Upbeat about economic growth, broader scope of role
CFOs seen to lead data-driven projects and strategic automation within the finance function.
The spotlight of the survey, conducted among 151 CFOs and finance leaders in Ireland, is on the strategic shift in the CFO’s responsibilities, their role in improving the sophistication of non-financial/ESG reporting as well as their focus on supply chain and cybersecurity issues. The survey also highlights the priorities of finance leaders from organisations across sectors¹ to drive efficiencies and support data-led transformation amid mounting challenges stoked by the ongoing energy crisis and recessionary pressures.
According to the survey, 64% of the respondents claim to be optimistic about the economic outlook and business prospects for the next 12 to 24 months. Just 23% say they are a little or very pessimistic.
“Finance leaders are more optimistic than we might have expected them to be. This is likely a reflection of improving sentiment regarding the state of the economy,” said Derarca Dennis, Assurance Partner at EY Ireland.
The positive outlook extends to expectations for growth in their own organisations. On average expected growth for the year ahead is 12%, similar to the EY Ireland CFO Survey 2022. However, 40% say they are unsure yet of their expected growth.
“The continuing war in Ukraine, rising geopolitical tensions in other regions, and ongoing macroeconomic developments are all contributing to a high level of volatility. That may be a factor in the high number of respondents who declared themselves unsure of expected growth for their organisations in the year ahead,” said George Deegan, Assurance Partner at EY Ireland.
Pivoting remit: CFOs are also largely positive when it comes to their own roles. 59% claim they are satisfied in their roles at the moment and 40% say they are either happy or excited in their roles at the moment.
These findings are interesting in light of the evolution of the CFO’s role in recent years. According to the survey, 61% say their remit has changed to drive strategic automation within the finance function in the past two years, with 54% saying it now includes a greater focus on ESG and non-financial reporting.
Incidence of changes in remit in the past two years
Has your remit changed in the past two years to include the following areas?*
This suggests that CFOs are increasingly playing a strategic role in their organisations beyond the narrow confines of the traditional finance function as their roles are becoming even more encompassing. The finance function had already evolved to become more involved in other areas of the business and that shift was accelerated by the pandemic. One would hope that the heightened strategic importance of the role will, in turn, attract a new generation of finance professionals to support growing Irish businesses.
When it comes to the increasing technology focus of the CFO role, 87% of the respondents claim to be either excited or relatively happy about it saying they enjoyed expanding their skills in light of evolving job functions.
That finding is unsurprising given the eagerness with which finance professionals have embraced new technologies over many years.
The overall picture that emerges from the EY Ireland CFO Survey 2023 is one of a positive frame of mind on the part of CFOs as they help their organisations thrive in a challenging global environment and reimagine their roles as strategic business partners.
“Today’s generation of finance leaders are enjoying the pivotal role they are playing at the crossroads of their organisations. Instead of being asked to report on what happened in the past they are being asked to predict what will happen in the future. The results of our survey also reveal a cohort of individuals who thrive under pressure and approach change with relish,” explained Derarca Dennis.
Recommendations for future focused CFOs:
- Adopt an agile mindset: Evolution of the role requires agile finance leaders who are thinking differently, listening, and responding to a broader stakeholder community.
- Acquire diverse skills: The new shape of finance reporting requires CFOs to master a diversity of skills, especially a deep understanding of non-financial factors.
Cost cutting continues to top agenda
Supply chains look more resilient, unlikely to impact balance sheets.
Unsurprisingly, revenue impact of inflation and broader prevailing economic conditions were identified as among the key challenges to desired levels of growth in the next five years by 62% of the respondents. Talent shortages and talent retention were cited by 44%, while the revenue impact of the energy crisis was named by 38%.
What are the main challenges to achieving your desired level of growth in the next five years?
In what may be evidence of the efficacy of the work put in on building supply chain resilience in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, just 21% named issues in this area as a threat to growth. This is supported by the fact that 61% of the respondents say they do not foresee any negative balance sheet and P&L impacts based on supply chain issues.
“Our conversations with CFOs reveal the extent to which post-pandemic and macro-economic related disruptions shone a light on the fragility of their supply chains. The significant investments being made in building supply chain resiliency through process automation, digital capability along with other measures, are starting to bear fruit as organisations endeavour to offset the balance sheet and P&L impacts,” said Neal Johnston, Business Consulting Partner at EY Ireland.
“However, with rising inflation, increased cost of capital and geopolitical uncertainty, the journey for supply chain transformation has just begun. Organisations are yet to return to their pre-pandemic lean, less cash intensive and low-cost performance models,” explained Neal Johnston.
Innovation in new products and services, and investment in technology are the other priority areas for driving growth in the year ahead.
