Relationship Matters: The Global CFO and the Regional Finance Chief

It’s rare to find the global CFO and the regional CFO together in one place, so CFO Innovation jumped at the chance to chat with California-based Keith Taylor and Singapore-based Ong Wee Gee (pictured above, left, with some of his Asia finance team members) when both were recently in Shanghai.

How is the working relationship between Asia and US headquarters? “Wee Gee tells me on a very regular basis what I’m doing wrong,” said a half-joking Taylor, who is CFO of data-center operator Equinix.  

“It’s kind of different between how I deal with Keith and how he deals with me, versus how I deal with my staff,” said Ong, Vice President for Finance and Administration Asia Pacific at the same company. “I definitely have a different style between how I work with my Japanese team versus how I work with my Australian team.”

Taylor and Ong spoke to CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani about sustaining a good working relationship between the region and headquarters, the changing expectations of the finance function, cultural differences and other issues. Edited excerpts:

Keith, what are the expectations that you as global CFO have of the finance team in Asia led by Wee Gee?

Taylor: As you think about financial departments today in a global environment, the one thing historically is that 70% of the work is devoted to just accumulating data and 30% to analyzing it.

We’re trying to flip that on its head and say: We want the data to be delivered to the financial executive as seamlessly and quickly as possible, so that 30% of the time is only about gathering the data and 70% is really about analyzing the data. That’s where you can provide greater insights to the business.

Quite frankly, I don’t care how an invoice gets paid; I just care that it gets paid. I do care how business decisions are made.

So that’s where we want Wee Gee and the other regional CFOs to spend all the rest of their energy. Not the day-to-day stuff, the transactional stuff. We want the business insight work to be at a higher level.

But you cannot do this if you have to worry about the quality and completeness of the data, to begin with. Is this one reason why you are spending US$50 million in a global ERP and on one common instance of Oracle Financials?

Taylor: Absolutely. If everybody does it the same way, you don’t have to worry about reconciliations. You don’t have to worry about where the data came from.

Wee Gee, how confident are you that you and your team can actually meet these expectations by headquarters?

Ong: The systems implementation [global ERP and Oracle Financials] will not happen overnight. We have been working on it for the last one, probably two years, to make sure that people are aligned with the vision and the mission of the global finance organization.

There will be a rollout in the July-August timeframe. But there will probably be issues that will have to be fixed when the system goes live. We do have resources aligned to make sure that, if there are issues, they will be resolved.

Will you need to reconfigure the finance department, maybe recruit new people, retrain some in the team, and let go of others?

Ong: There are already people who are doing the accounting role, people who are doing transactional activities in Shared Services, and people who are doing the FP&A roles.

A lot of this is to clearly define what are the roles and responsibilities of each of these departments, and at the same time providing a better tool, a better system for everyone to be able to do their work more efficiently.

This is where the whole system implementation comes in. It’s making sure that once we have the closing data, we have the tools that we can use for analysis, for reporting, for charting and so on. Having this whole integrated system will help achieving that 70% [on data analysis] a lot easier.

That’s the technical side. What about the cultural and the personal aspects? How do you optimize the professional and personal relationship between Asia and global headquarters?

Taylor: If you take it from the highest level, part of it is understanding the structure of an organization.

Whether we like it or not, Equinix happens to be a public reporting US company. And because of that, our employees are required to appreciate or at least understand the environment that we have to report from a financial perspective.

So it’s always going to be important to hire people who have the appropriate level of experience, and are also confident and comfortable working in a multi-language, multi-currency, multi-system oriented environment. They have to deliver at a high level, recognizing that we are a global company, and we’re all shooting for one common goal.

It’s really about the hiring. I’ve been very fortunate to have a guy like Wee Gee work for me. He has done a great job in executing the business strategy across the region consistent with my expectations. That same relationship holds true with my other two regions.

But I can tell you, when you hire the wrong person, and we have made mistakes in hiring the wrong person, it’s very disruptive. First and foremost, it is really about the quality of the individuals and hiring consistent with your expectations.

I think it’s really also about messaging and communication. It’s tough to work across time zones. When you think about the Australian time zone to California, or Singapore time zone to California, where you’re dealing with 15 or 17 hours of time differential, you have to have an environment where you can be adaptive and the teams are always communicating.

You have to recognize that some people might be sleeping when other people are working. It’s having a strong communication and cadence in the environment to allow for job well done by everybody.

So when you have a conference call sometimes it’s you who has to work late, sometimes it’s the Asia team?

Taylor: Unfortunately Wee Gee will probably say he has to work late more often than the rest of us. And I do appreciate that.

What we’re trying to do is we try and move meetings around so we can accommodate [the different time zones]. We alternate between morning and night time meetings, so we can pick up Asia or we can pick up Europe. 

