Golden Lessons From Two Decades in Finance

It sounds incredible, but Andrew Tan once had reservations about the implementation of a corporate card management system in the Asian operations of Visa Inc., the global payments technology company that has developed just such a system.
He changed his mind five years ago, when Visa became a listed global company – it used to operate as individual associations with their own financial controls and systems – and the opportunity to implement a global corporate card system presented itself.
“It was difficult not to embrace it,” explains Tan, Visa’s Global Finance Executive for Asia Pacific, Central Europe, Middle East and Africa, who has been with the company for 24 years. 
“Imagine accessibility, at a finger-tip, to a comprehensive information system which offers visibility of all travel related claims and small-ticket spending, across 45 geographies, by transactions for compliance review, by category of expenditure for cost management or by market summary for forecast purposes.”
Singapore-based Tan engaged in an e-mail interview with CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani about the lessons he’s learned in two decades with Visa, including financial planning and forecasting, business partnering and talent management. Excerpts:
Tell us a bit about what you do as Global Finance Executive at Visa.
I’ve spent 24 years in Visa so you could say Visa makes up a large part of my professional life.
I am currently responsible for leading the Finance function in the Asia Pacific, Central Europe, Middle East and Africa (APCEMEA) geographies, with responsibilities for effective financial planning, forecasting and management of the company’s profit-and-loss margins (P&L).
I also provide leadership on pricing and discounts as well as partnering across the business to support the development of the country strategies and other new business initiatives.
Prior to that, I had direct responsibilities for all areas of finance as the head of finance, Asia Pacific. Early in my Visa career, I managed several strategic regional products in pricing, cost management, and budgeting as a senior finance manager.
That’s a massive remit. How do you manage to focus on the value-added aspects of the job and avoid getting bogged down by the transactional and compliance tasks? 
The primary focus of my 100-strong team is to support the sales force, with forecasting and strategy-setting playing a big part of our day-to-day process requirements.
But the wide geographical spread and the diverse jurisdictions we operate in does entail some comprehensive attention to regulatory compliances, statutory requirements and reporting matters. And of course, one can’t avoid the more functional aspects such as closing and reporting.
The 80 percent value-added/20 percent transactional rule remains a goal and a target we aspire to.

But as you say, the value-added non-transactional functions are the priority.

I would say that providing value-added services remains a priority in three broad areas: providing insight, partnering with the business, and helping formulate strategy.
  • Tracking performance, driving accountability and providing insightful business trends, data analytics and management information to support Sales in managing their business. Forecast revision and course correction, where needed, are natural outcomes of monthly/quarterly performance review, discussion and debate. Forecasting is like taking a picture of the future. If we don’t like it, we can change and re-take until we are satisfied. We then manage our business to deliver against the forecast. In this sense, the forecast document is probably the most important finance document we have.
  • Engaging and partnering with the sales function on a day-to-day basis in structuring, reviewing and approving business proposals to capture market opportunities. At times, for major proposals, we would participate in client negotiations. Working on and closing a deal is probably the best team-building exercise, in real time, for cross-functional teams.
  • Providing strategic thought partnership to business executives in formulating their business strategy and operating plans. We call out and quantify downside risks and upside potentials to alternative strategic options to drive better-informed decisions. This calls for insightful perspectives and thoughtful challenges that frame the way business people think about key opportunities/risks/issues and hopefully, leads to a more robust outcome. ​

Finance seems to work very closely with the sales team.

I believe in training our sales force, getting them familiar with finance processes and raising their financial acumen, so we are partners in the process, rather than working in silos.
While working the finance processes improves internal efficiency, raising their financial acumen is key for me. All our sales teams should be equipped with in-depth knowledge of quantifying opportunities in financial terms (revenue, NPV, breakeven, etc) beyond describing an opportunity as huge, which in itself is a relative term.
Understanding what makes good financial sense and being able to think and speak the financial language is one of the on-boarding courses for all new staff in Visa. 
Let’s talk about business partnering. Is this part of your remit at Visa?
For major business proposals, the Finance team will participate in the client negotiation process. Personally, I have been deeply involved in several big projects this year.
With respect to Visa product suites, we have our Product team specialists or subject matter experts to front them. I am happy to offer my experience, as a corporate or personal user, of Visa products, but I am always deemed as a non-independent testimonial. We tend to rely on more objective sources of corporate clients and users of our products.
What advice can you give to other finance leaders about how they, too, can play this role? Other CFOs have talked to me about the importance of soft skills, for example.
Yes, definitely, having good soft skills and winning respect and confidence of all colleagues, regardless of their position, are key elements to becoming a trusted advisor to all.
I would add a few other key callouts:
  • It’s always important to have a thoughtful point-of-view on every business issue, and over time, be viewed as someone with a valued opinion. It may be obvious but if one does not have an opinion, one cannot add value.
  • Accept that constructive tension and open debate with the business team is healthy and necessary for a robust well-informed decision.
  • Be respectful, recognizing that not every business manager is as numerate or analytical as you are. Bring to bear your analytical skills and strategic insight to complement any cross-functional team.Listen, listen and don’t forget to listen to the opinions/inputs/concerns of others  
  • Be an advocate and a champion, on the behalf of your business teams, in your internal process where you can lend credibility to their proposals/ideas. 

