Online Education Services (OES) won the 2015 Fast 100 BRW Award, which recognises the highest-growth companies in Australia, due to an annual revenue growth in 2015 of more than 380 per cent.
OES is jointly owned by online recruitment business SEEK and Swinburne University of Technology in Victoria. As Chief Financial Officer, Mark Doughty has been instrumental in shepherding the business through this growth.
“As Chief Financial Officer, what I’m always trying to do is see opportunities for growth early. Knowing what's coming along the pipeline is critical,” Doughty explains.
“This means making sure the whole finance team is out in the business, talking to the strategy group, business development and marketing. These are the people that are out there finding those growth opportunities.”
“We have to make sure we are involved in their discussions early so we can try to help shape the opportunities. We don’t want to be a finance team that's reactive and trying to keep up with the growth,” he explains.
Doughty says being involved in day-to-day business decisions can for example, help inform the finance team’s decisions about whether it can justify the investment to automate a process.
“It's much easier to grow quickly if you have automated processes” Doughty says. “Knowing when to invest in automation to speed up business processes and systemise growth has been important in our success.”
Student recruitment is another area where Doughty sees automation as an asset. Being able to forecast the correct number of students across the approximately 100 business is one example of a process that has been automated at OES. This then helps forecast how many tutors the business needs, which is important given it has 400 online tutors.
“We have integrated our student recruitment system with course plans, to make sure that we can recruit the right people to meet business needs,” Doughty explains. “This required substantial IT investment. But we took this decision early on and that has been key to successfully delivering courses on a fairly quick turnaround time.”
Role of the finance function
Given how crucial the finance function can be to the business’ success, Doughty says he’s critical when recruiting the right people into his team.
“I make sure when we're recruiting that we're bringing in people who are happy to be out of their desks, working around the business. My team must be able to work with the business proactively, and not be seen as gatekeepers or reporters. We are more like assistants to business development,” he says.
He says the finance function has also transformed as the business has evolved. A number of staff recently went on maternity leave around the same time. When planning for coverage, Doughty took the opportunity to try out employees with different skill sets.
“We appointed people with the right skills during this time, which has been a really positive experience. It has helped us systemise things and create different approaches.”
The role of online education
“There's a lot of talk in the market about constant up-skilling. There are many free courses available online these days and paid ones if you need the certificate. We encourage our staff to spend time working through different informal programs for their own professional development.”
Doughty says the traditional continuing professional development model for accountants is outdated and there are plenty of opportunities for businesses like OES to provide more relevant training to finance professionals.
“We also encourage staff to do more formal courses and we help fund diplomas, degrees or post-grad qualifications,” he adds.
Working with stakeholders
Although it is a jointly owned venture between SEEK and Swinburne University, OES operates independently; however Doughty says they are important drivers of the business’ growth.
“Our success is down to the clear strategy the shareholders set early on. They have been totally open with each other all the way through. We've also been very open with our stakeholders. We ensure if there's an opportunity coming, we let them know early, so it doesn't turn into a surprise,” Doughty says.
“That allows them to develop their thinking and go on the journey with us. They are totally supportive, which has allowed us to drive fantastic growth.”
As an example, Doughty points to OES’ plans to expand internationally. Its shareholders have been instrumental in shaping that strategy allowing OES to leverage SEEK and Swinburne’s existing global footprint in Southeast Asia.
“We’ve worked closely with them and now this strategy is starting to bear fruit, enabling us to go from being an Australian-focused business to operating in Southeast Asia,” he explains.
Overall, Doughty says, the business has many opportunities it can pursue. “It's an exciting, fun place to work and the finance team is an important part of the way the business has evolved,” he says.
- Justify investment in automation and systems with a sound business case.
- Employ people who proactively work with other parts of the business.
- View change as business opportunities.
- Set the right strategy from the start.
- Bring stakeholders along on the journey.