From the CFO of Puma India and now at Bata: How Vidhya Srinivasan is evolving in this technology-driven world
- Meet Vidhya Srinivasan, the CFO of Bata and former CFO of Puma India, who has embraced the changes of the digital world.
- From making processes work with technology and implementing KPIs for branding, her role as a CFO entails more than just executing agendas for the company.
- As part of the digital transformation series powered by Dell Technologies, we spoke to Vidhya to understand her journey as CFO in this technology-driven world.
What is digital transformation for you?
For me, it is the entire challenge of improving processes using technology!
Those processes can range from transaction processes, communication between people and interface between functions. It could be delivering services within an organization.
With the use of technology, we can make these processes simpler, more efficient and controllable. In simple words, Digital Transformation, at a more strategic level, changes the way in which we operate!
Is there an interlink between being a CFO and understanding technology?
A big yes! As a CFO, it is important to be aware of:
- Technology changes
- Possibilities on how it can be leveraged to achieve business goals
- Identify the right technology for the company
- and working with technology for its implementation especially from a change management perspective has become an important aspect
You became a first-time CFO way back in 2013. In this span of 7 years, how has the role of a CFO evolved?
To give you a backdrop, from 1998-2005, I used to work as a consultant at A.T. Kearney. During my consulting days, working with various businesses on a variety of projects ranging from market entry, strategy, business restructuring and process improvement
I later moved into a Finance role at a leading Pharma company, then to Aditya Birla Retail. Here I was dealing with strategy and finance. In 2014 I joined Puma India as their CFO. I was there for 6 plus years and only in Jan’ 2021, I moved to Bata India as a CFO.
So, right from the beginning, I have always focused on business partnering as a critical part of my CFO role.
To answer your question as to how has my role evolved. When I first started as a CFO (and even today), certain parts of a role remain consistent - governance, reporting of results, updating the accounts and ensuring there are no tax issues. In retail, especially, making sure that the loss prevention practices and policies are in place is very important.
Nevertheless, with e-commerce increasing and fintech becoming more and more crucial, the level of technology has certainly increased. This has certainly increased the tools available to play the role.
To be more specific this is how my role as a CFO has evolved over the years because of technology:
1. Making the business ready for future endeavours
- With the technology changes that are taking place, companies are constantly evaluating the use of technology in their business to make our products more accessible to customers and measure how the customer engages with us – whether it be in E-Commerce, or in retail.
- Companies are making big investments so supporting business leaders in making the right investments that will result in the right ROI that one is targeting is a big responsibility.
- Over a period of time, I have realised that I need to direct my focus towards understanding a problem, making sure that the technology addresses the problem and its systematic implementation. It is also important to clearly understand the outcome that is being targeted and then measure that in reality, we are achieving the outcomes.
2. Business Intelligence
- The second field where a lot of technology is involved is in the business intelligence area.
- Business Intelligence helps in making information available, on a real-time basis to support business decisions. So identifying business requirements and working with legacy systems to meet business requirements is important.
3. Improving efficiency
- Finally, from a process efficiency standpoint, using technology to achieve improvement in process efficiency is also key.
So, over a period of time, the level of responsibility that a CFO has for making sure that the company achieves its profitability goals and its other KPIs has certainly increased.
In the last couple of years, with the COVID-related disruption, the role the CFO plays in being linked to business, predicting business outcomes and contributing to organization strategy has become more critical.
Does the IT team report to you? How do you interact with them?
Yes, in the last couple of organizations, as a CFO the IT function reported to me.
CFO’s come from a business perspective. We understand several factors, including what the business trying to achieve, the goals that each business is driving for, and the priorities of various business leaders.
If there is a strategic plan that a company has, translating that into what one needs from a 'technological standpoint' assumes importance.
Initially, my understanding of technology was based on practicality- Depending on the need, issue or improvements, I deployed specific product solutions.
However, I have always had teams who were able to provide expertise from an IT standpoint. The important factor is to translate what a business wants from IT.
How do you make technology-related decisions?
I believe my main role is to help the IT organization navigate the business requirement piece. Also, when there are multiple projects that IT has to execute with limited resources, I also believe I can add value by helping quantify business impact and thus prioritize these projects.
Were there times where you could not understand the various technologies?
When I just started as a CFO, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) was not prevalent at that point in time and I needed to invest time to understand out what is happening out there and how it could it be useful for my business.
I used to participate in a number of industry conferences just to understand the technology and hear from CFOs who have implemented it in their business. When I first started doing this, we as a business had no immediate plan to implement this.
