Helen Twose 's Opinion

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose: Finance role not just numbers

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Meridian CFO says job has proven to be wider than expected

Paul Chambers has been poring over the prospectus for Meridian's sharemarket listing. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Paul Chambers has been poring over the prospectus for Meridian's sharemarket listing. Photo / Mark Mitchell

For a man who claims to have become an accountant out of sheer laziness, Paul Chambers has a lot on his plate.

As Meridian Energy's chief financial officer (CFO), Chambers oversees the day-to-day financial management of New Zealand's largest energy company.

Add to that the Tiwai Point contract negotiations, the sale of some of the company's Australian wind farm assets, the entry of the Powershop retail subsidiary into the Australian market, plus the planned public sale of 49 per cent of the State-owned electricity company.

Chambers, 49, admits the role is broader than he expected when he joined the company in 2009.

He says he was attracted not only to the complexity of the power generation business, with the "big lumps of capital" needed to fund investment, but also the emotional response consumers have to power and the regulatory shadow the industry operates under.

"I think the role of CFOs generally in large organisations has shifted a lot so I think the expectation is the CFO will have much more involvement in the operational management of the business and also, depending on their particular inclination, in the strategic management of the business."

That's reflected in his job title. To the outside world Chambers is the chief financial officer. Internally he is the general manager of strategy and finance, heading a team of 30 people across strategy and planning, finance, treasury, procurement and investor relations.

"I see it as being the role which holds the banner for the commercial aspects of every part of the business. Every decision that is made you have to have some finance involvement and I'm the person that leads that off."

Chambers' work at Meridian was recognised last year by the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants, when he won the public sector CFO of the year award.

Given New Zealand's size, his mum suggested it was akin to winning best town councillor in Birmingham, but the award takes pride of place on her mantelpiece.

British-born Chambers started in corporate accounting at Perseverance Mills, a textile manufacturer producing, among other things towels, which he says came in handy at a time when he was attending a lot of weddings.

He'd graduated from university with a degree in natural science, studying physics and archaeology, but claims he was a lazy job hunter.

"I went for accountancy because it had numbers and was close to the beginning of the careers dictionary. If there was aardvark in there I'd probably be eating ants right now."

His career has taken him from the French fashion house Georges Rech to Southampton for Associated British Ports, before moving to New Zealand with his family and Kiwi wife to take up a job with maintenance engineers Transfield Services.

These past few weeks have been spent poring over the fine print in the prospectus that will see just under half of the $4.7 billion company listed on the sharemarket this year.

Having been through the listing process at a past job, he says the actual first day of trading can come as a bit of an anti-climax after the work needed to ready the company for listing.

The level of financial scrutiny will be nothing new, given that Meridian's size means it is used to benchmark and compare the performance of listed electricity generators Contact, TrustPower and Mighty River Power, although Chambers says the company will be spending more time explaining in detail its progress and plans.

"We should be explaining ourselves both to any new shareholders and to the public who, of course, retain the 51 per cent shareholding under any circumstance.

"I think it's the right thing to do to explain things to them anyway."

- NZ Herald

Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

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