Shaping Sensible Strategies for Financial Management

By Dhiraj Cherian, CFO, Panasonic Automotive

Dhiraj Cherian, CFO, Panasonic Automotive

During the last decade, we have undergone a whirlwind of finance transformation through technology. The revisions in general accounting rules and an explosion of industry reporting obligations, and enhanced analytics needed to support our growth in new markets, necessitated Finance to keep up with, and ahead of, the change curve. We focused on driving major upgrades in systematizing data aggregation methods, to gather trend intelligence that allowed us to better chart our strategic direction.

"CFOs are no longer just accountable for compliance. We are stewards of enterprise performance"

To drive profitability and cash flow, we help fund innovation and derive value from these investments, mitigate commercial risk, improve the supply chain finances and terms, and manage customer payments. There is more data needed than what is available for management decision-making.  We delve deep into operations and leverage this information to make both quantitative and qualitative decisions. Today, many companies utilize some form of enterprise resource planning solutions to arm the CFO with the operational data; while some may use all integrated modules in their entirety, and many do not. Budget constraints, lack of key resources to drive process stream ownership and the immature state of change management make the effort akin to “changing tires on a speeding truck”.

Evolution of the CFO role

The time when a CFO with a CPA pedigree and limited to financial gate keeping is long behind us. Our management peers and the Board expect us to partner in running the business and delivering on its success. Of course, we must maintain strong accounting compliance, but it is important to step up our ownership to a fuller range of the company’s operations. As CFO, I need to understand our engineering and technology, manufacturing and position in the market, as I would regulatory requirements.

While the CEO visualizes company strategy, the CFO partners to give the vision structure and help implement it. Moreover, management depends on the CFO to validate their ideas and evaluate the financial risks that might result from such directions. After all, a business plan requires an assessment of potential return on investment and the associated financial risks over a span of five to ten years.

Global Expansion and its Challenges

When it comes to global ventures into new markets, there are many challenges in terms of risk index, regulations, currencies, time zones, business culture, and language. Therefore, companies need to have a well-thought out strategy to establish themselves in the local markets. Intellectual property protection and tax laws like BEPs that may influence competitive advantage, profit margins and compliance efforts. Businesses need to navigate through hurdles that include import and export restrictions, emerging technology infrastructure and regulations. Some years back, I led our entry into Myanmar as one of the first U.S. companies to enter the country after the embargo was lifted. I had to overcome many hurdles that included getting government clearances, licensing and setting up the company, hiring and funding (cross-border banking was not mature), all the while ensuring that we complied with rapidly evolving regulations. While setting up the company in a new location, the CFO’s role extends beyond finances and accounting. We often are the face of the company to the government and ministries, regulators, and customers.

Leveraging Shared Services

To build and actively right size the finance team depending on the evolving business need is a challenge. Even in urban markets, there tends to be a shortage of strong talent. Resourcing for cyclical or rapid growth businesses leads companies to rely on shared services. Traditionally,our shared services were limited to transactional services that did little beyond helping us achieve efficiencies, but we have moved towards more value-chain analytics that allow us to drive effective decision-making and operations. Every employee and process, the market, and our customers,generate impactful data that the financial officer should incorporate in strategy models to increase business effectiveness and minimize risks.

Businesses do not all function like clockwork, especially where market behavior is somewhat unpredictable. CFOs must embrace ambiguity — need to see around corners, to proactively adapt to these deviations and make quick, informed decisions. I personally chose to embed my finance teams with operations (both virtual and on-site) to leverage real-time financial intelligence on the floor and help drive actions within the business. Our technology advantage and shared services remain key support tools to our finance strategy.

We are well down the path of digital shared services to smoothen our base capacity fluctuations, with more of our processes and analytics being digitized and automated. We are starting to understand blockchain technology and the benefits it brings, to speed up and validate tremendous volumes of accounting transactions. I expect it will to help us minimize physical data retention, lower transactional costs and ease audit requirements. And so, I keep learning and applying to stay ahead of the technology curve.