Much has been written in recent years about how the finance function has undergone significant change over the past decade. Technology such as AI, big data, and the cloud have had a tremendous impact, helping to automate many traditional book keeping tasks and provide more timely, accurate forecasting.
In light of these changes, the role of finance leaders has evolved towards that of a strategic partner to the CEO. They are now expected to drive growth and work closely with other departments, taking a greater role in tasks such as cybersecurity and data governance that would previously have been assumed to be held by other functions. We spoke to six experts in the field from some of the biggest companies in the world to get their insight into how the finance function was changing and what they were doing to cope.
Jan Gooze-Zijl, CFO and COO at UKTV:
The role of the finance function in general - and the CFO, in particular - has changed tremendously over the last decade and in a positive, enriching way. Where the CFO’s role was often seen as limited to scorekeeping, budgeting, and corporate governance / risk management, nowadays a successful CFO will play an increasingly important role in these areas too:
- Strategy development – building a framework that enables the leadership team to allocate resources towards investments that deliver long-term value, and ensure that the financial plans are fully aligned with the strategic story
- Performance management – instead of relying only on backward-looking financial metrics, focus on key performance indicators that are based on and support the achievement of the business strategy
- Partnership with the rest of the organization – build close relationships in order both to understand better the operational challenges the business faces and to encourage the business unit leaders proactively to seek out the CFO’s advice on building value
As the custodian of the whole P&L the CFO should be focusing not just on cost but also on revenue – in the medium to long term value creation can only come from building the topline as well as the bottom line so the modern CFO should have a keen eye on both.
Zekeriya Bildik, Industrial Controller of Ferrero:
The role of the Finance function has changed significantly over the last decade. Finance operations have increasingly been positioned as a 'strategic business partner' in all decision making processes, particularly since the financial crisis. Growing fast and getting market share without proper finance management is no longer an option for investors and lenders. They are concerned with the financial health of business and want to see the finance function involved in all decision making process in a company.
Uncertainty in social, political and economic aspects of life in today’s world are also increasingly important to finance, and the skills and qualifications required of finance staff are evolving. Traditional accounting skills have been replaced with creating new business models, forecasting, operative planning, and strategic planning.
Jesse Y Yao, Former CFO of the Sauces and Frozen Business Unit at Kraft Heinz:
From my experience - specifically in packaged food - we are facing a paradigm shift into a low growth environment. Unable to rely on a top line for growth, companies must manage costs effectively. Combined with the age of big data, finance has changed to an entity that can use data to step into the business and make informed decisions to drive growth.
Michael Kaplan, Former VP of Finance at Activision:
The finance function has become much more than the traditional reporting and accounting role that we were all familiar with a decade ago. Leading global businesses now recognize the finance function as a strategic partner that adds value to management by bringing analysis and a unique perspective to allocation of resources and long-term strategic decisions.
One of the main drivers for this has been that businesses are now reaping the benefits of investments in automation. This has freed up time and resources, allowing the finance function to focus on the areas of planning and analysis, rather than the classic accounting function of reporting and control.
Sam Hartwell, CFO at KickStart:
Ten or fifteen years ago, the finance function generally dealt with just that: finance. The CFO role was seen as mainly an inward- and backward-looking function that kept track of past company performance. Now, the CFO is expected to look after the business model and drive the business forward. Strategy and forecasting growth in new markets is a key component of the role. Meanwhile, with the increased demands from regulators and stakeholders, managing compliance and risk has risen on the CFO’s agenda in recent years, along with other forward-looking areas. The modern CFO also needs to be outward-facing - handling shareholder queries, liaising with the board and investors, and even speaking to the press for the company.
Ian Swanson, CFO at Delicato Family Vineyards:
The role of the CFO has changed significantly over the last 10 years and most companies view their finance operation as a 'strategic business partner,' involving the CFO in top-level decision-making as never before. After 2008 and the financial crisis, CFOs were given strategy and crisis management responsibilities that were new to many of them. The role of the CFO grew as a result in ways that have probably come to stay. In an economy in which access to credit can be challenging and the financial health of the business is of paramount concern, investors and lenders are increasingly looking to the CFO to be involved in important decisions the company is making.