As the balance shifts towards the CFO as business partner with strategic skills, are we in danger of losing sight of the needs of many Asian businesses, asks Cesar Bacani
This article was first published in the October 2016 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
All hail the Strategic CFO. Give it up for the Analytics CFO. Emulate the CFO who walks the factory floor and prioritises partnering with others in the business, rather than being the Doctor No in the company.
Reading the literature and listening to finance transformation consultants, one gets the impression that the finance professional who has a laser focus on, well, finance is somehow an inferior species. It seems to me that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.
I was reminded of this in reading EY’s new report, Do You Define Your CFO Role? Or Does It Define You?, which examined the three domains of the CFO role: finance, operations and strategy. ‘Many CFOs will have a natural inclination toward one or another of these areas,’ EY notes, ‘depending on the skill set, experience, relationships and personal interest.’ To this I would add the needs and circumstances of the company, the development stage of the industry and the wider economy, and the letter and practice of the market’s regulatory frameworks.
We sometimes forget that not all of Asia is Hong Kong or Singapore, two financial centres whose stage of economic development and business ethos are closer to Australia, the UK and the US than, say, to China, India or Myanmar. Across the region, there are many more companies that prefer and require CFOs to focus on finance, rather than on operations and strategy.
As examples, I can think of enterprises preparing for an initial public offering; family-owned firms tightly controlled by the founders; banks and other financial services organisations dealing with evolving regulations; and mining and trading entities that require constant capital-raising. As EY says, CEOs and boards may ring-fence functions ‘so the CFO focuses exclusively on core finance responsibilities.’
Even some large conglomerates in the more developed economies may opt for this approach. ‘Chief strategy officers may limit the opportunities or need for CFOs to move into strategy, and chief operating officers may lighten the CFO’s operating responsibilities,’ notes the report.
The finance domain, of course, is much more than just accounting, compliance and reporting. In modern business, it also includes corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions, financial risk management and investor relations. The ‘traditional CFO’, in this sense, has moved on from bean-counting (which is becoming a commoditised service function with automation technology, shared services and third-party outsourcing) to the higher reaches of the finance domain.
What are the attributes of these ‘new’ traditional CFOs? EY sums them up as having a ‘firm grasp of finance fundamentals, from treasury to audit, deal-structuring expertise, close handle on risks and controls, and confidence to act as the public face of the company on financial performance.’
I would add: a commitment to ethical behaviour nurtured by the discipline of the accounting profession. A traditional CFO focused on the finance domain would, by definition, hold a professional qualification – and be bound by the professional body’s code of conduct.
It is true that more and more companies in Asia are asking the CFO to be involved in operations and strategy, to generate insights from financial and non-financial data, partner with operations, advise on strategy and generally leverage on their expertise to partner with the C-suite.
But there will always be a place for the skilled and experienced specialist whose interest and inclination lie squarely in the finance domain.
Cesar Bacani is editor-in-chief of CFO Innovation
"What are the attributes of these ‘new’ traditional CFOs? EY sums them up as having a “firm grasp of finance fundamentals, from treasury to audit, deal-structuring expertise, close handle on risks and controls, and confidence to act as the public face of the company on financial performance”."