How this CA from a tier 2 city in India went on to become a CFO by unlearning and thinking beyond finance

 

  • Hi, I am Amit Nagpal, a Chartered Accountant and CFO, Hamstede Living, a Co-Living JV of Lemon Tree Hotels and Warburg Pincus.
  • At heart, I’m a simple Indore city boy (a tier-II city in India) that fate smiled on and nudged to become a CA, MBA, and Qualified Independent Director. (I have to mention I scored only 55% in grade 10 and still went on to clear CA in the first attempt!)
  • After qualifying as a CA, I moved to the city of dreams Mumbai only to return to Indore! Over the years I have worked in various profiles and finally thrived in the hospitality industry. 
  • Technology, a business driver mindset, and unlearning in times of continuous learning has helped me grow as a finance leader in multiple portfolio companies of private equity funds.
  • Here is my journey so far.

From 55% in 10th grade to CA in the first attempt

I am born in 1985 to a traditional joint (business) family in Indore, Madhya Pradesh (India).

I loved sports, cricket mainly, and my 10th score was 55%. Commerce was an obvious choice due to the eligibility criteria and the other was my mother – an accounts teacher in college!

Junior college onwards things changed and my performance soared – not cricket but academically. This growth must be credited to my mother, who coached me (could be called nagging) and helped in building my confidence.

Looking at my progress and building interest in Finance, she encouraged me to pursue CA from The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI).

She literally dreamed for me and believed in me before I did...and here started my CA journey.

(I considered myself to be an average student and CA was anyways perceived as a very difficult course, so  I would never opt to be a CA if not for my mother!)

Pursuing multiple courses with CA

By now the value of hard work to achieve success was instilled – I was on fire. While pursuing CA, I observed that only CA wasn’t enough so, along with my CA, I opted to do an MBA (it was a distant learning MBA).

(Don't judge me I was just 19 and all I wanted to do was excel in my career!)

My over-ambitious plan forced me to slog for the next 2.5 years. I would start my day at 7.30 am with CA coaching, then articles during the day, and evening MBA classes.

In midst of all this, I completed multiple certifications NCFM (NSE), Certified Financial Manager, IFRS, and Certified Financial Planner (FPSB).

To say the least, it was hectic!

Fortunately, it all paid off when in 2008 I cleared both my MBA and CA without any failures...this was a big achievement for a boy who scored only 55% in 10th class!

Looking back I feel proud of my efforts and achievements – honestly, mother knows best.

What next?

My first job in the city of dreams - Mumbai

During CA articles, I worked on audit assignments which were exciting but after a while, I knew Auditing is not for me. On the other hand, MBA assignments excited me long after the project was completed. 

So, after qualifying as a CA, I knew exactly what I wanteda consulting opportunity as opposed to core auditing and assurance. But my dismal 10th-grade marks came back to haunt me as many large companies referred to it as part of their criteria!

Thanks to this criterion I ended up with offers only from TCS and PwC – Global Capital Market Group. I preferred PwC as it offered an amazing job profile and it would be a great start to my career, best of all it would take me to BIG city Mumbai.

When I moved to Mumbai I was overwhelmed by the – people, environment, culture plus I was away from family. I didn’t realize that I had to compete and match professional expectations with the best.

Luckily, I’m a fast learner and within a quarter I got good clients to work for, the opportunity to write articles in a book published by PwC on IFRS Vs US GAAP Vs Indian GAAP.

Switching jobs early in my career 

After almost a year at PwC in Mumbai, I got an opportunity with EWDL (in the Real Estate / Mall business) in Indore, my home city! 

I jumped at this new offer and naively quit on a Big 4 Consulting Group to return to a Tier-II based Company; a decision based on the fact that I was homesick. 

Luckily, this abrupt move turned out to be a great decision as EWDL was among the top companies in the city and provided me with challenging opportunities.

I was climbing the learning curve with critical assignments – consolidation of 37 companies, working on draft red herring prospectus (IPO), drafting a business plan and started managing investor relations.

Lesson Learnt: Role must be a mix of core accounting and strategic planning (transaction, investor relation, etc.)

Tier II or smaller cities offer limited opportunities for senior finance professionals; affecting promotion, salaries, and job profile.

Forging my path in the hospitality industry

With time and the fact that I was now married, the constraint of working in a smaller city became apparent...and I started looking for job opportunities in metro cities. 

I got an offer to work with The Park Hotels, Delhi in a leadership role as an Associate Director. This time I evaluated the offer and was excited by the scope of work!

Here I handled Accounting, New Business opportunities, Fund Raising and Management Contracts for their mid-scale brand – Zone by The Park Hotels.

Thanks to my newborn son Somit, I now had an added portfolio and responsibility as a father.

