It’s actually just been a bit more than a year, but it seems longer for Joon Teoh. The former Global Finance Controller and Head of Global Finance Shared Services at British American Tobacco resigned to set up her own consultancy, Malaysia-based AGOS Asia, in December 2015.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” says Teoh, who joined the UK multinational as an internal auditor in Malaysia way back in 2000. “I had to be brave and go against the concept of prudence taught to accountants, but with higher risks come the opportunity for higher rewards.”
The monetary rewards have yet to fully materialize, but Teo is unfazed. My training as a finance professional, in people and change management, definitely prepared me for this,” she says. “I’m putting it in practice every day.”
I want to help elevate Asian-based businesses and talent, using my experiences in multinationals to help them to be more effective, and the finance team to become a valued business partner
Teoh spoke to CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani about her career switch, advice for other finance professionals contemplating the same move, and other issues. Edited excerpts:
Why leave a high-paying job to set up on your own?
I wanted and needed a new challenge. I thrive on being in the discomfort zone because I firmly believe that when you are the most uncomfortable, that's when you learn the most. I do get bored rather quickly.
After spending 15-plus years in multinationals, I felt that I have enough under my belt to make a bigger impact outside.
I had been lucky to be exposed to roles such as finance director, controller, internal audit, regional finance, corporate finance, management accounting and, most recently, in helping my previous company set up, implement and bring its Shared Services footprint up the value curve.
There is a strong desire to pursue my own vision and agenda, having delivered the agenda of others for so many years. It's time to define and achieve my very own agenda.
I want to help elevate Asian-based businesses and talent, using my experiences in multinationals to help them to be more effective, and the finance team to become a valued business partner . . . It is very satisfying to see the ‘a-ha’ moments in my clients and the new level they are now operating in.
So are you making as much money today as when you were an employee of a multinational?
No, in the first year, not really. But I’m hopeful. It is wise to have a cash buffer for six months; if possible for one year. You will have something coming in during the first year – the question is how much.
Getting the first job is always the hardest. So far, we have done work for two global Shared Services organizations, one focusing on migration activities and the other on P2P [procure-to-pay] improvement activities.
And my team and I are really happy to be able to make a difference to two SMEs based in Malaysia in transforming their finance processes, strengthening controls, and upskilling their team.
What exactly do you mean when you said you help bring Shared Services “up the value curve”?
I refer specifically to financial shared services. You normally start with transactional activities, which is more procure-to-pay activities. That involves invoice payments and also T&E, banking and also some reconciliation work in terms of vendor reconciliation, banks, etc.
Then you move up the value curve by doing order-to-cash, where you start with billing and also put in the credit management capabilities. The Shared Services people will not just do the reminder of payments. They will also do analysis in terms of what is the credit history of the customer, and then they can propose the credit limit and also run credit committee meetings for the customer.
The third stage, which is currently explored by most Shared Services right now, is how to use your record-to-report function to do more management accounting analysis, budgeting and forecasting, treasury and tax management, cash flow forecasting, which all add value to the organization. These all require higher value accounting skills.
Shared Services would now have the most number of people, including the traditional roles like finance controller that normally fit in each of the markets. Now the finance controller is in Shared Services.
Our recommendation is that people take a professional accounting qualification to have the basic understanding in terms of what the analysis requires. And then we would add on to it the business part of analysis
Presumably you have experience in bringing up your previous employer’s Shared Services to this third stage?
Yes, that’s exactly what we did. We did an implementation of one SAP platform globally, allowing a business intelligence data warehouse to be incorporated. Along with that, we then looked at the organizational structure and how to build up the capability of the Shared Services team to maximize this technology.
Did robotic process automation (RPA) play a role in this transformation?
It wasn’t given such a high focus at that point. The RPA we were doing was specifically in e-invoicing and the scanning solution part of the invoices, inter-company reconciliation, and the possibility of automating the GL closing process.
On order-to-cash, the impact was more on the billing. Most of the other O2C activities still have to be done by people, because you require a lot of value judgment, especially in managing the credit part of it – analyzing the debtors’ reconciliation, aging analysis, etc.
Did the Shared Services organization let many people go?
With automation, you obviously don’t need that many people, but then what happened was that there was an upskilling program, where people were encouraged to be trained to do other things, to move up the curve . . . Most of them were actually retrained and upskilled.
Record-to-report focuses more on analysis. That means looking at the provisions account, expenses accounts, etc., and from there, at variance reporting, and then short term, medium term and long term cash forecasting as well.
There was recruitment from outside because of the higher number of record-to-report team members required. But we looked inside first to see who can do it, and they were given priority before outside recruitment.
What has been your experience with upskilling? Some people may not have the capability to upskill themselves.
It depends on whether the individual is open. Of course, attitude is No. 1. No. 2 is giving them the right training and development.
Our recommendation is that people take a professional accounting qualification to have the basic understanding in terms of what the analysis requires. And then we would add on to it the business part of analysis.
Shared Services people in Malaysia are pretty open. They’re always looking to upskill themselves. They know what value they can get, especially if the company is paying for all this training development.
Wouldn’t it be simpler to hire a ready-made record-to-report person?
In general, the demand is more than the supply. The industry turnover rate in Malaysia shared services is between 20% to 25%. Retention and recruitment is an issue for most people, so they try to train within.
From your experience with the clients that you’ve had, how long does the transformation take?
The minimum is six months to see benefits coming in, basically low-hanging fruits that have nothing to do with technology, but more with tweaking the processes and changing some behaviors. With the technology piece, it would take up to a year.
All in all, a huge dose of resilience and endurance is required to run your own company versus working for others. That is why I run marathons
Is running your own company very different and much more challenging than being a CFO of a corporation you do not own?
I do think it’s much more challenging than my FD days, because you have skin in the game now, completely. You are not just a business partner; you are the business itself.
You have to do everything from lead generation to business development to delivery of the work and all admin matters. And of course, managing the staff. It’s CEO plus CFO and everything else.
And you have to constantly prove yourself. In the past, you have the company brand name to rely on. If you want to raise capital, bankers will come to you. You are spoiled for choice as long as the budget can be justified.
In this role, it's the complete opposite. You need tons of patience and sharp navigation skills. All in all, a huge dose of resilience and endurance is required to run your own company versus working for others. That is why I run marathons.
If you can go back in time and do over how you set up AGOS and its initial few months, what would you do differently?
Probably invest my time better in the right potential client, not in those who went completely silent after you have submitted a proposal.
I would like to learn to manage my time better in carving out a best possible ratio for business development versus delivery work versus management. And I would like to have a mentor who can give me different perspectives in navigating this journey.
What advice would you have for CFOs who are considering following the same entrepreneurial path?
Be brave. Grab the bull by the horns and just do it. Don't overanalyze, otherwise you will never get started. Network and assess the landscape before you decide. Collaborate with a group of entrepreneurs who have complementary skills. It enlarges your service offerings
Take good care of yourself. Eat healthy and exercise because if you can't work, there goes the income. You can’t have MC [medical certificate] with your clients.
I hope to be able to help Asian-based businesses of a certain scale to do a complete finance transformation exercise, taking it from start to finish, clearly identifying and articulating the business benefits and tracking the benefits realized.
Another area of growth for AGOS will be in the training and development space. We would organize industry sharing, inviting practitioners, and even visits to other organization. AGOS is collaborating with ICAEW [Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales] and [Malaysian education provider] BFM-Edge in providing training in 2017, so stay tuned.