5 Minutes With…Neil Perrins, CFO at CHP Housing

2nd July 2024
Ashley Crich

In our latest 5 minutes with, Ashley Crich, Associate Partner in our Finance Practice, caught up with Neil Perrins. Neil is Chief Financial Officer at CHP Housing and talks with Ashley about his route to CFO, the evolving role of the finance leader, as well as the skills and experiences required for the role.


  1. Can you start with sharing a little about the detail of the organisation you are the CFO of?

I work for CHP who are a social housing provider in the UK. We operate in Essex providing approximately 12,000 homes across the area. Our customers are mostly those who can’t access housing on the open market, so housing for those in need of help, whether to rent or to buy through Shared Ownership.


  1. The role of the finance leader has changed dramatically over the years. From your experience, where have you seen the greatest changes and why?

In my 20+ years of being in finance it has changed dramatically. The need to be commercial, including in a charitable and socially purposed organisation, is huge. The CFO needs to have that ability to connect across the organisation and understand what is going on, as well as having the skills to influence peers, the board, and the broader business. I think that having those traits as a CFO, not just to use your technical experience, but to understand and influence the direction of the business, is imperative.

Sometimes leading on activities of transformation and change to drive both financial and operational outcomes is important. Historically, the CFO role focused more on the production of traditional reporting and metrics. Now, they can influence and are expected to use this information to credibly drive improved business performance through leading change.


  1. What new areas do you see on the horizon for the CFO? Is it ESG or other types of governance? I’m mindful Health and Safety can land at the CFO’s door in social housing, but is there anything new you see coming?

In my current role it is very concentrated on finance. I look after the Finance department and the Procurement department. That’s a very traditional CFO role. I think for me it is critical for finance to partner other areas. So, depending on organisational size, you may not have everything by definition under your own direct leadership but having the ability to work with specialists, for example the CIO or the HR leader, is important. In previous roles, where my direct responsibility has been broader, the role becomes more about leadership than that of being the lead subject expert.

I think where the CFO role continues to evolve is becoming the ever-increasing go-to on projects and leading transformation. The CFO has a great vantage to cross-functionally understand the business and the external environment, which always helps in driving transformation.


  1. The career route to CFO is something I’ve discussed with finance professionals many times over the years. Progression has typically centred around the completion of a skills matrix, whether that’s technical accounting, planning, partnering, strategy, investor management, potentially corporate finance, and maybe even international experience, as well as building a track record of tangible delivery and leadership. But do you think the route’s changing? And are there new core skills and experiences that need to be had to be that CFO of the future?

When reflecting on my own career, I’ve missed some of those direct experiences out, but in turn picked them up by managing a wider team.  I think therefore in some ways I’ve been fortunate in experiences that have arisen to support me reaching a CFO position.  I’ve had exposure from an early stage of investor management and corporate finance. While I didn’t directly work in them in my TfL days, I was closely working with those teams, having opportunities to meeting credit rating agencies for example. Now in a CFO role, it’s myself leading that.

In terms of new, I think we touched on this a little bit earlier, the partnering agenda. In the UK the finance space has sought to transition from management accountants to business partners. I’m not sure we’ve always done that well as a profession. It’s not communication, but rather engagement.  Building relationships and being able to show how you can understand and add value is essential. Also, hearts and minds; I think regardless of whether you’re working in a socially purposed or private sector business, knowing your purpose, what motivates you, and being honest about that will allow you to connect and influence far beyond the finance leader of old.


  1. What’s your view on Ai’s impact on the accounting function and broader financial leadership?

I’ve always been a fan of ‘modern stuff’ and understand the excitement that comes with it. With AI, while there’s clearly a lot of attention on it, it’s probably still at a very early stage to be fully trusted by all stakeholders. Over time we’ll see this evolve and become mature. I think there is a comparison to autonomous vehicles used in public transport.  Most of the technologies have been there for a long time (over 20 years on the Central Line in London for example), but right now we as a society still want a human driving a train, because we don’t trust automation enough yet.

That maturity comes with context. For AI to be able to frame context is very hard still. I think Microsoft copilot will be very powerful, that is something our organisation is exploring. We’ve got some exciting pilots going on encouraging employees to see how they can use things like copilot to make their lives easier. We will be assessing the risk along the way. I think you’ll see the use of AI solidify over the next 3-5 years and it will become a core process, an extra tool in business.


