Business Today

From CFO to CEO

The path is clear cut as more and more finance heads move beyond number-crunching to dictating strategy and becoming the point person for dealing with key stakeholders. Pics

twitter-logoAnand Adhikari | Print Edition: May 2, 2010

Finance honchos-at least during the mid-'90s-weren't exactly known for venturing out of the comfort of their bean-counting premises, nor did they appear keen to do so. So when chartered accountant Kewal Handa, who joined Pfizer in India in June 1990 as controller in MIS-Taxation, moved to head the pharma major's animal health division in December 1994, it was a bold step into the unknown. Quite literally, for Handa. On his first visit to a dairy on the outskirts of Mumbai, Handa fell into a ditch and found himself neck-deep in cow dung. "I soon learnt that there are different types of cows and cattle that give different quantities of milk," chuckles Handa, who has since learnt to watch his step when trudging through a dairy field.

PRAVEEN KADLE, Managing Director, Tata Capital since Sept. 2007.

  • CFO stint: Executive Director, Finance and Corporate Affairs at Tata Motors from Oct. '01 to Sept. '07.
  • High point as CFO: Part of the team that turned around the automobile major, which was reeling under huge losses after the entry into passenger cars.
  • Current mandate: To scale up the Tatas' financial services business.
  • "The CFO stint comes handy when you are a CEO because you are in a better position to understand the finances with an eye on creating shareholder value"
Handa was soon back in the function he knew best- and no it's not because of the dunk in the dung-when he took over as Finance Director in June 1996, a mandate he fulfilled till April 2005. The big break came soon after when he was promoted as Managing Director of the pharma giant's Indian operations-and became the first Indian in 60 years to head Pfizer in India. It's been quite a ride for Handa-something most CFOs aren't accustomed to, with most of them rising through the ranks of the finance ladder. "Most CFOs are not comfortable taking risks as by nature they are risk-averse," explains the 57-year-old. "It is up to the CFO to move away from his original domain to a different function whenever the opportunity comes," he adds.

Few CFOs would have had the opportunity for as adventurous a climb up the ladder as Handa's. But a quick glance across the corporate landscape would reveal that more and more CFOs today are gravitating to the CEO's corner room. Globally, there is no dearth of examples of CFOsturned-CEOs, right from PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi and Boeing's James Bell to Carrefour's José Luis Duran and Harley Davidson's James Ziemer. Back home, Vishakha Mulye, Keshav Murugesh, P.K. Mukherjee, D. Sundaram and Praveen Kadle and Handa are some of the CFO-elite who have moved beyond their core domain to assume overall charge.

According to a recent McKinsey study, "about a fifth of all CEOs in the UK and the US once served as a CFO. The number drops to between five and 10 per cent in European markets (for example, France and Germany) and in Asia, perhaps because many companies in those regions still have CFOs who are little more than controllers."

VISHAKHA MULYE, Managing Director & CEO, ICICI Venture Funds Management Co. since April 2009.

  • CFO stint: Between August 2005 and October 2007 at ICICI Bank.
  • High point as CFO: Mobilised billions of dollars for ICICI Bank.
  • Current mandate: Nurture companies across sectors and maximise returns for shareholders.
  • "The role of a CFO has undergone a change from its historical focus on accounting, auditing and regulation to being a partner for the CEO across all aspects of the business"
In a world just recovering from a colossal financial crisis, these controllers are increasingly finding themselves at the forefront of strategic decision-making. An understanding of the increasing complexity in regulation, the need for a higher level of communication with all stakeholders, and the increasing relevance of going international via acquisitions-for which capital has to be raised -are imperatives for survival and growth in today's rapidly-changing business environment.

The CFO today is best placed to deliver on all these counts. As Murugesh, who rose to become CEO from CFO at global IT services firm Syntel in 2009, and is now CEO, WNS Holdings, puts it: "Post-Lehman when risk issues and balance sheet deleveraging took centre stage, the situation was ripe for more CFOs to gain more prominence." Adds Mulye, Managing Director & CEO, ICICI Venture Funds Management Company: "The role of a CFO has undergone a change globally, as also in India, from its historical focus on accounting, auditing and regulation to being a partner for the CEO across all aspects of the business."

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