Born with limited resources CA Robin Banerjee reveals how he went from a trainee to CFO to CEO of listed companies

  • Hi, I am Robin Banerjee, a qualified Chartered Accountant, Company Secretary and Cost Accountant with about ‘four decades of experience’. Yes, I became a CA in 1979.
  • I started my career as a Management Trainee at Hindustan Unilever. Then I moved abroad and progressed to several leadership positions: from CFO & CEO at Arcelor Mittal Steel in Germany, to Executive Director in major Indian entities, and now Managing Director in a listed manufacturing company.
  • Do you think all this happened overnight? Not at all.  It took me ‘two decades’ to become a full-fledged CFO. And since then, there has been no looking back.
  • I have authored several books, with two of them being business non-fiction books. My latest business book meant for everyone concerned with any business is – Who Blunders and How, The Dumb Side of the Corporate World.
  • Do read my story and see if it provides you with some ideas…as to how to fight this world to gain success.

The decision to pursue Chartered Accountancy – an obvious choice

I was born and brought up in Kolkata, India…in a family with very limited resources.

I was a diligent and hardworking student who secured the 2nd rank in the Board of Secondary Education in West Bengal…this was quite a feat back then! 

Observing my interest in studies, my father obviously thought that I should pursue higher studies or even do an MBA. (Back then it was considered very prestigious and of great value to have an MBA!)

However, since an MBA from a good Institution would be very expensive, it was ruled out as we ‘could not afford it’.

What Next?

I decided to pursue Chartered Accountancy from ICAI (The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India) – a professional course that is well known for being one of the most economical in India!

Another reason for choosing this profession was that – Chartered Accountants had inordinate goodwill and I had seen CAs get good jobs easily.

Considering all this, it was a no-brainer to pursue Chartered Accountancy.

No books, no tutor, no mentor…I kept going forward with little support

Due to the various financial challenges I faced, I could not join any coaching classes…self-study was the only option I had.

At times, buying books was even a challenge.

Travelling long distances to homes of friends who had books, sitting in noisy libraries to study, borrowing textbooks for short periods or referring to it sitting in friends’ homes, became the norm.

I managed to understand the nuances of the various subjects by studying late into the night, doing combined studies with my more studious friends and clearing doubts through my older batch students…of course, in those days, there was no all-knowing Google-auntie to look to for information!

Practicing from the ‘suggested-answers’ of past question papers helped me pass the tough CA examinations. This was back in 1976-79, but it still holds true even today!

Tough articleship period, long hours of studies, loads of financial struggles…made a man out of the poor little boy.

Finally, I qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1979.

I am grateful to my alma mater, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India…whatever I am today, whatever little I could do so far is due to one course – the venerable CA course.

Forging my own path…20 years in one company!

Once I qualified as a Chartered Accountant, I received several interview calls including…one from Hindustan Lever (now known as Hindustan Unilever)!

It was the toughest interview I ever attended – an IQ test, a group discussion followed by a one-on-one interview.

The company called me into their Mumbai corporate office…I was one among twenty chosen from across India. We were shortlisted after one-on-one interviews held in six cities.

And ultimately only three of us were selected to join as Management Trainees…I was one of them, this opportunity changed everything for me.

From then on, my career took ascending traction…Every three years, a new role…Every year, a vigorous appraisal… Loads of training courses.

It was almost as if every day was an exam. I had to keep continuously performing.

The learning experience was tremendous.

Every one of us needed to keep performing continuously. It taught me the most important lesson: Life is not a holiday – it’s all about the honest effort in whatever we do.

The ‘two decades of work experience in Hindustan Lever’ gave me great experience in handling businesses with varied portfolios of Personal Products, Soaps and Detergents, Chemicals, Fertilizers and Exports.

Extra Tip: No task is trivial. Every single task gives you the chance to learn something. No job should be taken as unimportant.

Becoming a first time CFO after almost two decades and later CEO 

After almost two decades at Unilever, I got a call from an international head hunter for an interview with ‘Arcelor Mittal Steel’ (it used to be known as Ispat Steel earlier).

I was interviewed personally by none other than Mr. L N Mittal in his London office…and was selected for the role of a CFO in Germany!

An international company, a foreign location, an unknown language with Germans as my subordinates and added to it, the company was a loss-making one…yes, it was extremely challenging for me.

