Professional Development: From CFO to VP of Sales

Graduate with a degree in accountancy from the National University of Singapore, check. Train with a Big Four accounting firm, check. Join the finance division of a multinational company, check. Work your way up to chief of finance in an MNC, check.
Everything is flowing smoothly, until a career-changing opportunity presents itself out of the blue. Do you jump at the chance to venture into unknown waters or do you stick with the familiar world of figures and reports?
The above briefly illustrates Jimmy Yam’s career path and the dilemma he faced when given the chance to take on a role outside of finance – namely, sales, with p&l responsibility. A member of the Institute of Singapore Chartered Accountants, he was a graduate trainee at KPMG and then held CFO and other senior finance posts at IBM, Pepsico and Dell before switching to sales.
“As a CFO, the only thing I could not control was revenue, and I found I wanted control of revenue too,” says Yam, who is now Vice President of Sales for Asia Pacific and Japan at NYSE-listed Emulex, which makes high-performance storage networking products.
Yam spoke to CFO Innovation’s Melissa Chua about this somewhat unusual career switch and the aspects involved with driving sales while armed with a finance background. Edited excerpts:
What circumstances led you to switch from finance to taking on a sales role?
I was responsible for Dell’s finance operations in Asia [in 1999] when my boss, the then VP for Asia, was assigned to China. There was a transition period of about four to six months, during which Dell hunted for my boss’s replacement.
Dell’s president of Asia Pacific asked me to stand in temporarily for my boss, so I was actually serving two roles, both as a finance person and a business person. During this transition, I had both finance and sales staff reporting to me.
It was supposed to be a short-term arrangement lasting about three months.
But you eventually ended up as managing director for South Asia.
I never thought the arrangement would be long-term. However, the quarter I was managing happened to be a very tough quarter for everyone in the region. Interestingly, I was the only one in Asia who made my numbers for the quarter. Back then, hitting targets was a big thing.
I found I enjoyed meeting with customers, especially senior level customers such as CIOs as I could communicate with them from a C-level perspective. Having a finance background helped as I could read into the p&l.  
A replacement for my boss was found after four or five months, but the president of Asia Pacific was quite impressed with the fact that I had made my numbers and proposed I run a business unit instead of returning to finance.
He offered to let me manage emerging markets in Asia – back then, Dell had a direct sales model in countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, but was looking to expand into countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan and India.
Was it a difficult decision to make, to leave finance for the business?
I didn’t jump at the opportunity immediately. I thought about it for about a week. I was contemplating going back to finance because it was more comfortable and I always thought I would work in finance throughout the course of my career.
However, I realized I had been in finance for some 15 years; and asked myself if I wanted to be doing the same thing for the next 15 years.
It was a mid-life and mid-career crisis of sorts. I realized that I found those four months of handling sales and p&l fairly interesting; I liked that I could manage p&l fully and not just in the capacity of a finance person.
As a CFO, the only thing I could not control was revenue, and I found I wanted control of revenue too.
That was when I told myself that I would only be the second person in the organization [as CFO], no matter how much I grew in finance. I decided to take up the challenge because I was given an opportunity that not many finance people would have, particularly after 15 years in the industry.
Tell us about your first days in the new job.
India was my first project for Dell. I flew to India every other week. Back then, Dell lacked presence in India and its biggest competitor was HP India. We were doing maybe 10% of what HP was doing in the country. It was not an easy market at all. I had only eight staff in India but HP had 200 or so.
It was stressful because of the sales quota, but we were achieving numbers like nobody’s business and even helped cover some of the shortfalls in other countries during the three years I was there.
My greatest achievement in India was convincing Dell Corporation in the United States to open a subsidiary in India. Having Michael Dell open the India office was probably the high point of my life – we started off with eight staff in India but today, Dell has over 20,000 staff there.
I also managed the Philippines and Indonesia, though I had country managers in those markets reporting to me. I had a p&l role for India and other countries for three years and also had the Asian insight sales team report to me.
Did you ever contemplate returning to finance?
Interestingly, many headhunters called me regarding available finance positions during the three years I had p&l roles in Dell. They would typically ask if I wanted to return to finance and I would reply ‘no’, I was happy with what I was doing.
My last position in Dell was Managing Director for South Asia before I took a year off work [in 2003] because I felt burnt out.
You still opted for a sales role when you returned, rather than finance.
Sales roles followed my return to the workforce – I was managing director for South Asia at NEC [in 2004] and general manager at EMC [in 2006] before joining Emulex [in 2010].
The headhunter calls for finance roles stopped after I joined NEC. I think they felt I would not return to finance from then on.
What is it about being a CFO that helped you when dealing with customers?
A finance background is always useful for anyone who runs a business. There are two important factors behind running a business: expense management and pricing. Managing expenses is very important and a finance person is trained to be more conservative, spending just enough.
When selling, pricing will always come into play, though it’s not simply about the lowest price winning the day. Customers need to realize at the end of the day that they have bought something of value from you.
My finance background enables me to think just how customers define value monetarily, be it in terms of productivity incentives from the government, tax deductions or whether they can manage their capital.
Everyone looks at cost, whether the customer is a CIO, CEO or CFO. I am able to talk to customers in a language they can understand. So the relationship extends beyond that of being a mere sales guy pushing a product.
Customers are willing to pay so long as they can justify the cost. I think a person trained in finance is better able to justify such costs than a pure sales person. I sometimes joke with my customers and find it interesting when they tell me they trust me more than pure sales people after hearing I’m a CPA.
A finance person would tend to take a very high moral ground when dealing with customers, no hanky-panky, everything is straightforward. You are trained to be the watchdog for the business so much that it becomes second nature.
Is your finance background also helping you manage your sales teams?
I can better advise on how to sell value to a customer and explain why it’s not just pricing that matters. I sometimes have to bring margins into play. I always tell the sales guys that it is margins, not sales, that pay their salary.
My finance background has also helped me to be quick with numbers, so my sales team is careful when they present figures to me. In the same vein, my finance background also helps when I present reports to my boss.
What advice would you have for finance professionals who may be interested in switching to a sales role or to run the business?
The first thing you need to understand is your own personality. Ask yourself what you are good at and where you see yourself in the future. Honestly, not everyone can do business or sales; it is not for introverts.
In the past, people used to think that every finance person was content to stay in the backroom doing his or her job, but there are actually plenty of extroverts in finance these days.
Ask yourself if you want to be stuck in the backroom or if you would like to run the business. Do you like to go out talking to people? If you are of that personality, then you should take a shot at it.
It is critical that you first gain credibility as a finance person before going out to do sales or run the business. People will respect you more because you have credibility. I don’t think those who are unhappy with the job and turn to sales will succeed if they haven’t attained credibility as finance professionals.

The point is to do a good job of what you are doing today and move towards sales if it calls to you. If you can’t run the business as a finance person, how can you run the business as a sales person?  

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