Diane Gray-Smith joined Uphold as CFO in November 2015, tasked with overseeing and managing the company’s global corporate financial reporting and governance, including developing the policy and system infrastructure. As a certified accountant, she has spent the past 20 years serving Boards and management teams in the financial services, fintech and media spaces, supporting transition and growth. Her work over the previous 12 years has been as an interim executive, defining business models and strategies to maximize value and profitability for SME in fast growth sectors by way of acquisition, fundraising, integration, restructure and IPO. Prior to this she worked as the CFO for a VC specialising in emerging and mid cap markets. Here she talks to Finance Monthly as part of our spotlight on CFOs.
The role of CFO is well positioned to drive cultural change within a company. What goals did you arrive with as CFO of Uphold?
My role at Uphold is further proof that the days of the one-dimensional CFO number cruncher are long gone.
Alongside the traditional mandate to provide financial reports and analysis, within Uphold I am expected to be involved in supporting and developing strategy, guiding key business initiatives, and working closely as a business partner to my CEO Anthony Watson.
Building and nurturing a high-performance culture is critical to the success of any organization.
The modern CFO is an adviser, scorekeeper, operations manager, team leader and strategist. We have to play each of these roles while safeguarding the resources of the company and ensuring the organization’s performance and expansion. This role is magnified when working in a startup, where the ground appears always to be moving, especially in a burgeoning sector such as fintech.
It is a challenge to make Uphold’s vision and business objectives come to life by connecting our front-line operators to the executive team and the board. It requires the CFO to be a trusted business partner rather than just a diligent scorekeeper. Iprovide those connection points by delivering fast, accurate, relevant and meaningful reports and insightful analysis that help evaluate performance to assist decision making and improve performance.
When I joined Uphold, in essence my primary goal was to make numbers more meaningful to everyone within the organization: to show how numbers can help drive the pathway to our vision and objectives; and for everyone to realise that numbers are a powerful tool, not a stick to be beaten by or the jury to be judged by.
What were some of your major achievements in this area in 2015?
Forecasting, planning and analysis is key at every stage of a company’s progression, but it is arguably at its most important whilst in the start-up phase and when a company is growing at unprecedented levels. Much of my first 100 days was to put in place robust, institutional quality reporting system that was digestible, relevant and meaningful. At the same time I was getting my head around Bitcoin, blockchain and the looming disruption to traditional banking, all a new horizon to me.
Uphold’s ambition is to be the best in breed, not just in terms of the product we offer, but the internal practices. As such, much work has been done to define and implement best practices, whether reporting, commercial decision making, business development, or regulatory requirements.
Are companies like Uphold shielded or more exposed during a financial crisis due to its nature?
The financial crises has changed the landscape in which we work, and has brought into focus the regulatory and corporate governance in every company.
For Uphold, the dynamic global economic environment compounded by the extraordinary rate of technological change and the ambition for fast track growth, presents huge challenges for the Executive team.
Statistics consistently show that many startups fail, so as CFO, risk mitigation takes centre stage. I continually assess performance to plan, with vigilant attention to cash flow, financial regulation, shareholder relations, fundraising, stakeholder engagement and managing resource and bandwidth.
Uphold’s huge advantage lies in our ability to respond quickly to changes in the economic environment, identifying and taking advantage of opportunities, reacting to potential threats and being able to scale quickly.
A lot has been made recently of the security systems in place for online currency, data clouds etc. At Uphold, how do you ensure that money is kept secure?
Uphold, as a financial services company, we operate within a strict regulatory environment, and much of this regulation is focussed on protecting the consumer. Uphold has invested heavily in building a platform that exceeds regulatory compliance baselines. We are setting new standards by adopting advanced technology tools for Anti Money Laundering (AML),Know Your Customer (KYC) and fraud detection and prevention, priding ourselves in keeping abreast of innovation and adopting new developments in the sector.
Security is, of course, a priority and we have a team of industry leaders in our compliance, risk and security department. We operate in a real time environment, and all transactions are transparent. Our blockchain technology provides a public record of all activity on the platform that any member can access. We also have a dedicated Security Operations Centre which monitors activity 24/7.
The integrity of the platform is paramount: the number of members we are attracting and the volume of transactions we are completing is testament to members’ confidence in our systems and processes.
Uphold is by nature a worldwide company – how is your chain of command setup, and how is the company structure set up?
Uphold is a global company with operations in Braga, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Mumbai, Portland, San Francisco, Sao Paulo and Shanghai.
I work from the London office, with my department and most of my direct reports in the US. The chain of command is setup so the CFO reports directly to the CEO. As CFO I need to be across Compliance, Intra-Country Regulation, Reserve Management, Acquisition identification, Investment Relations and Business Development. The benefit of this structure is that Uphold’s finance function is recognised as integral to the running of this business.
The leadership team consists of our CEO and executive VP’s from Legal, Compliance, New Business, Investor Relations, Product & Engineering and our People Officer
Inevitably there are some logistic challenges in terms of negotiating time zones, cultures and regulatory frameworks. Many of our meetings are over various internet channels, but as you would expect, the job requires a significant amount of travel, as I am still of the school that at times a face to face meeting is essential.
Looking into 2016 and beyond, what do you anticipate for your role?
Uphold as a business continues to grow at an eyewatering pace entering new markets with additional product lines bringing with that additional regional compliance and regulatory requirements. Central to my role is helping the organization navigate an increasingly complex business world. It is imperative that reporting is constantly reviewed to ensure the business is growing on a sound financial structure, that it is relevant and fit for purpose and is considered a tool for managers of all sections of the business.
As the CFO I am expected to be an organisational leader, balancing the responsibilities of reporting stewardship with that of a business partner, being a proactive member of the leadership team driving performance and developing strategy.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
What is certain is that financial services is undergoing a huge transformation into new, uncharted territories. It is an exciting journey to be a contributor to Uphold’s vision of making financial services innovative, accessible and equitable.