But I took up the challenge and within one year we could convert it into a profitable company.

My significant contribution in the turnaround of the company was recognized…and I got promoted as an ‘MD and CFO’ within one year of joining as a CFO!

This was my first experience as a CEO along with the responsibilities as a CFO…it was a great break and this marked the second turning point in my life.

From then on, many job opportunities, several industries including travel, forex, renewable energy and plastics, my first stint in the FMCG sector and then to the Steel industry had led me to this.

All of this has helped me to become industry agnostic – and that I believe stands in good stead…I have found that it is good to be a ‘generalist’ rather than being a ‘specialist’.

Overcoming several challenges and learning to be ‘kind’

Every enterprise is fraught with risks, problems, downsides and hiccups…there is no business which is easy.

In the corporate world, everything is unpredictable. There have been numerous instances where my fellow colleagues got promoted before me. Similarly, there have been instances where I overtook my colleagues.

There will be days when nothing seems to be working; the people around seem to be unfair, and no one seems to be compassionate. This is the time we need to tell ourselves: “Buck up. Tomorrow is another day, with a new sun on the horizon”.

Just pick yourself up even when it seems everything is lost. ‘Never-give-up attitude’ is the key.

It is this ability to restart every day that will make a difference in your lives…whoever can do this better can accomplish more!

My uncle once told me this: – “In corporate life, have elephantine ears (listen to all around you) but have the skin of a rhino (thick-skinned, as they say)”. It works wonders even today!

One more aspect I understood early in life – be a ‘nice' person.

To make it clear, being a good person ‘does not mean that you need to be malleable and be taken for granted.

By being nice I mean being sincere, ethical, and genuine. Be tough but not aggressive. Be firm but not autocratic.

These are the value systems I follow – and it has given me fair results.

I am an author as well

I have authored three books on indirect taxation so far, one of which, Modvat, has gone into 10 editions.

My latest business non-fiction book is “Who Blunders and How, The Dumb Side of the Corporate World.”

My earlier book: “Who Cheats and How, Fraud, Scams and Dark Side of the Corporate World” was a best-seller, went into third reprint and is available in 3 languages – English, Hindi and Marathi.

“Did I always want to be a CFO or CEO?”

Believe me, I never ever aspired for any position. The only aim I always aspired for was to ‘give my very best’.

It is foolhardy to aspire for the highest office at a young age. Any delay or roadblocks can create severe emotional stress.

I desired for people to say that ‘He is doing a good job’. The rest automatically happened.

“Managing leadership transition from CFO to CEO?”

Many of us would often fantasize to occupy the corner-room of any office – the so-called dream-room having the most important chair of ‘The CEO’.

Every CFO has the ability to become a CEO or else, the person would not have been given the mantle to head the finance division…however, historical evidence shows that the top seat is usually given to the marketing or the technical heads. 

The challenge we, the finance folks, have is…others often view us as ‘accountants’ and most suspect our ability to have a 360-degree view of the business.

The questions my Boards would perhaps have asked themselves when they thought of giving me the hallowed position of a ‘CEO’ was – ‘Will the CFO be able to motivate and guide others? ‘Will the CFO not take a micro view, when a macro decision is to be taken?’

It is this ‘myth’ that we need to fight always – a battle that I had to encounter throughout.

However once endowed with the most important position of being a CEO, somehow, I ‘eliminated the thought of being an accountant by education’, it’s now nearly a decade since then.

My ability to look at the business as a whole has done well for my organization’s bottom line.

And that is what all aspiring CFOs need to depict – the ability to see the big picture and yet not lose out on the finer points that could affect the business performance.

“What are the top skills needed to transition from CFO to CEO?”

Have a holistic approach. To head any organization, you need to have a holistic approach and a bird’s eye view of the developments around…in short, Chartered Accountants or CPAs cannot remain accountants anymore.

Become a marketing man, prove your technical understanding, look after the HR sensitivities and motivate everyone in your company to give their best.

A very important quality is to ‘Never Give Up’. Do not show that you are giving up. Losers have no place in any society. You will encounter defeat, but you need to show positivity in the face of adversity.

People around you are looking for leadership and direction…if you can depict this mindset, organizational progress will be easy.