But we also recognize that Wee Gee can’t be in all the meetings because he will never be sleeping. Because of that, we make sure that minutes of the minutes are taken and are shared with Wee Gee if he’s not present.

Likewise the same would hold true if we have a late afternoon meeting in California, where the European CFO would not be available. We would make sure that she gets the minutes of the meeting and the discussion.

And then we have good one-on-one communications. We don’t have to be speaking all the time, but when we talk, we talk about the things that are important.

We have global company meetings, we have regional meetings. We’re always communicating with our quarterly finance meetings.

I’m here [in Asia] with Wee Gee a lot of times, and Wee Gee, a lot of the time, would be in the US. We make sure that occasionally we do travel to the locations, because there’s nothing better than sitting down with your colleagues, working side by side on a face-to-face basis versus doing it  over a telephone or through a video conference.

When you talk of communications, is English a prerequisite? Some MNCs in China have given up on getting English speakers because there are so few of them. They’re hiring Mandarin speakers as part of the finance team.

Ong: Let me take that one. I think language is one of the important factors. But don’t forget that there are other competencies that we need to look at, depending on the role. It also depends on the market.

In China, we probably would not be expecting someone who is very proficient and fluent in English. But from a communication perspective, at least basic English is required. That person needs to know at least [the basics of] the language because obviously all the documentation will be in English.

At the same time, local knowledge is important. For example in China, the local taxation is really complicated. You need competencies in closing the books, competency in FP&A, the analytical kind of competencies that is important for an FP&A person.

How important is Keith’s physical presence here in Asia?

Ong: We sit down together for a two-day meeting with Keith and with our direct reports. We do this three, sometimes four times a year, just to make sure there’s a two-way communication flow.

We don’t just listen to direction from headquarters. We make sure that at the same time they understand regional issues, regional challenges, regional strategies. That two-way communication flow is very important for all of us to do our job.

How do you handle the different working styles and different mindsets between Asians and Americans, for example? Americans expect people to be assertive and just say things that need to be said, whereas Asians tend to be more comfortable in the background and don’t necessarily want to stand out.

Taylor: Clearly there are some cultural differences between the North American team and the European and the Asian colleagues. But overall we encourage everybody to participate. We tend to be an organization that’s really about the team. As best as possible, we try and maintain the team culture, where everybody has a voice.

But you have to allow for individuality. Sometimes that voice doesn’t mean that you’ll speak publicly. The voice will come up indirectly through relationships.

Wee Gee tells me on a very regular basis what I’m doing wrong. Part of it is my style, that I’m very comfortable with him telling me how wrong I am. Part of it is recognizing that I don’t always make all the right decisions.

And so anytime you can rely on your team to help you make a better decision, that’s good for the organization. My ego is comfortable enough and I allow for that. In fact, I encourage it. 

Wee Gee, what about the way you relate to your own staff?  

Ong: It’s kind of different between how I deal with Keith and how he deals with me versus how I deal with my staff. Being in Asia, I understand a lot more in terms of the different culture in a different market, in a different country.

I definitely have a different style between how I work with my Japanese team versus how I work with my Australian team. Those are the two extremes, dealing with Japanese team versus dealing with the Australian team.

In Japan, I have to be more subtle to gain their trust and for them to gain my trust. In Australia, we talk in a more direct manner. But at the end of the day, it’s how we get the things done. I think we just have to make sure we adapt to different environments. We still get things done.

The important thing is to make sure we communicate our objective, our targets, our expectations clearly, with our team members. Once they understand what is the objective, what are the targets, what are the expectations from myself, from Keith, things would just flow naturally.

US companies seem to be getting stricter about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). How does that impact the working relationship in Asia?

Ong: Equinix as a company has been very strict on FCPA areas for the past 10-over years that Equinix has been around. At the same time there is continuous training for all employees from the legal team, from the FCPA team, to make sure that there is a certain process that you have to go through, when you do certain meal allowances or certain corporate deals.

At the same time, it’s very important that we have messages from the top, from our CEO to our CFO to the COO to the regional president. We all want to do what is right for the company and definitely FCPA is an important part of that.  

I have heard that some US companies have banned the practice of gifting mooncakes in China. Local staff say, however, that this is not a violation of the FCPA, that the company is giving the recipient face by honoring the tradition of mooncake-giving. Are there similar situations that you have to deal with in Asia?

Ong: Equinix has a pretty well-defined process and procedures to address this.

It depends on the local environment. I have seen in some of the CFO roundtables, the challenges of some of the companies having to do this are increasing. But for our company, and I look at this from a local environment perspective, it depends on what is the occasion, on what is the purpose, on which level you do it and so on.

The most important thing is to make sure that there’s a proper channel of reporting what we do, that there’s a proper channel for documenting and getting support for what we do. If people are not clear on what they can or cannot do, it is important that there subject matter experts that they can reach out to, to help them understand better whether it is okay to do in this market.

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