Safaricom CFO Dilip Pal goes beyond the traditional finance role

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Dilip Pal, the CFO of Safaricom, is a highly educated and extremely experienced professional who has led finance functions on two of the largest continents in the world.

Dilip Pal, the CFO of Safaricom, is a highly educated and extremely experienced professional who has led finance functions on two of the largest continents in the world.

As the CFO, Dilip played a crucial role in signing off on the $850 million investment case for a telecom licence for Safaricom’s entry into Ethiopia.

“I remember the moment vividly when I had to sign off the documents for payment. I could not help but count the zeroes on the document multiple times to ensure it was the right amount. My hand trembled as I signed it because I was fully aware of the significance of this – knowing that big telecommunication companies can endure over 100 years, far beyond our lifetime,” he said.

With such responsibility at this stage of his career, it is surprising to learn that Dilip’s first job was a disaster.

“Shortly after I joined the company, a scandal erupted, leading to a 50 percent crash in stock market in a single day. Investors suffered significant losses, and subsequent investigations uncovered unethical practices within the organisation,” he said.

“That experience taught me a valuable lesson – not to get carried away by the glamour of the job. It reinforced the importance of staying grounded and taking governance seriously,” he added.

Of tinplates and no taxis
As a result, that was the shortest period that Dilip has spent in a role.

“Joining Tata Tinplate was a good decision as it was a company with a strong history of good corporate governance, had efficient processes and a good name in the country being part of Tata Group. This is where I learnt the ropes of finance and accounting and got exposure in many areas within the field,” he explained.

In this position, Dilip gained valuable experience in reporting, costing, financial planning and budgeting before transitioning to head office and delving into corporate finance.

Six years later, he joined Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages as a senior finance manager, as he saw it as an opportunity to accelerate his career trajectory to becoming a CFO.

However, landing that job became a story for the ages.

“A recruiter had scheduled an interview for a Friday afternoon, and I informed my boss that I needed to leave early. He demanded to know why, and I was honest with him that I had an interview. He wished me luck. As I stepped out to get a taxi, the heavens opened, and it rained like crazy. No taxis were available in that weather, I went back inside to call the recruiter and ask to re-schedule the interview. My boss asked me why I was back so soon, and I told him I couldn’t get a taxi so I wouldn’t go. He called me crazy and requested his driver to take me to the interview where I was successful in landing the job,” he recalled.

During his tenure at Coca-Cola, Dilip learned the importance of being a business-oriented finance manager rather than just an accountant. He delved deep into the company's diverse operations, developing an intimate understanding of various facets such as production, distribution, marketing, and sales. This extensive knowledge empowered him to offer strategic contributions to the organisation, providing valuable insights that extended beyond conventional financial analysis.

This experience has significantly shaped his successful career as a CFO, with a comprehensive, business-focused approach. It was at Coca-Cola that Dilip learnt to transform into a business finance manager, going beyond the role of a traditional accounting and finance job.

“To flourish in finance, you need to know the business inside out and I managed to achieve that in the five and a half years that I stayed at the company,” he said.

Dilip was instrumental in introducing technology to the organisation at a time when computers were still a new idea in many companies.

In 2004, Dilip was headhunted for a senior finance role at Hong Kong based telecommunications company, Hutchison Essar, operating in India.

“When presented with an opportunity by a head-hunter, I faced a decisive choice: join a stable, well-established operation with minimal issues or take on the challenge of building something entirely from scratch. I opted for the latter, recognising the immense learning potential that comes with such a venture. Consequently, I assumed the role of head of finance for Hutchison's Punjab telecom business. This move marked the beginning of an enriching journey in the dynamic telecommunications industry,” he said.

Defining point
Three years later, Vodafone acquired a controlling interest in Hutchison and Dilip held a number of roles under the acquisition, culminating in head of National Business Operations.

“Over the course of more than a decade at Hutchison and Vodafone, I had the privilege of taking on five diverse roles, each contributing to my extensive knowledge of the telecommunications industry. Leading a large and diverse team across the country, I delved deep into the intricacies of the telecom business, gaining valuable insights along the way. Being part of a leadership-focused organisation shaped my career positively. It empowered me to grow, take on challenges, and excel in various roles,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, Dilip was approached by Telenor for the role of a CFO of Grameenphone in Bangladesh.