Develop Leadership skills. Each one of us has the dream of becoming the CEO – it could be of a function, department or the company but you need to remember that…CEO leadership capabilities are a bit different from that of a CFO. Good news, we can learn leadership.

Have a high EQ. All of you have a good IQ (Intelligence Quotient); but what about the EQ (Emotional Quotient)?

EQ is the ability to deal with others. Most of us ‘do not have the sensitivity to handle others’ viewpoints.

A leader needs to understand others – and positive results will come sooner than later.

“How do I make time to write books? And why write books at all?”

One must always nurture one’s passion. A musician should keep singing, so should an artist keep painting. Writing is no less a fervor.

Almost every late evening, I spend about an hour on my books, and every Saturday and Sunday (if I am not working on official assignments), it’s reading and writing days.

Every drop makes an ocean; so, write for some time daily. Create the dream book which you could be fantasizing about.

Writing fiction is different from penning non-fiction. I am a business-book essayist – far away from fictional stories.

Knowledge of the subject is important for this. Hence, reading and being aware of what is happening around is critical. Travel times are the best to catch up on your reading, especially when you are on a flight.

Keep reading. Keep writing short paras or pieces. You will surely be able to produce – not one, but several books in your lifetime. No effort, no gain.

One more aspect which I strive for before I depart from this mortal world is that I should leave behind something for others to learn from…maybe my books will remain as a reminder to fulfill this innate desire of mine.

So, if writing is your passion, do keep writing.

“Why is it important to have additional qualifications?”

In life, nothing gets wasted. While I still believe that the CA qualification changed everything for me…my other qualifications like CMA, CS and M. Com definitely gave an edge in interviews and new jobs.

The potential employers would have surely given me more weightage when they would have had to take a call between similar candidates.

I believe that ‘just a CA qualification’ may not always be enough. It gives the impression that CA is a sufficient qualification – but additional qualification does add value – both in terms of new knowledge and also adding weight to your CV.

“Qualities that make an effective CFO/CEO?”

In my opinion, there are a lot of qualities that make a good leader. I don’t know whether I have any of the below abilities/qualities, but I try to imbibe them every day. That’s my desire, goal and aspiration. Here they are:

  • Positive and can-do ‘attitude’: To cite an instance, when I was given charge in Germany, the language was a major issue. I did not give up just because I could not understand what they were saying. I kept on trying and I could manage.
  • Core ‘competency’: We cannot succeed unless we know our domain, our subjects, our functions. There is ‘no substitute for knowledge' and that provides you the capability to perform better than others.
  • Better ‘communicational skills’: We, the accountants, often suffer from good communicational abilities. Unless we can communicate well– both oral and written – how can we impress others?
  • ‘Entrepreneurial’ spirit: This means converting the given circumstances into money-making opportunities. Practice being a good businessman. The spirit of entrepreneurship will distinguish you from others.
  • Humility and Kindness’: Modesty helps to gain respect…and bashfulness attracts negativity. If you are good, you need not announce it. People will judge you appropriately – don’t show off – it attracts animosity. Success will come inevitably if you are true to yourself, being sensitive to others, and possess good knowledge of your subject.
  • Honesty’: In the business world, success is being acceptable, credible and revered. Success does not mean that you need to be ‘Mr. or Ms. Popular’…business is not about participating in a popularity contest!

In Conclusion…

There are no success mantras in life…each one of us is different with our uniqueness and aspirations.

You need to chart your own desires and dreams and work diligently to achieve them. But, work you must – every day, every moment.

Success cannot come through momentary brilliance – it’s a continuous effort. Just look at the Olympic champions, and imbibe the long sacrifice they would have gone through for their ephemeral achievement.

My advice to all the aspiring CFOs:

  • Do not think too much about the outcome (the result will come),
  • Keep doing your very best in every task (every day is your exam day),
  • Believe in yourself (deliver positivity around you) and
  • Keep your boss informed of important developments (no one likes surprises and uninformed bosses may become adversaries).

Now It’s Your Turn…

Keep trying – positive results are bound to come, sooner than later.

Do you think you can become a CFO or a CEO? Was my story useful to you? Do comment below and you can connect with me at Robin BanerjeeMy latest business book meant for everyone concerned with any business is – Who Blunders and How, The Dumb Side of the Corporate World.

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