Priorities for driving growth in the year ahead
What are your priorities for driving growth in the year ahead?
The physical impact of climate change didn’t feature at all as a challenge to achieving the desired level of growth in the next five years. 11% of respondents did mention customer expectations around sustainability while another 5% cited stakeholder expectations around sustainability.
In responding to these challenges, 59% of the respondents identified reducing costs, including energy costs, as the top priority for driving growth in the year ahead. This is unsurprising given the impact of increased energy costs on organisations’ bottom lines in the recent past. Many organisations are looking to renewable energy resources as a means to solve the problem in the medium to long term. This will bring benefits in terms of decarbonisation and will support Ireland’s Climate Action Plan.
Push for quality talent: For finance leaders in Ireland, talent and its retention continues to be a significant disruptor. The critical importance of talent is reflected in the strong emphasis placed on skills by respondents. 40% of the respondents say their priority for driving growth in the coming year is investing in upskilling existing talent in their organisations, while 34% say it is investing in new talent.
Looking through a slightly longer lens, talent will continue to be a key area of focus for the next two years, with developing future leaders and talent retention as priority for 60% of the respondents.
“Continued investment in talent will be imperative given the evolving and the increasingly business critical role the finance function will play. The finance team of the future will be very different. It will, of course, continue to include finance professionals but it will also need a diverse talent pool for the finance function to be a strategic partner in the overall business and to embrace the potential of technology and data. Having wider expertise within the team will make it much more effective when it comes to creating efficiencies across the business,” said Laura Flynn, Partner, Head of People Consulting at EY Ireland.
Recommendations for future focused CFOs:
Focus on automation but budget allocation low
60% of finance leaders have increased investment in cybersecurity tools in the past two years.
Turning to a longer-term time horizon, there are some notable differences when it comes to strategic areas of focus to drive growth over the next five years. While cost reductions and efficiency improvements still top the list for 72%, talent investment is hardly mentioned despite being identified as a challenge to growth by 44% of the respondents. On the other hand, 37% say automating manual tasks and processes will be a key strategic focus over the period.
Top strategic areas of focus over the next five years
What are your top two to three strategic areas of focus to drive growth over the next five years?
This suggests some belief on the part of CFOs that talent shortages can be alleviated, at least in part, through the automation of certain tasks and processes. Indeed, 46% of the respondents to the survey claim most of the time wasted in their finance function at the moment is in relation to manual processes and controls.
There is clearly some way to go though in terms of automation with 35% of the respondents claiming that it is not leveraged in their organisation at all at the moment. Amongst those who do, transaction processing, internal audit and risk, and consolidation and reporting are key areas where automation is leveraged. This suggests a focus on point solutions rather than overall transformation as far as automation is concerned.
Limited budgets are currently being allocated to automation, with no increase in sight over the next two years.
Say they do not plan to allocate any part of their budget to automation in the next two years.
That situation will need to change if ambitions for automation over the next five years are to be realised.
“It is heartening that automation has been identified as an area of strategic focus, but the low level of budget allocated to it is somewhat concerning. Automation is not about transformation; it is about the enablement of the finance function and focusing on more value-added strategic roles. It doesn’t necessarily require big budgets. It is about using what you have more judiciously to become more efficient and effective,” said Derarca Dennis.
Overall, the emphasis appears to be on dealing with cost pressures rather than on other more proactive means of driving growth, and that applies to both the near and longer terms.
The ESG agenda does come in for mention, but again from a compliance perspective. Only 15% of the respondents say building skills in non-financial/ESG reporting is a priority over the next five years, while 6% identified increasing the sophistication of non-financial reporting.
Cybersecurity concerns: CFOs in Ireland have put cybersecurity at the front and centre of their business priority, with 60% of the respondents saying they have ramped up investment in security tools and a similar proportion (59%) has invested in cybersecurity training for employees in the past two years to improve cybersecurity for the finance function. With the cost of breach in mind, 30% of CFOs have either increased their involvement in managing cybersecurity or have elevated/reviewed the organisation’s cybersecurity insurance.
“The increased focus on resilience and cybersecurity awareness among finance leaders is a very welcome development. With threat levels on the rise, and the volume and severity of cyberattacks increasing, CFOs understand that these incidents represent significant financial and operational risks for businesses. CFOs must play a lead role in building their organisations’ resilience and enhance their cybersecurity controls and practices to mitigate these risks,” said Carol Murphy, Consulting Partner and Head of Technology Risk at EY Ireland.
Slow progress on tax reforms: According to our survey, 45% of the respondents claim not to have taken any action in relation to organisational readiness to deal with the requirements relating to the OECD Pillar 2 proposals. With the changes required from 1 January 2024, there’s a need for organisations to accelerate their evaluation and planning for two reasons – to assess any Day 1 impact (including whether “transitional safe-harbours” apply) and to consider how they will meet these new reporting and compliance obligations.
