Date posted: 1/12/2016 5 min read

Great oaks from little acorns grow

For Anna Davis CA, head of business performance at New Zealand’s biggest telco, Spark, commerce has always been second nature

In brief

  • I started a business at primary school when I was eight. The currency was acorns
  • You have to think wider about the business problem, and add value
  • The proof is clearly in the pudding, with the judges of the Young Financial Manager of the Year congratulating Davis for “her diverse skills, leadership qualities and her ability to run strategic and complex projects such as divestments and transformation”

Photography by Alex Wallace

“I started a business at primary school when I was eight. The currency was acorns,” recalls Davis, who is now 28. “I’ve just always been this way. People will know what they’re getting. I’m just really passionate about it.”

This passion — and Davis’s extraordinary drive — saw her begin a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Victoria University of Wellington as a 17-year-old, win a job with KPMG two years later, and quickly rise to senior finance roles, first at Crowe Horwath and then at Landcorp Farming, where she managed a business with NZ$1.7 billion in assets and NZ$200m in annual revenue. She joined Spark New Zealand (formerly Telecom New Zealand) as a finance manager in 2014.

“I’m a classic Gen Y in that I have had five roles at Spark since I’ve joined. The first role I took was international finance manager, which had a financial oversight of the firm’s international voice business across five countries,” says Davis.

In April 2015, Spark divested the international business as part of a long-term strategy to focus on the domestic market. The savvy CA knew the international business was to be sold when she took the job. “I Googled the company and I saw they had tried to sell in the past. It’s a small place, New Zealand. You hear through the grape vine that the business was in decline, so it wasn't a surprise,” she says. Davis project managed the divestment process from the initial-offer stage to post-completion with a cross-functional team for several months.

Following the divestment, Spark rolled out changes to its operating model, bringing together employees from two business units and removing duplication across the company’s operations, networks and IT support. Davis managed the financial performance of the change project and identified the resulting performance improvements. This involved managing the financial performance of more than half of Spark’s labour and operational cost base for six months whilst the business units were redesigned.

Performance manager

With this project behind her, Davis was involved in a transformation of Spark’s largest business unit, looking after consumers and small businesses, then took on her current role as head of business performance. “A group of senior leaders from the business were seconded away from business as usual for six weeks and asked to design the future of Spark,” says Davis. “This is what led to my current role. We developed a three-year strategy, and now my job is to manage the performance of the strategy.”

As part of her role, Davis manages a team of eight finance specialists, most of whom are Chartered Accountants. “The CA accreditation is something I look for when recruiting,” she says. One member of Davis’s team is about to commence her professional year after having gained a few years of business experience. Another of the team members recently completed the professional year. “I try and get CAs at different levels as you know they've got the commitment to their profession. Plus, they have that level of skill they can generally pick up anything. They might not be an expert, necessarily, but they’ll understand the concepts,” Davis explains.

Davis, who completed her professional year at KPMG, found her CA studies to be quite challenging. “But it teaches you resilience and the ability to see tasks through,” she notes. “It also opens doors. As soon as you’ve completed it or even while you’re doing it, there’s just so many opportunities . . . I think people look at accounting in a limited way, because they see it’s just financial reporting. It’s not like that at all.”

Davis’s own career is a classic case in point. “My role at the moment is business performance. I look after three things: commercial, customer experience and culture. Being able to hit our numbers or aspiration across all three areas is the key. The numbers are only one part of it. Financial reporting, tax and auditing only get you so far in this role. You have to think wider about the business problem, and add value. I think being a CA teaches you not only the accounting knowledge and the skills but it teaches you how to apply these skills in a way that means something to the business,” she says.

Peer views

The proof is clearly in the pudding, with the judges of the Young Financial Manager of the Year congratulating Davis for “her diverse skills, leadership qualities and her ability to run strategic and complex projects such as divestments and transformation.” They went on to say, “The judges noted the seniority of positions held by Anna for her age within large organisations such as Landcorp and Spark as an incredible achievement.”

Spark’s Chief Financial Officer, Jolie Hodson, says Davis’s ability to learn quickly and deliver results was recognised by the judging panel. “Anna was recognised for her ability to hit the ground running on significant projects like the sale of the international voice business, strong commercial support of the Connect change team and her recent contributions,” according to Hodson.

Former Landcorp Acting Chief Financial Officer, Fiona Stockdill, has this praise for Davis: “I consider Anna to be an incredibly talented young finance professional. Throughout my time in working with Anna at Landcorp Farming, I witnessed her demonstrate clear potential to become one of New Zealand’s emerging business leaders.

“Along with exemplary financial and commercial skills, Anna has demonstrated passion and leadership within the organisations she has been a part of. It is her natural aptitude and commitment to enabling success in others that has unlocked opportunities for both the businesses she has been a part of and contributed to early opportunities and success in her career.”

Network access

These accolades have inspired Davis to reflect on her career: “It makes you think, ‘How did I get here?’ You kind of go, ‘What’s so different about me?’” She has come to see that the people she has worked with along the way have played a critical role in her success. “Especially in the early stage of your career, it’s hard to attribute it to you being some special person. It’s really about working with such smart people and the opportunities that’s created, because I've been lucky to work with a few awesome people, and that just continued to create opportunities for me and for the people that I work with,” Davis says.

Davis makes an ongoing effort to build and maintain her strong network. “Business issues are becoming so complex that it’s impossible to solve for them on your own. You have to network with [people who have] different skills even within the business and within the profession. I always am checking in with the people I’ve met throughout my career that are doing similar work,” she says.

To Davis, the real business heroes in this world are not necessarily the ones who are making headlines or writing bestselling business books – in fact, they could be sitting in the next office. “I find inspiration in everyday people,” she says, “even the people that work for me.” The best people to learn from, she believes, are the “passionate people, courageous people, and intellectual people.” Davis says former Landcorp colleague Stockdill and current boss, Joe Goddard, General Manager of Business Performance at Spark, have proven to be sources of inspiration in her short, yet stellar career.

Still learning

While Davis, at just 28, has received public praise and industry recognition that most people would be delighted to receive during their entire career, there’s no doubt she still has much more to achieve. For now, her focus is on giving everything she’s got to her present role. “My current job is probably my dream job. Nailing it will take another two or three years, and I just love working at Spark,” says Davis, who freely admits to having a strong passion for living and working in New Zealand. “Because my role is to manage the strategy and how that turns up in business performance, it’s about influencing key business decisions. Every business decision is different, and every day I’m learning something different.”

This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.

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