This former CFO of Unilever Nepal & now of an 85-year old listed company shares his unconventional career choices and journey with technology
- Meet Pramod Nair, a chartered accountant (CA) and CFO at Everest Industries Ltd, one of the leading listed building solutions companies in India.
- After 7 years at Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) India, HUL promoted him as CFO of Unilever Nepal Limited, a subsidiary in a highly regulated landlocked country.
- As CFO, Pramod was instrumental in navigating through Nepal’s strict regulations around technology for HUL and he moved to the 85-year old Everest Industries to play a role while leveraging on technology.
- For the Digital Transformation Series powered by DELL Technologies, we spoke to Pramod to understand the impact of technology in his role as a CFO.
Why did you decide to be a CA?
I never planned to be a CA. Instead, I did Science until the 12th grade and wanted to join the Indian army as part of my passion at the time.
After the 12th grade, I received countless rejections, which resulted in disappointments that led me to consider other possible options one of which was being a CA.
Since I was good at academics and also one of my cousins was a CA, led me to chose CA as my career.
It was not an easy journey, but I was able to clear all exams with an All India Rank and qualified as a CA in 2007.
Considering that you did plan to be a CA, what did you decide to do after qualifying?
After qualifying as a CA, several opportunities came along. Frankly, I wanted to go into investment banking and not into any kind of manufacturing industry.
As destiny would have it, I was successful in an interview for a role at HUL. After seeing the quality of the people working there and the kind of interaction at interviews, my plans changed and I joined HUL.
You started your career with HUL in 2007. In the last 13 years, what changes have you observed with regard to Technology and its adoption?
When I joined HUL in 2007, they were transitioning from legacy ERP to SAP.
In the beginning, people were resisting on the basis that the former system was better, but eventually got used to it and the organization learned about technology faster.
We did a lot of work around the standardization of processes and reports, and the formulation of decision points required by decision-makers.
In a much more concise manner, we leveraged technology to make all the above available timeously.
I was part of the team that looked at all the reports that the organization generated and we realized that 60% of the reports did not make sense as nobody ever went through them.
The mindset changed over the years as we made technology useful for decision-making and business processes. The transformation started with tangible changes in hardware & software. This was a key and valuable lesson during my time at the organization as I could see individuals focusing more on ensuring that the systems deliver the right data was available to the right people at the right time.
To sum it up, when it comes to the transformation of technology, I believe two aspects are at play:
- The technology itself is changing, for instance, the desktops are getting upgraded and the computer processors are getting more powerful nowadays.
- The mindset has changed. To believe that something should be automated, go digital or we should use a wide range of technologies to reduce human intervention in processes. This is the real transition that I have noticed.
You were the CFO of Unilever Nepal and moved from India to Nepal, a country that had strict regulations around technology. How did you introduce automation and digital transformation to the organization?
As mentioned above, I started my career at Unilever in 2007. In 2014, HUL appointed me as CFO of Unilever Nepal.
Nepal is a small country sandwiched between two powerful countries (India and China), meaning there are strict government regulations for businesses.
The government had huge concerns about the safety of business data as well as fraudulent companies as some people set up businesses to benefit from imports and other resources.
I landed from an SAP environment in India, straight into the legacy system. This meant we went from a technology-based digitalization front to a primitive scenario with manual processes.
It was shocking but I could adapt to the various challenges and be able to deliver the same results and quality of governance at UNL.
When we approached the government to discuss the importance of digitization at Unilever Nepal, we realized that it was a time-consuming process. But we kept engaging with them with various models to satisfy them. After proposing various models to senior government officials, the government finally notified a model similar to what we proposed for all companies in Nepal and we could start work on SAP.
On a different technological front, I am proud to have been part of the implementation of the distribution management system (DMS) in the country, which we upgraded based on the India version.
While working with the implementation team and engaging with various customers, I ensured the organization adopted technology well.
The whole process was worth it and it had valuable lessons!
You spent a significant period at Unilever (2007-2018), both in India and Nepal. What are your key take-away points from the organization?
The best part about working at the organization was that I did not do the same job repeatedly. Instead, I held multiple roles in different facets of finance.
The organization helped me drive decisions of business at an early age and that kept me on my toes all the time.
The stint in Nepal gave me the experience of running a small organization within a large organization, HUL and I found that very interesting.
After your instrumental work in Nepal, you moved to a PE firm? What was the major shift in terms of learnings?
In 2018, I joined True North Co as a Vice President in Finance. (True North has been a partner and a catalyst for conscious, high-performing businesses. Since its inception, they have invested close to US$3 billion across six investment vehicles in structurally attractive sectors: healthcare and pharmaceuticals, financial services, consumer products and services, and technology products and services.)
It was great as it was not a pure finance role. Instead, it required engaging with portfolio companies and working on their strategies.
Essentially, my role related to business management, which also included sales, business strategy, HR, IT, and the digital sector.