“I found the opportunity attractive because I wanted to work in a listed company. It was not only the largest telecom company in the country but also the largest company, and its founder was passionate about making a difference in society. However, when I shared the decision with my friends and extended family, they thought I was crazy to leave the big city of Mumbai for the smaller and more conservative Dhaka,” he explained.

Indeed, Dilip's decision to work in Dhaka proved to be a defining moment in his career. Over three years, he gained valuable experience collaborating with regulators, the central bank, and engaging with investors and analysts. The exposure to these diverse aspects of the business broadened his knowledge and expertise, contributing significantly to his professional growth and success.

“We managed to achieve nine successive quarters of revenue growth increasing market share and profitability. The business became the cash cow of the Telenor group,” he explained.

It was on the back of this success that Telenor asked Dilip to move to Thailand to assist in turning around DTAC, a listed company, once a strong second operator but relegated to third position with successive quarters of revenue decline and loss of customers.

At the time, the company was reaching the end of its government approved licensing period and faced not only the real possibility of losing its access to the spectrum, the lifeline of telecommunication but also the existence of the company itself.

“It was a challenging situation. Customers knew this and were quickly changing to other networks. The regulator issued a public notice advising our customers to port to other networks. We ended up taking the regulator to court and won,” he said.

“This marked the beginning of a relentless battle to acquire new spectrum and win customer loyalty, ultimately leading to a positive trend in revenue after years of loss. Over time, our efforts paid off and we were able to regain investor confidence. It was challenging but many of the lessons I gained there are helping me in my current role,” he added.

In March 2020, Covid-19 hit, and Bangkok went into lockdown.

“We were quarantined at home and as soon as we were allowed outside, my wife and I booked a holiday to one of the Thai islands to get some fresh air. It was there that I received a phone call from the CHRO of Safaricom with the potential CFO role,” he said.

A big responsibility
After many family discussions and a lot of research, Dilip accepted the Safaricom role in November 2020. However, the pandemic was still a cause for concern so all engagements with the finance team were through virtual meetings.

“When I finally got to meet them in person, they were all wearing masks. I was challenged to identify them, and I am proud to say that I scored 100 percent by listening to the voices and carefully examining each of their foreheads!” he said.

Now, three years later, Dilip is frank about his responsibility at Safaricom, noting that it is complex but very satisfying.

“Everything we do here seems connected to making our role in society count. It is a big responsibility given the status of the company in East Africa and something that we are incredibly proud of,” he said.

“In Kenya, if MPESA experiences an outage, the economy grinds to a halt and this speaks to the profound role we play for the people of this country. I have been here for two years, and eight months and I cannot close my eyes and tell you what the Kenyan currency looks like simply because I use MPESA for all my transactions,” he explained.

Dilip is extremely proud of the culture and purpose behind the telecommunications giant.

“Although every company speaks about purpose; in my three decades of work, I have not seen purpose embedded in a company as it is in Safaricom. It is part of the culture, something that is not only spoken about but felt by everybody who works here. It is not about your designation but about service,” he said.

Coach and mentor
This dedication to service is clear in Dilip’s hands-on approach to his role. Since joining Safaricom, Dilip has spent a significant amount of time in preparation of launch in Ethiopia. The effort is certainly paying off as the company has recorded five million subscribers in a matter of months.

“It is a big opportunity, but it is also a big bet. Ethiopia is a big market given the population, but it is also complex and definitely not a walk in the park,” he said.

Fortunately, he is ably supported in the CFO role by a team of 12 direct reports. He also spends a lot of time mentoring his team – and also learning from them too.

“My philosophy is to give consistent feedback to your team and to remain authentic. I am not one who is able to act like someone else, I am who I am, and this means I am often vulnerable. Many of my reports describe me as humble and it is that humility that enables me to connect with people at a level where I have my finger on the pulse of what is going on with my team," he said.

Dilip’s aptitude for coaching led him to work towards becoming a Certified Master Coach, a certification that he received in 2022.

“Any member of my team is welcome to book a slot on Friday afternoon for coaching which I do pro-bono outside of my role,” he added.

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