Last March 2019, The Ortus Club brought together 21 CFOs and senior finance leaders from prominent companies in Singapore to discuss, debate and theorise on the effect of innovation in the finance function, specifically discussing how the deluge of data is changing their roles and how they are adapting to these changes. The discussion was held at Artemis Grill and Sky Lounge on March 12, 2019. Chatham house rules were followed so while we are unable to assign specific quotes to the guests. Present at the discussion was:
- Christoph Pestinger, CFO of DHL eCommerce
- Frank Stevenaar, CFO & Co-founder of GoBear.com
- Grace Lim, CFO of KK Women’s & Children’s Hospital
- Julien Bera, CFO of Norbreeze Group
- Ken Ajinkya, CFO of Rolls-Royce Marine
- Len Wee, CFO of Moneymax Financial Services
- Mabel Choo, Financial Controller of X-press Feeders
- Mark Van Rooijen, CFO SEA of Randstad Singapore
- Mike Gilfellon, Chief Administrative Officer (CFO & COO) of ING Bank
- Odine Steemers, CFO and Director of Simitri Group International
- Rajesh Shroff, Head of Finance of Adani Global
- Rakesh Malani, CFO of Carousell
- Richard Lai, Group CFO of Singapore Post
- Rongjie Lim, CFO of Elitez
- Ruben Stappers, CFO of Zalora Group
- Stephane Thierry, Regional CFO and Director of Global Trading Company of Decathlon
- Victoria Yong, CFO of SK Jewellery
- Vivek Sharma, CFO & COO of Phronesis Partners
- Wai Peng Low, CFO of Wildlife Reserves Singapore (Wilmar International)
- Wenqi Chen, Head of Finance & Accounting of China Construction
- Zichen James Qiu, Head of Finance/ Regional CFO – SEA/Japan/Israel of eBay
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“DOING MORE WITH LESS THROUGH INNOVATION”
Joanne Flinn, the moderator of the night, jump-started the conversation by asking what innovations the guests have personally witnessed within their respective roles. The majority of the participants expressed that they have indeed experienced innovation within their roles, however, the degree to which the roles have changed often varied — some said it was a gradual change while others agreed that this change is taking place rapidly. Those from ‘digital born’ companies expressed witnessing the least amount of transformation within their role.
The conversation continued as CFOs shared their transformation journeys and some of the key innovations that have taken place. Some of the participants agreed they felt pushed to innovate in the hopes of reducing operational costs, but at the same time improving and ensuring efficiency in their services. The following article is a short summary of the three key discussion points discussed throughout the night.
- Data as a Driver of Change
- Changing Role of the CFO
- Adding value through data
Data as a Driver of Change
It was agreed that data has become more and more critical in any role but specifically with the finance function. This in turn has brought about the increasing importance of technology that can manage large data sets. But executives expressed that it hasn’t been easy for them to interpret, implement and to use these new technologies intelligently. One said, “With all the systems and programs present today, it is easy to say that data can easily be gathered but for the most part, it is about how these pieces of information are used. These must be interpreted and valued well in order to make the right decisions to drive business towards its goals.” This is why many CFOs have transitioned to acquiring new technologies that supplement and improve operations within their company. Some even admitted that data has become a driver of change, opening up new business models that are adjunct to these technologies and innovations. Examples of these include artificial intelligence and machine learning automation.
Changing Role of the CFO
The biggest factor contributing to the change in the CFO’s function is the growth of data. This then demanded a rapid adaptation to innovation, especially for more mature companies. As one participant said during the dinner, “In a way, we were threatened by born-digital companies hence, we were driven to implement end to end digital transformations across the whole value chain to be at par with our competitors.” Another added, “A lot of people doing the traditional leg work in our company were replaced with programs that could do the same tasks but with much more efficiency.” The participants then agreed that it was then vital to re-educate and retrain their teams to be able to adapt to these digital practices. Automation greatly contributed to the improvement of operations within a company, later causing a shift from CFO to COO roles, as some said.
‘The power of data and the possibilities it presents’ was an obvious factor in the evolution of the CFO’s role. But apart from this, increased expectations from the board and expanded control and compliance issues also played a part. One shared, “These factors cannot be dislodged from one another because any good board will always think of government compliance first and foremost. Hence, it is our responsibility to comply and at the same time, meet the expectations of the board.”
Many have also said that their role as CFO broadened in such a way that even customer experience, which was not traditionally a CFO role, became part of their scope of responsibility. When asked by our moderator Joanne if this was true, CFOs from retail companies responded with a resounding “yes.” One of them reiterated, “It has become vital to understand not only numbers but more importantly, what customers want and later, expected to drive actions to improve customer satisfaction.”
Although it is true that different organizations and spaces mean different experiences in the shift of CFO roles, one thought remained consistent among all CFOs: it is that their role isn’t just financial anymore. It’s also helping the rest of the business to make decisions in many different aspects. One shared, “Because of this, CFOs have no leeway in anything that happens. Whatever it is, it is and will always be our responsibility.”
Adding value through data
It is important to find reasons behind all the data that have been accumulated over the years. With all these technologies, the role isn’t merely adding or subtracting but interpreting and adding value to these data to make right and sound decisions. A CFO even humorously said, “Students who aspire to be CFOs must not study to be accountants anymore because technology in the future will be able to those tasks. The role isn’t just about numbers.”
CFOs want their business controllers to question the status quo and decide what can be done differently. The role is to make sure they know how to be compliant and to be able to distinguish evident changes. One continued to say, “the function isn’t small anymore, it has actually become a bottom line enabler.”
With this, CFOs are looking into implementing more key technologies to aid in end-to-end processes, from service to billing. When asked by Joanne what processes they are looking to automate, an executive said, “We are definitely looking into automating functions such as volume/working capital forecasting, fraud detection, billing, reporting and bank reconciliation.” Joanne affirmed this statement and added, “It is important, therefore, to hire the right people to operate these programs, put value in data and in turn, contribute in the attainment of the company’s goals and targets.” This allows employees to spend less time on things that could be done in a quicker way.
After the formal discussion came to a close, our guest continued the discussion amongst smaller groups over the main course and dessert. All in all, an interesting and thought-provoking discussion was held with guests sharing their best practices and experiences amongst the group. It was concluded particularly well by one guest who put it to the table, “Although the finance function has gone through an unmountable change in the last 10 years, the next 10 years will certainly bring an even greater pace of change. AI and machine automation will be sure to play a huge factor in this development and I for one can’t wait to see what’s next.”
We will be continuing the discussion at our next meeting which will be taking place in Malaysia on May 8th and in Singapore on May 30th. If you are keen to attend and become a member of the group, please apply to attend on the groups landing page here.
Alternately, if you have a particular topic you would like to see discussed. Please let us know through the form here.
Interesting quote from a guest: “CFOs need to be able to paint the picture of how the journey should look like, how it should be faced and how problems should be solved.”