“With close to half of the organisations having not yet taken any action in relation to OECD BEPS Pillar 2 ahead of the 1 January 2024 implementation date, we suspect a lot of heavy lifting by organisations through the second half of the year to be ready for the changes,” said Peadar Andrews, Tax Partner at EY Ireland.
Need to dial up ESG, non-financial reporting
The ESG agenda still hasn’t moved from obligation to opportunity.
ESG and non-financial reporting have fallen down the agenda since last year’s survey. Only 6% of the respondents say increasing the sophistication of non-financial reporting is one of the top strategic areas of focus over the next five years, down from 15% in 2022. And just 10% see opportunities in sustainability and decarbonisation as a priority for driving growth in the year ahead.
These findings need to be seen in the context of the timing of the two surveys. The 2022 survey took place before the Russian invasion of Ukraine at a time when the world was emerging from COVID-19 and there was a decidedly optimistic view of economic prospects along with a growing focus on the need to tackle the climate emergency.
Conditions in early 2023 could hardly be more different. Spiralling energy costs, inflation at levels not seen for decades, rising interest rates, and continuing geopolitical volatility are combining to focus minds on more immediate survival and growth concerns for businesses.
The overall results point to ESG still being perceived as a compliance and regulatory issue rather than an opportunity with 43% of the respondents saying sustainability regulatory compliance is a key area of focus for the next two years, while just 2% say non-financial and ESG reporting will be a key area of focus for the next 24 months.
There will also be financial implications. Organisations raising finance are having to answer questions in relation to sustainability performance and social impact from banks, private equity houses and other potential investors. It is, therefore, imperative to make ESG/non-financial reporting an integral part of the organisation’s core strategy.
There was also a degree of discordance in the findings. As noted earlier, 54% of the respondents claim their role now includes a greater focus on ESG and non-financial reporting. And yet, building skills in non-financial/ESG reporting was identified by just 15% of financial leaders as a priority for the next five years.
On the other hand, 60% described their non-financial/ESG performance monitoring and reporting capability as basic or not mature, therefore suggesting a need to upgrade skills in the area.
Rating of non-financial/ESG performance monitoring and reporting capability
How mature do you rate your non-financial/ESG performance monitoring and reporting capability? Using a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is not mature at all, 3 is a basic level, 7 is established and 10 is market leading. You can pick any number of the scale
There is slightly better news in relation to the overall direction of travel on non-financial reporting. 44% claim they have increased the sophistication of non-financial reporting in the past year. But 56% either did not or simply don’t know if their organisation has increased the sophistication of non-financial reporting in the past year.
There was a nearly even split in terms of the methods employed to increase reporting sophistication. While 29% claim to have invested in specialists in-house to do so, 30% have engaged external expertise in the form of independent consultants or specialist advisory firms.
Barriers to ESG reporting: Lack of endorsement from leadership and lack of expertise/experience within the team is cited as key barriers to more effective ESG reporting at an organisational level. 30% of the finance leaders surveyed say it is not seen as a priority by the leadership.
Barriers to undertaking effective ESG reporting
What do you see as the barriers to your organisation undertaking effective ESG/non-financial reporting?
The ESG agenda cannot be divorced from the broader needs of the business.
Business’s ESG credentials and sustainability performance will become key competitive differentiators in the near term. Indeed, their impact is already being felt in certain sectors.
Recommendations for future focused CFOs:
- Be aware of ESG ecosystem: CFOs in Ireland need to be mindful of the environment in which they operate, which includes the ecosystem not just in Ireland but the wider ecosystem of the European Union as well.
- Ramp up ESG resource allocation: Organisations will need to provide more resources to their finance teams to enable them to meet rapidly increasing requirements in ESG/non-financial reporting.
Amid rising cost pressures and mounting geopolitical tension, finance leaders in Ireland remain resolutely upbeat when it comes to the outlook for growth in both their own businesses and the wider economy. The EY Ireland CFO Survey 2023 reveals that while the CFO is emerging as a critical business partner in the organisation, there’s a need for them to take strategic action in the area of ESG and non-financial reporting. It is fundamental for the future focused CFO to straddle the responsibilities of sustainability and finance.
About the survey
Research for the EY Ireland CFO Survey 2023 was carried out during February 2023. 151 people working in financial roles across a broad spectrum of firms responded to the survey. The sectors covered for the survey were broadly representative of Irish business generally and included professional services, manufacturing, retail, construction, healthcare, education, and wholesale. Respondents included CFOs, financial controllers, managing directors, finance directors, operations directors, and business owners.
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- Ranging from manufacturing, professional services, retail, construction to healthcare
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