In hindsight, I realize that one of the greatest lessons learned at True North was the importance to go digital on all key business processes and consider that as a key strategic priority. Digital is one of the ways to create value in the business.
During my stint, I saw the interesting usage of technology when I used to work for a Hyderabad-based hybrid seed company called SeedWorks, they were using drone technology to collect field data.
I also worked with Hicare, a pest management company that developed an in-house technology product to drive efficiency for service delivery.
From a professional front, this helped me see the different facets of business and gave me a well-rounded experience from a business perspective.
In 2021 you moved from True North Co to Everest Industries Limited and took up a role as CFO. How is this different from the CFO role you played at Unilever Nepal?
While leading finance in Nepal, I worked within a larger scheme of things, but most policies and decisions were driven centrally from Mumbai/London. This means that most of the decisions are operational ones.
On the other hand, Everest is an interesting opportunity. A 1934 vintage company that wants to Reimagine its business and drive business while holding its values. Here, I am part of key decision making be it strategy or operations and in many situations, the buck stops with me
Everest is one of India's largest and fastest-growing complete building solutions providers. It has a rich history in the manufacturing of building materials for roofing, cladding, ceiling, flooring, and walls & Pre-Engineered Steel Buildings for industrial, commercial, and residential sectors.
Everest is a great company with its roofing business which has a footprint in rural markets. The younger business units such as boards or pre-engineered building businesses are the future growth engines and huge opportunities lie ahead in these spaces. We have a great job of developing the market and I can add value from the experience I have accumulated in Everest’s next stage of growth.
Considering Everest is a vintage company and still, promoter-driven, are there any different technological approaches, and was it a surprise for you?
I can say it was a positive surprise. The board is run very professionally with a large number of directors being independent directors and stalwarts in their own right.
When I joined, I noticed the board already talking about adopting newer technology and drive digital transformation for taking the company to the next level.
This enabled us in the management team to have conversations about how to accelerate digital transformation and adoption to unlock value in the business.
Even though I have only been here for three months, I have seen keenness in embracing technology. So, I do not see a big difference between Unilever, True North, and Everest in terms of the approaches in the adoption of the new-age technology and digital tools.
As a CFO Any challenges you are facing in adopting new-age technology and how do you counter them?
In my view, the adoption of new-age technology is always a challenge in every company because “change is something everybody would resist” and people want to maintain the status quo.
To counter the challenges, coaching and training are required for people to use the tools effectively, which remains a constant process.
This is also because many times the board is the only one that appreciates the benefits of new technology. People at operational levels may feel inconvenienced by its adoption.
Honestly, to drive adoption it comes down to usability and design alongside ensuring that the product delivers its benefits. Once we take care of these, adoption becomes much easier. This is a constant learning process.
Are there regular technological upgrades at Everest? If so, how important are they to the business?
As mentioned earlier, Everest is in the process to upgrade all its systems and technology to the best available one. And there is a roadmap to achieve that. And business needs are at the center of all the technology decisions.
I think data security is an important aspect and the company has taken all necessary steps or deployed tools to address that. We are also transitioning to the cloud and our partners on that front also provide additional security features.
We plan to accelerate this process and take this to the next level.
According to you what is the future role of a CFO?
At HUL we had a lot of visioning about how the future finance role will evolve and I have always had a forward-thinking approach with regard to the role of a CFO.
I think with technology, CFO will be one of the key change leaders.
In my opinion, there are primarily 3 or 4 areas where I feel in the future a CFO will have a higher role to play enabled by technology:
- Driving insights (not information) based on decision-making. Earlier we used to learn the difference between data and information. In my opinion, in the future Information has to move to insight where we have to enable the business team to make much more well-understood decisions. Decisions that can be measured.
- The second will be the role in shaping and driving strategy where a better understanding of the business will help the CFO to contribute towards strategy
- Two basic jobs which a CFO and their finance team are doing are to facilitate efficient transactions and controls. Today there is a lot of control that people have to exert to ensure that there are no lapses and we are doing things right. I think automated processes will probably help a lot for them to facilitate an efficient transaction.
- Regarding the whole risk management space, the CFO is a custodian and that role won’t go away because we live in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) which challenges the business and its sustainability. Hence risk assessment and mitigation is an area where the CFO has to be on top of to ensure that the risk is well covered and the business models are well protected.
It will all be enabled by automation and technology because digital, cloud computing, robotics, and predictive analysis will come as tools for CFOs to actually support the business on these fronts.
Lastly, what is your advice to aspiring CFOs?
- Try to get a well-rounded experience. Very helpful in delivering CFO role well.
- Do not always go after the role designation but go after what learning it gives. This is personal learning from the Nepal experience. Since the role was not very popular internally there were not many takers...however, taking the opportunity to become a CFO of Unilever Nepal gave me such a great experience.
- Change your mindset on the professional front.