Being an integration CFO requires the ability to see the big picture while juggling a multitude of time-critical tasks, as Sumathi Mohnani FCCA knows only too well
This article was first published in the September 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Integrating a newly acquired business into a giant like IBM is not a job for the faint-hearted, according to Sumathi Mohnani FCCA, whose 20-year career at IBM has seen her become global integration CFO for just such a subsidiary, Sanovi Technologies, which IBM purchased in 2016.
Headquartered in Bangalore and with offices in the US and Dubai, Sanovi is a provider of real-time data recovery systems. Mohnani’s current role is to integrate Sanovi’s operations into the global management framework of IBM, migrating employees, business partners, customers and suppliers so that business can be conducted through the parent company’s processes, systems and tools from an agreed transfer date in the future.
Of course, all of this must take place alongside the day-to-day transactions of Sanovi until the transfer. As part of the exercise, current processes may need to be amended or strengthened to ensure that no compliance-related issues arise from being a subsidiary of IBM which is a global, public limited company.
A major part of Mohnani’s role is to juggle the priorities of various stakeholders in relation to project timelines, company resources and the capabilities of team members. ‘This requires making decisions on the optimal way forward by evaluating risk versus desired objectives,’ Mohnani explains. ‘You have to leverage the cultural diversity of the teams without losing out on the advantages of more agile operations often found in smaller companies, and also take ownership for closure of actions that impact the overall integration.’
In doing this, Mohnani must work within the project plans laid out by the process owners in IBM during the various stages of the acquisition. ‘Every acquisition has timelines for the activities, the key ones being transaction close date, transfer of employment and transfer of business,’ she says. ‘Within these dates, each function has to outline what the integration activities are that need to be completed and the target dates for completion.’
This also involves making changes to some of the established working procedures at Sanovi, as employees are made aware of IBM’s organisation structure and operating practices. Employees also need to familiarise themselves with IBM’s systems and tools, not to mention its thousands of standard acronyms. To facilitate this, training and enablement sessions are conducted to jump start their career in IBM, and they have access to the parent company’s vast repository of information across multiple streams such as sales tools, marketing insights, HR policies and finance processes.
‘The challenges in this role are to do with mapping the rate and pace of a very mature, global player like IBM, which operates in more than 170 countries, with that of an agile, time-versus-results-oriented entity that is not so heavily focused on internal and external compliance,’ Mohnani says. ‘I also have to maintain an objective view of the desired outcome, and work collaboratively with local and global teams.’
Meanwhile, Mohnani must simultaneously track and report the actual performance versus the approved business case for the acquisition, comparing the financial results with targeted revenues, profitability, growth and timelines. At the same time she must ensure that there are no compliance-related problems from statutory and legal angles that might expose IBM as the parent company.
In achieving these goals, Mohnani can call on support from IBM global team members from all work streams, including the finance management team, corporate development teams, other integration CFOs and legal, technical and subject matter experts.
Born in Bangalore, Mohnani moved as a child to Jamaica in the West Indies, after her father, a doctor, was posted there. After graduating from the University of the West Indies, she completed her ACCA training and joined PwC as an audit trainee in the capital, Kingston.
On her return to India in 1987, Mohnani worked with an Indian small-scale entrepreneur to establish management systems to enable it to survive within a largely disorganised sector. After a spell with Esanda Finanz, a car financing subsidiary of ANZ Grindlays Bank, she moved to IBM as a business controls professional in July 1997. In two decades with the company, she has fulfilled a number of financial and management roles, and has found her ACCA training a useful asset. ‘When I moved back to India, I had no problem in reskilling myself because the skills I had acquired through ACCA were equally applicable here, especially working for a multinational corporation,’ she says.
She admires IBM’s ‘vision to lead in developing technical solutions for its customers, its core values around client success, innovations and ethics, and its overall brand image across the globe’ and also praises its approach to nurturing talent: ‘Opportunities for personal growth and development are not restricted by the core function you started in. You are encouraged to pursue roles that challenge and stretch your capabilities, both within your core function or laterally across the corporation.’
In her time at IBM, Mohnani has also handled programme-oriented roles in finance, setting up a global delivery centre for pre-sales; strategy for the sales transaction support organisation; and managed teams across multiple countries and time zones. Each of these roles built on the skills she had already acquired, she says: ‘You complement your abilities and you also upscale yourself.’
To succeed in big corporations, the finance team must become trusted business advisers, she believes. ‘To be able to do this, you need to understand the business itself – the product or the service that you are selling, the ecosystem it operates in, the challenges and risks from continuously changing markets and operating models.’
Business leaders, Mohnani says, are relying increasingly on finance professionals to help them make bold commercial decisions, such as how to gain new business, optimise available resources and mitigate emerging risks. ‘Leaders are looking for insights that will help in sound decision making, enable innovative solutions, and strike the right balance between increased productivity and costs.’
In today’s competitive Asia Pacific business environment, home-grown Indian organisations like Sanovi need to stay ahead of the game. Bangalore is the hub of India’s IT industry and attracts large numbers of foreign companies. Mohnani notes that the city has faced stiff competition from other cities with strong English speaking skills, such as Manila in the Philippines, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Even so, India still has significant advantages over its rivals, such as a thriving entrepreneurial culture, strong investor confidence, a young workforce, business-friendly government initiatives and growing regulatory engagement, Mohnani believes. ‘Corporate governance has also been improving. As more and more global companies have set up offices in India, the corporate culture has become more aligned with the West,’ she says.
The growing number of foreign companies based in India has also changed India’s job market. Finding the right candidate for a job, however, is not easy, she says, with many young people emerging from the Indian education system lacking employable skills. ‘Access to a vast array of information should not be mistaken for ability to do the job. Candidates need to be able to apply their knowledge,’ she says.
Her advice to young finance professionals today is to broaden their abilities. As well as excelling in their core technical area, they should constantly upgrade the skills which are relevant in the marketplace. They also need to have confidence and make good judgment calls. ‘There is rarely, if ever, complete information available that covers all eventualities,’ she says. ‘You are working with a data-versus-time situation. A professional should know how to make decisions with limited available data so as to keep moving in the right direction.’
Mohnani also observes that women in business still face a tougher time than men. She recalls an occasion when an applicant for a finance role in IBM reluctantly answered her questions because he assumed she was the assistant screening the candidate prior to the interview with a male manager. But things are changing. ‘Now it is just about you, how far you want to go, how aggressively you want to pursue your career and what sacrifices you are willing to make.’
Raghavendra Verma, journalist
"Every acquisition has timelines, the key ones being transaction close date, transfer of employment and transfer of business"