  1. The professional accountancy qualifications we have, are they fit for the future?

I’m a fellow of CIMA, and recently, I returned to university to pursue an MBA at Warwick Business School. This experience introduced me to new topics and pushed me to think beyond the confines of finance. I believe this is the direction in which finance qualifications need to evolve. Whether it’s CIMA or other professional qualifications, there needs to be ongoing reflection on the best ways to adapt and grow.

The CIMA case study approach I completed was challenging at the time but has broadly stood the test of time. It integrated various pillars and technical aspects of business applications. To stay relevant, we need to find ways to build on such interdisciplinary approaches.

Moreover, soft and behavioural skills have become increasingly important, especially in a post-COVID world where flexible working arrangements are common. It’s not just about handling tasks electronically; we must also develop the ability to influence others, whether in person or remotely. I think it is crucial for professional qualifications to continue evolving to address these challenges.


  1. From your experience, what is the landscape of DE and I, so diversity, equity and inclusion, look like within the finance function. And are there any strategies, initiatives or things that you’ve either observed or implemented yourself to implement the diversity agenda? Do you think it’s moving forward?

That’s a really important and powerful question. As an older white male, I’m acutely aware of my position and privilege. I’ve been fortunate to work in large organisations that have focused programs, support groups, and network groups aimed at promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). It’s crucial to ensure that recruitment processes are designed to be non-discriminatory and actively support and enable diverse talent. Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to build and evolve teams. I’m proud to say that in my management and leadership roles, my teams composition have reflected well the diversity of the areas in which we operate. Achieving equality and inclusion within small teams can be challenging, but it’s essential to strive for it.

Despite progress, there’s still a long way to go in many areas. In senior finance roles, there’s often a noticeable male predominance.  Currently, I have one male and one female as my Finance team direct reports, with my Head of Procurement also being female. This balance resulted from recent changes, but it highlights the ongoing need to support and promote gender diversity.

It’s important for leaders to continuously contribute to and reflect on DEI initiatives, championing and driving change as allies. Supporting the development of diverse talent through coaching and mentoring is vital. I recall a significant moment from my time at Transport for London (TfL) about 10 years ago. As someone who started as a graduate trainee and grew within the organisation, I had the opportunity to host a new graduate trainee.  This trainee was in awe of my journey, but for me, it was a normal and the right thing to do in using my experiences to support their development.

I take pride in helping people from all backgrounds overcome challenges and bring their unique perspectives to our work. As a leader in finance, it’s essential to invest time in others and strive for a truly representative and inclusive environment. Achieving genuine diversity, equity, and inclusion requires a holistic approach and a commitment to ongoing focus.


  1. What would you say to a younger you. Two pieces of advice to the next generation of aspiring finance leaders.

The first piece of advice I’d give is about networking. It’s something I used to dislike personally, but my perspective has changed over time. As a natural introvert, I’ve had to push myself to feel more comfortable with networking. While I still might avoid large group settings, I’ve learned the value of connecting with colleagues across the sector and beyond. Even if you’re uncomfortable with traditional networking, building relationships with your peers and others can be incredibly beneficial. You’ll be surprised by how much support and advice you can receive from people who are willing to share their experiences and insights. This has been invaluable to me as I’ve progressed in my career.

The second piece of advice is to seize opportunities for continuous learning and development. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to participate in projects beyond traditional finance roles, which has been crucial for my growth. Understanding the operational side of a business and getting involved in change and transformation projects can provide invaluable experience. It’s important to put yourself out there and take on new challenges, as this helps build leadership and influencing skills.

Additionally, don’t stop at your initial qualifications. Reflect on what further learning could benefit your career. Whether it’s a specific finance-related qualification, such as a treasury certification, or more diverse experiences like the MBA program I mentioned earlier, continuous development is key. Engaging with a diverse global group of professionals like I had during my two years at Warwick Business School completing the MBA can offer new perspectives and enhance your career growth.

In summary, build and utilise your network, find mentors and coaches, and always seek opportunities to learn and grow beyond the traditional scope of finance. This approach will help you develop into a well-rounded finance leader.

This interview was conducted by Ashley Crich, Partner in our Financial Leadership Practice. If you are looking to progress your career within this sector, please contact Ashley. 

Categories: Finance, Regeneration Place & Social Housing