What about talent management? Are there differences in the way you approach this important task in Asia compared with Central Europe and Africa?

In terms of finance talent pools, Asia is much richer, diverse and well-supplemented with qualified expatriates, and therefore easier to recruit. CEMEA – Central Europe, Middle East and Africa – is a challenge where language can be an issue and local regulatory constraint can be a hindrance.
But surprisingly, South Africa is an exception where I don’t experience any difficulty in bringing on board very well-qualified professionals.
The average tenure of my team is about six years, which is quite respectable in a high growth region where new career opportunities are readily available, attractive and tempting.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learned in recruiting and managing talent over the years?
Besides some cultural differences, some talent management basics remain the same, regardless of where one works. A few observations from experience:
  • Recruitment error can be very costly and draining for both the executive and new hire. Don’t rush to offer despite workload overflow. Take the necessary amount of time to be sure of the right candidate; it will be a better investment of an executive’s time.
  • Despite careful and comprehensive evaluations, recruitment error does happen. And if it does, be sure to rectify quickly. Reluctance to execute a separation would only translate to poor quality output and ineffective use of management time.
  • Be open to recruit from other disciplines of specialization to inject diversity in your finance team. Not all Finance staff needs to be accounting-trained. Engineering-trained professionals can make very good financial planners as well.
  • Developing the team is a journey as the staff learns and grows with the organization. Role-rotation is one of the main vehicles in their journey with Visa, within the finance function, across geographies, hub and headquarters. Short-term overseas assignments and special ad hoc projects are other avenues we deploy to enrich the job and enhance the learning experience.
You’ve been with Visa for nearly a quarter of a century. How do you work towards promoting the same longevity in the company’s finance team?
Retaining a team can be a challenge given the vibrant job markets, particularly in Asia.
Building strong relationships with the team and offering competitive pay scale aside, I find staff are motivated and engaged when they can relate to their role to a purpose, be it the department objective or the corporate goal. They need to find meaning in what they do and see how they contribute to the organization. They want to value-add.
This may sound perfectly logical and basic, but it is not inherently obvious to a back-office function where the linkage is not as direct. We, as managers, need to help the team find that linkage and make it as strong and direct as possible.
To me, this is the one area I would invest my time reiterating the importance and value-add of each role or each piece of work they deliver. If I can’t find the linkage to value, I get rid of that piece of work or role.
I must admit I struggle with the challenge of work-life balance. It is as if this objective is not applicable to the finance team which seems destined to work long hours and late nights. But attempt we must!  

We encourage managerial discretion to grant days off or working from home, especially after late nights. We also encourage each staff to take a “compulsory” two-week uninterrupted leave.

During that two-week period, team colleagues are to cover their duties and not to interrupt their break. I recognize that setting the right tone at the top and leading by example is the way to go. So, I am determined to do it.    
I always ask the people I interview whether their company drinks their own champagne. In Visa’s case, how is the corporate card programme helping with financial management?
Every company aims to reduce costs, enhanced efficiency, improved visibility and enforced accountability. Reducing administrative paperwork and freeing up staff to focus on the real work is always a priority.
This can be achieved in several ways such as a corporate card or a purchasing card (P-Card). Visa has gone through the transformation from manual processes to a more automated one with the availability of more management information.  
I have had reservations about the implementation of a corporate card management system in the past. But as the technology matures and once we became a publicly-listed global organization, it became increasingly compelling in terms of better controls, visibility and efficiency.
Imagine accessibility, at a finger-tip, to a comprehensive information system which offers visibility of all travel related claims and small-ticket spending, across 45 geographies, by transactions for compliance review, by category of expenditure for cost management or by market summary for forecast purposes!  It was difficult not to embrace it.  In this sense, I am a convert.
Can you give concrete examples of these gains?
Examples of benefits Visa has achieved through implementing Visa Corporate Cards include:
  • Transparency: better ability to weed out spend at undesirable and un-authorized merchants.
  • Better visibility to enforce business-only expenditure on the cards
  • Improved productivity with the ease of use: with direct data feeds onto our expense management system, it is much easier for our employees to submit their claims on a timely basis which allow them to focus on value-added activities for the company.
  • Going Green: We also took the opportunity to do more for the environment when we incorporated data feeds into the expense management system, where we disabled the corporate card statements.
Employees see the benefits as well. They experience increased convenience at being able to manage claims easily. Employee satisfaction and security have also improved. There is no longer any need to use personal cards for business expenses or to carry large amounts of cash when traveling for business.
You also mentioned the use of Visa Purchasing Cards.
Examples of benefits we have achieved through adopting Visa Purchasing Cards in our procurement process include:  
  • Each time we replace a Purchase Order with a P-Card transaction or consolidate multiple payments across many vendors with a single payment on a P-Card statement, there are significant savings both in terms of time and money. In terms of time, we’ve managed to save about 12 business days and cost-wise, US$10 to US$50 per transaction.
  • It has become easier to administer compliance to Risk and Audit requirements.
  • Similar to the benefits of using a P-card, employees see increased convenience at being able to manage claims easily and improved employee satisfaction as they avoid the tedious process of having to raise PO for small-ticket purchases.
Photo credit: Shutterstock