Once I understood the opportunities, I worked with business to identify a large number of processes which could benefit from process automation not just from a cost perspective but also from a process efficiency or a business outcome perspective. Then we set up a cross-functional team to carry out a pilot project to establish proof of concept which was successful.
So, I would say one needs to be intellectually curious to observe and translate it into their business endeavours.
How do you keep yourself updated?
Technology and its use in business are evolving rapidly and you have to invest time to understand what is happening.
I spend time speaking to bankers and people involved in technology without an immediate goal in mind. I attend technology conferences and run projects to understand the latest developments.
So, researching and spending time understanding possibilities without looking at immediate business returns is imperative in the long run.
There were numerous courses on digital transformation, and I enrolled myself in one such course which focused on what’s happening in that space. Sometimes, these courses will be valuable and sometimes they won’t.
I feel that one should be open to exploring and educating yourself on different things.
Have you felt that as a woman, people would think that your knowledge would not be up to the mark when it comes to technology?
Luckily, all the organizations I have worked in so far have always focused on making sure that merit is the main criteria and I have never experienced any gender-related misconceptions. To the same extent, I have always been very careful that I join organizations that will be supportive. I have never felt that I was left out because of my gender.
Also, given the number of very skilled women who work in technology in India, from the ground to the board level, it would not be correct to think that a woman’s knowledge may not be up to the mark when it comes to technology.
Having said that as a CFO, you do not need to be the expert related to technology. That is why you surround yourself with experts and very good functional teams.
I have never been afraid to admit that there are other people who have more knowledge than me regarding a particular topic. You need not be afraid of saying that you do not understand certain things.
You have to be clear that you are not an expert and you need to listen to the functional experts. Areas concerning project management, prioritization, translating technology into business are my expertise and I can add value there. I am very clear about where I can add value and where I cannot.
What is your viewpoint with respect to the cloud? What is your involvement in decision-making for the model?
It would be irrational for a company to not take advantage of the developments that are taking place in this space. With the cloud, we can certainly explore much more creative business-friendly tech endeavours without investing as much as we need to.
That being said, one needs to take into consideration the kind of infrastructure that a company has and its various constraints. Directionally, you do not want to throw out investments that you have already made.
This is where the IT team takes the lead in terms of determining what makes the best sense in accordance with our IT policy, our global framework and what is required locally. I am certainly involved in the decision making but it's a very technology-driven decision.
Cybercrime is a major issue of late. Have you experienced any major hacking episodes and/or cybercrime incidents?
It is becoming more and more pervasive and companies are being repeatedly targeted.
We have to recognise the changes and prepare continuously for situations that may arise.
We work very closely with our global team to identify risks and do what we need to do to respond and manage the risks.
With the increase in online websites, people are becoming less brand conscious. What differences have you come across in the way you are operating now and in the past during the pandemic?
I agree that the pandemic has transformed the way people shop and newer brands are emerging due to social media marketing. However, I beg to differ that brands are becoming irrelevant in that space. E-Commerce has made it easier for customers to interact with brands no matter where they are
While earlier the consumer has to go to a specific market and outlet to buy the product and hence brands engaged with customers through specific mechanisms. Now consumers expect brands to engage with them wherever they are and hence the manner in which we provide information to consumers, engage with consumers online, deliver products to them as soon as possible has completely changed.
Given the pandemic, this is also changing basis the geography the customer is in with government regulations. Companies, therefore, have to become more nimble and ensure that their processes change in line with customer expectations. The backend has to transform to meet this new reality.
As a CFO, do you have a role to play in digital brand engagement?
With the transition to online platforms, it is very easy to measure return on marketing investments in the new age.
As a CFO, it is important to understand key metrics involved in digital brand engagement, the outcomes being targeted, how those metrics operate, etc., so you can agree on the right KPIs for the parts of the business generated there.
With the help of KPIs, we are able to measure and track our return on marketing investment and ensure that we are able to optimize our spending.
Lastly, as a CFO do you question the technology spend?
Not only as a finance person but also as a part of the management team, you have to question technology spend, what are the outcomes being targeted and whether it is really required.
The goals and returns have to be taken into consideration before the money is invested in a particular project.
Having said that, the questioning should not be based on just budget but the objective and what can be achieved from it. There are different business priorities so it is important to understand the amount being spent, the return being targeted (both financial and non-financial), and whether that is the best use of resources (money, time, etc).
Now It's Your Turn...
Have you ever been in a situation where you did not understand what is happening on the technology front? Do comment, let us and Vidhya know about your side of the story.
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