really 24/7, but that's probably because I allow it to be that way. In terms of the people who report to me, I now have a senior accountant, and I have a payroll and accounting team of 14 people, which will further grow as we win other tenders," she says.
As the business has developed, so has Thompson's ability to manage other people.
“I have developed better people management skills now, which are crucial, because I have to trust and rely on the people that work with me. I oversee their work, mentor them and make sure the books balance," she explains.
Strategic planning is also an important part of the role, and Thompson says that she and the CEO work closely with the board, which has seven members and a chairman, and work with them on planning.
“It is a little bit different to working for a for-profit business," she says. “We report to them quarterly or earlier if the need arises. They are a very supportive board."
One aspect of her role she relishes is helping people achieve meaningful employment.
“It's not just about helping others to get out there and receive a pay packet. Our trainees, apprentices, temporary staff and jobseekers are able to achieve a new lifestyle by going into employment."
The business has a contract to provide disability employment and has four offices in South Australia that look after people with disabilities. The Maxima team assists them to gain more skills or the confidence to get back into the workforce, or to enter the workforce for the first time.
The business has recently submitted a government tender to provide disability employment services on a national basis, which would extend their services across the country.
“It complements what we are already doing in the business to give people with a disability more employment opportunities," Thompson explains.
Her advice for other people aspiring to be a not-for-profit CFO is to put themselves in the best position to be successful for the role by doing substantial research before applying for a position.
“Understand what the organisation is really all about because a lot of not-for-profits have specific goals and commitments. They will often have prescribed government avenues through which they need to work. That is why it is so important to do your own research about any NFP for which you wish to work," says Thompson.
“Talk to people outside and inside the organisation, to develop the right knowledge to apply for the role and be successful. And do not be afraid to put yourself forward. As I say, if you don't try, you'll never get there. So, have the confidence to put yourself forward, do your homework to ensure you understand the role and it could be the best thing you have ever done," she adds.
- Working in the NFP environment might offer the opportunity to give back while developing great finance skills.
- NFP CFOs often work very closely with the CEO and board of directors to achieve the organisation's goals.
- Aspiring CFOs should do substantial due diligence on any organisation for which they would like to work to ensure they understand its mission.