Next up, was Head Finance with F&B Start-Up Portfolio of SAIF partners (Venture & Growth Fund) a role focused on Accounting, Business Expansion, and Investor Relations. By now my understanding of the hospitality industry went beyond finance.

My repertoire included – supply chain, investor relations and food controls. I had in-depth exposure to operations, marketing, and a strong relationship with demand generating partners. With my fundamentals in place and career goals defined I moved in the right direction.

Thinking beyond typical Finance paid off!

Fast forward, in a few years, another opportunity popped up in the form of VP Finance of Azure hospitality - a portfolio company of Goldman Sachs, the highlight of my career.

With Azure hospitality, I plotted the path for Finance, Accounts, Supply Chain Management, Secretarial and Investor relations. I played the lead role for multiple PE Fund Raise and Brand Acquisitions in India and UK.

Added learning was debt raise, the merger of companies, slump sale, and JVs with large groups. I headed the inorganic growth of all our brands (over 5 of them) via the franchise route.

Just when I fell things couldn’t get better an even more exciting offer was presented - CFO, Hamstede CoLiving, a JV with Lemon Tree Hotels and Warburg Pincus.

Choose the job profile, not the industry

A finance professionals' job profile is two-fold; on one side you have Core Accounting and Compliance, and the other, Business Support, which includes investor relations, transaction support, and business modelling.

Core accounting and compliance is a no-brainer – as a CA you’ll always be exposed to it anywhere. So, early on, I decided to shortlist opportunities that included "Business Support".

When opportunities came knocking, I choose the job profile, not the industry. I always followed my gut feeling about the company and sector. So. I’m not a Finance Specialist for Hospitality but an industry-agnostic specialist in Business Support primarily Investor relations. 

The key to my smooth smooth upward trajectory has been my customer/business-driven approach; in other words, support my companies’ growth. This compels me to widen my repertoire beyond a traditional CA role.

Overcoming roadblocks 

Initially, I had to strategically integrate yet simultaneously migrate away from what I learned in courses and articles due to real-world scenarios while adapting to corporate culture and environment.

But the most challenging is the nuances and intricacies of leadership primarily man-management – delegation, communication, and yes commercial deal-breaking.

Having said that, the biggest obstacle is unlearning‘what got you here won’t take you further and you got to drop the old way to pick up a new one’.

"What is my exact role in the hospitality industry?"

Revenue and cost in the hospitality industry have small ticket sizes that too across large geographies (cities and countries).

Hospitality offers a unique challenge in that we have to facilitate micro monitoring of revenue, receivables, costs, etc with keeping a “customer first and always” attitude.

In addition, customer analytics is a must for understanding customer behavior and financial analytics for investor relations.

Strong process, zero tolerance on revenue reconciliation, customer-first attitude and tech-enabled environment are key skills in the hospitality industry.

Tech is built-up as an enabler for accounting, HR, operation, base kitchens and supply chain. We use it to track customer feedback and behavior and drive analytics for investor relations and facilitate micro monitoring of revenue, receivables, costs, etc 

In short, my role includes business re-modelling, expansion plan in line with shareholder expectations, fundraising, transaction, technology enhancement and investor relations. 

"How I transformed from a CA to a Finance Leader? 

Due to my education, my strength was accounts, finance, and compliance. But I built up Tech, business knowledge, and Leadership Skills learning as a core differentiator (competitive advantage).

I have invested time in reading books and attending seminars on leadership and human behavior.  All of these efforts combined gradually transformed me from a CA to a finance leader.

My tech learning was facilitated by Microsoft Power BI (a great tool for business analytics and data visualization), Certification on power Pivot, and DAX (handling large data and using connectors).

Realize that it is impossible for any company to aspire to growth and expansion and have effective controls without technology.

"Mistakes that you could have avoided?"

Mistakes, I guess I have made many, but no regrets at all as all mistakes teach us.

I’m happy with my career and learning curve but I think some more time at PwC may have been better.

Initially, an MBA from reputed B schools would have added weight to my CV but today it’s not a barrier.

Wrapping up…

Traditional responsibilities of finance managers have been accounting, compliances, and strategic decision-making, but this will not give you a competitive advantage in the long run and will stifle your growth.

So, keep adding leadership, automation, and team-building skills.

Knowledge, skills and experience can’t flourish without a positive attitude. Who will motivate, mentor, advice or teach you if you have a negative attitude?

The less rigid your personality, the more powerful your presence.

Build confidence by developing your personality – improve grooming, communication, interpersonal skills and understanding of human psychology. There is no use of knowledge if we cannot communicate and convince effectively.

Lastly, a holiday and spending time with family prevents burn out and helps one to focus!

Now It's Your Turn...

Have questions for Amit? Comment below and he will get back to you.

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