Nicole Burstow reflects on five years with DSW

DSW Capital’s departing CFO and Deputy CEO discusses the key milestones during her five years with the business and the changes within the professional services sector.

What achievements do you feel most proud of and why?

The admission to AIM of DSW Capital plc in December 2021 was my biggest achievement and provided a platform to accelerate the growth of the network. At the time, I was 39 and one of the youngest female CFOs of an AIM-listed company.

When I joined the business in 2019, James Dow (DSW’s CEO) had the vision to float, and my role was to oversee the transformation of the business in preparation for the IPO. Despite scepticism from some quarters, our resolve remained steadfast. Because it was a small raise, it made it even harder. We were told it would have been easier to raise £50m than £5m. We were one of the last IPOs to get away in 2021 before the market effectively closed in 2022.

The IPO not only elevated the Dow Schofield Watts brand but has also expanded our client base, benefiting both our existing licensees and attracting potential ones. Within the first three years, we doubled revenue and increased headcount by 65%.

I am also really proud of the team. They have been an unwavering source of support, and seeing their progression and achievements has been really rewarding.

What was the biggest challenge you faced, and how did you overcome it?

Navigating stakeholder dynamics within an AIM-listed company creates many challenges and requires an understanding of diverse priorities and communication strategies. From investors, analysts and the Board to new Partners and team members, each stakeholder group needs tailored engagement to manage their expectations. In my capacity as an Executive Director, these experiences have increased my fiduciary responsibilities and learnings, which will set me in good stead for my next role.

Could you share some memorable moments or projects?

The acquisitions we undertook represented a significant departure from our previous strategy and led to a step change in the business. For the first – the acquisition of Camlee in 2019 – we had to raise debt finance and present it to funders. The fact that they bought into our model was a robust test ahead of our IPO.

Another noteworthy achievement was building a recruitment team and strategy from the ground up. We had outsourced recruitment, but we brought it in-house and devised structured campaigns to attract both individuals and teams, which was critical to our growth.

Looking back on your career, what lessons have you learned?

There has been plenty of resilience building – I’ve had to learn to persevere and embrace change. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to have invaluable support from exceptional sponsors, an experience I’m committed to paying forward by offering guidance and mentorship to colleagues and mentees.

One of the challenges I faced was not having enough role models who were balancing career and family life in the way I wanted to. I wanted to have time with my children but I didn’t believe that this should hamper my ambitions to progress in my career. I’ve always wanted to do things my way, and I’ve learned to push against the grain. I’ve taken time off after each of my three children and still managed to progress my career.

The biggest learning in my personal journey is to have the confidence to take on new opportunities, focusing on the reasons I can do something rather than the risk that I might fail. This has really allowed me to accelerate my development and progress, particularly in the most recent part of my career. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

What are your reflections on how the professional services sector is changing?

The landscape is undergoing significant transformation. There are the same pressures as when I joined DSW in 2019, with the ‘big four’ firms under scrutiny from regulators. Although they have spun off parts of their business, there are still regulatory challenges with the independence of their advisory teams. At the same time, in the mid-market, there is a huge wave of consolidation now taking place as private-equity-backed vehicles buy up smaller firms, driven by the inevitability that AI is about to transform how traditional accounting services are delivered. Now, there are fewer new equity partners at the big firms, which means it will be less attractive to some people.

Our market intel is that younger candidates don’t want to work long hours and are more focused on values, purpose and ESG. This will drive change from the bottom up. Greater focus on these areas will be critical if firms are to attract quality graduates and will result in greater diversity.

The sector is more fragmented now with more players, which can only be good for competition. There is still lots of room for new businesses or business models, which will continue to drive opportunities for DSW as it aims to be the most sought-after destination for ambitious professionals to start and develop their own businesses.

Thank you, Nicole, for all your dedicated work over the past five years, and we wish you all the best in your career.