Plugdin Interview: Neil Miller CFO: “Building Sustainable Value”

Plugdin Interview: Neil Miller CFO: “Building Sustainable Value”

Neil Miller, most recently chief financial officer at Freshwave, talks about creating a unique proposition in the technology and telecommunications sector and the role of the CFO in a PE-backed high growth business.

London-headquartered Freshwave was founded in 2019 on the back of a series of acquisitions by American asset manager DigitalBridge. 

The company specialises in providing connectivity infrastructure-as-a-service, acting as a neutral host and systems integrator to deliver mobile and wireless access for customers such as property owners and venue operators. 

Neil Miller joined Freshwave as CFO shortly after its formation in 2020, following a career working with some of the biggest names in the telecommunications business, from Orange and T-Mobile to EE and BT. 

Here he shares his experiences while there and views on the industry. 

Can you tell us about your journey in the mobile telecoms industry and how that led you to Freshwave?

I’m a chartered accountant—I trained over 25 years ago. Since then I have worked in senior finance roles for major telecommunications companies that went through a lot of change and delivered good, profitable growth. 

I was involved with the creation of MBNL in the UK, and I was a senior finance director for EE delivering large technology investment and subscriber growth for a business function turning over a billion pounds. 
We were bought by BT, and I stayed with the group for a while, but I was keen to go back to smaller businesses. There’s quick access to capital, to build value, and I wanted to use my experience in a new technology business - which is why I moved to smaller PE-backed technology businesses around five years ago. 

What have been your biggest challenges scaling up the business and how did you tackle a period of high growth and change?  

Scaling up presents several challenges including managing growth, integrating and maturing, and delivering new technology roadmaps. As CFO, have a solution mindset, work in an agile pragmatic, collaborative way, and build confidence from the outset to establish strong relationships with the C-suite, board, and PE shareholders. 

To build confidence I clarified expectations early on and laid out objectives with a clear timetable, keeping all stakeholders updated on progress both formally and informally, nurturing both formal and informal relationships. 

My initial priority was to deliver and agree on a single annual group management plan in terms of growth & financials and align the management team and shareholders around those targets. 

The company was also going through its first audit, and I needed to re-energise the process. With BDO support on the accounting side, we got the first group audit through - indeed our group financial controller came to Freshwave from BDO.

We approached and targeted a business to acquire that first spring. It was a typical asset carve-out, taking part of a business and bringing it into the group. We concluded on that at the end of April of that first year.

Integrating an acquired business to increase market reach smoothly can be challenging. Different systems, data, cultures, and economics are all likely to need addressing, redefining, and integrating in a new group.

Can you tell us about any hurdles you faced in growing the finance team and how you balanced that with the other needs of the business?

When I joined there was a small finance team in place mainly from the legacy technology businesses, so I had to determine at an early stage which skills to build in-house and where to use professional firms.    

Building a highly-skilled, in-house, tech-savvy team that communicates effectively and aligns with the company's ethos is crucial. I believe the greatest value is realised when the finance team operates agilely, fostering extensive business collaboration and overseeing a broad range of responsibilities, such as commercial pricing, CTO partnerships, procurement, supply chain, corporate and group financial management. 

When building the team, it's important to adopt a forward-looking approach, anticipating the needs 12-24 months in advance and developing capabilities accordingly. This process will take time as you find and nurture the right talent. Consider recruiting individuals from various industries to broaden the team's perspective and introduce fresh ideas. 

For technical support and finance operations, it's essential to collaborate with 'best fit' firms that can offer the most effective support and truly understand the business, including its maturity and scale – this is where BDO stepped in. 

We were in lockdown, to add the icing on the cake. I hired a team and only met some of them physically several months afterwards. When we bought the business, all of that was online, using Teams. It was a journey I’ll never forget. 

With the finance team you need to continually use a forward lens - what does this business need going forward? And you need to be collaborative and agile.

What advice would you give other founders about strengthening the business for Private Equity investment?

The founders, whether they are selling or buying, need to be able to communicate and evidence a top-to-bottom understanding of the business with confidence and conviction. What are the market opportunities, financials, growth projections?

You’ve also got to keep building relationships with your investors and your industry stakeholders, and know the economics that people are now looking at. The stage your business is at will be important for people to understand. 

You need to show some history, and it becomes an easier story to tell if you have good-quality historical earnings and cashflow.  

With the continued pressure of data and reporting, how have you leveraged AI to support you, and do you have any advice about choosing the right technology?

While at Freshwave we used AI for example to mine the contracts database for contracts coming up for renewal, the monthly recurring revenue and new contracts coming in. 

When you start out with AI, you need to understand what economics the business needs to know. It’s maybe not just growth—is it customer satisfaction, service, churn? What is it that will effectively protect and grow sustainable value over time? 

You then use that to define the systems you are going to put in place—not the other way round, which is often the case. You’ve got to be able to use the data before it’s automated in an intelligent way. The data needs to be relevant. 

What do you think the skills of a chief value officer (CVO) are and how have they helped you in your CFO roles?

There are three elements to being a value officer. You’ve got to be a bit of a strategist, constantly assessing the risk and profitability of the company and its activities. 

In terms of financing, you’re buying in financial resource to maximise the value of the business. You should be helping transform the commercial and business assets. 

And you’re also a controller, delivering earnings sustainably, underpinning ESG commitments or leading them, and driving efficiencies. You’re building trust and helping scale a business, trying to get it to its full potential. 

All of that is about value, and that’s why it’s super exciting. 

As CFOs evolve into CVOs, embedding sustainability and environmental responsibility is becoming an important part of the role, how do you embrace this?

I’ve come across ESG more in the last 12 months—DigitalBridge’s team is passionate about it. 

We kicked off a programme at Freshwave—I was a sponsor and obviously supported the reporting. The main thing about ESG is it needs to be appropriate and tailored to your size of business, because you’re trying to grow. 

What I do know is that when I talked to banks or we were bidding for public sector contracts, you’re much better positioned for faster growth, you’re more resilient and you’re likely to generate better returns for investors if you’re taking ESG seriously.