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FM talks to the chief financial officer of International SOS, India about his career

How did you start out in finance?
I became interested in a career in management accounting after studying for a commerce degree and then a Masters degree at the University of Bangalore.

Before that, I was always more interested in mathematics at school than the science streams. At university I undertook a couple of professional qualifications, including one from the Institute of Cost Accountants of India.

This was to ensure that I was able to use the qualifications to enhance my career prospects. My first job was as an executive trainee in costing and accounting for a cashew nut exporter in Chennai. I spent two years there, in which time I was promoted to assistant manager. I then moved to Amalgamations Group, one of India’s largest light engineering companies.

I worked in the flagship company of Amco Batteries in the nickel cadmium battery division as an assistant manager and ended up as finance head of the arm in 1999, six years later.

How did you develop your career?
The following year I moved to Africa to work at Uganda Pharmaceuticals, a division of the House of Dawda Group that the conglomerate bought out of government ownership in 1996.

I started as a finance manager. Within a year, the company offered me the role of general manager of commercial, production and finance. I became involved in procurement – travelling to Kenya, China and India to negotiate with suppliers, as well as overseeing the production activities at the pharmaceutical formulation unit and the core function of finance.

I began the CIMA qualification in 2000 to develop my business career. After completing the my exams in 2003, I moved to Canada to further improve my career prospects.

This was partly because there were limited options in Uganda and because it was also relatively easy to get immigrant status to live in Canada because of the multiple professional qualifications that I obtained. I started work at the Royal Bank of Canada, involved in the reporting process in the insurance division – a position that had been outsourced.

In hindsight, I realised that the role was a basic version of what I had been doing in India 15 years earlier. I made a decision to look at new horizons, partly because my children were finding it difficult to acclimatise to the harsh Canadian winter.

What is International SOS and how did you become involved with the company?
The company was launched in Jakarta, Indonesia as AEA International with 15 employees and is now known as International SOS (www.internationalsos.com). It is the world’s leading medical and security services company, operating from more than 700 sites in 70 countries with 10,000 employees, led by 1,100 physicians and 200 security specialists.

Our global services include medical and risk planning, preventative programmes, in-country expertise and emergency response for travellers, expatriates and their dependents of more than 70 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies.

I started work in International SOS’s Nigerian office, covering West African countries such as Ghana and Equatorial Guinea.

I arrived here after initially considering developing my career in the growing services and oil and gas industry in the region. International SOS provided me with the opportunity to use my pharmaceutical experience in Uganda and post graduation, where I was involved in a costing project for the pharmaceutical industry (Karnataka Antibiotics and Pharmaceuticals, Bangalore, India).

How has your career developed within the organisation?
In 2008 I moved to the Asia region and to the regional headquarters in Singapore. The group has two international headquarters – one in London and the other in Singapore.

The role was that of regional financial controller in charge of projects such as implanting GAAP accounting and process control.

During this time, I was tasked to take up a three-month assignment to one of the Asian countries, which resulted in me becoming the CFO of the country’s office for a year.

This was because the division was running continuous losses in previous years and required attention. I had to dig deep to find the reasons behind the issue.

There were many strategy decisions that had to be taken along the way, including setting right the processes and controls, which resulted in turning around the operation within a year.

In January 2010, I accepted the position of chief financial officer of the Indian operation after the CFO quit the role the previous year. I moved my family to Delhi and I have remained in the role ever since.

What are the key aspects of your job?
Knowing different cultures and sentiments, working with cross-sections of people, and understanding and delivering everyone’s expectations are the keys to success, and it is most satisfying when you are rewarded by people having a good attitude towards you.

One aspires to climb the ladder and achieve and improve in an organisation, but seldom do people think about people around them.

I like the slogan of my company, which is “Worldwide reach, human touch” or just saying “Touching lives every day”.

What are your biggest achievements in your career?
Several stand out for me. While working for the Amalgamations Group I was responsible for reducing costs by six per cent and enhancing gross margins by four per cent in battery manufacturing.

While working for House of Dawda, I delivered a leading major benchmarking assessment, reducing supply chain costs through better negotiations and throughput procurements, thus reducing operating costs by eight per cent in the pharmaceutical formulation unit.

In Nigeria, I was chosen as Critical Professional for International SOS. In Singapore, again in International SOS, I was responsible for delivering a specific KPI called contractual invoicing timing, which was key to improving the billing of corporate members who pay for their services up front.

For a company that is not equity-leveraged, this KPI is vital to ensure shortening of the working capital cycle and the ploughing back of cash profits into the business.

How has the CIMA qualification helped you in your career?
One of the best things about the CIMA qualification is that it has helped me take the knowledge I acquired in areas such as cost accounting and management accounting to the next level.

It has given me the confidence to work with other areas of the organisation, such as sales and marketing, operations, services and human resources.

CIMA is an international qualification and to achieve the status of ACMA provides a great sense of fulfilment and achievement. The recognition of the CIMA qualification internationally makes the membership status known instantly.

My wife, Latha, who has a Masters degree in commerce herself, has been a constant source of inspiration for me. She supported me throughout my studies for the qualification. Now that I am a CIMA member, she will always remind her friends and other family members that perseverance will work and one should be patient in acquiring such qualifications.

Family and friends look upon me as someone who is both professional and has gained an international rank, and thus often come to me for advice and help.

How do you see CPD as being of value to you in keeping your qualification relevant to the constantly changing business environment?
When I was studying towards CIMA, I wrote an internal paper that emphasised that the skills gained while acquiring a qualification should not be unduly wasted by not continuously developing them.

Today, institutions have CPD to ensure that members are continuously abreast of situations or nurturing professional developmental skills.

It is imperative for all CIMA and future members to undergo CPD programmes every year. In today’s world, it is important to constantly challenge different sections and functions in order to achieve cost efficiency, higher productivity and improved effectiveness, all adding to the bottom line.

To be able to attend CPD events and other sessions run by CIMA is satisfying for me as a CIMA member, and I often look forward to such events.

What advice would you give CIMA students/members considering working in or building a career in a global organisation?
The CIMA qualification is a powerful tool for building a career. But even if one has the qualification on board, that individual still needs to have a good sense of the career direction they are seeking.

They need to see where they can go and where they can use the knowledge they have acquired so far. As their career develops they will find they are increasingly part of a management team looking to “put the boxes together” i.e. bring strong skill sets together.

Ambitious management accountants need to realise that although they have been identified as important leaders of the future, it may not happen immediately. When I started in India I was just another accountant in terms of what I was trying to do.

Once I started the CIMA qualification I was able to focus on how one can impact the strategy by using the acquired knowledge in order to provide support to management.

The result has been a career in which I have been able to work around the world, seeing how different cultures respond to the various local challenges. It has also taught me how to communicate effectively, which is vital in a senior finance role in a global organisation.

Photograph: Amit Dey

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