The CFO catch-up: Sundar Pattabiraman


CFO East Africa recently caught up with Wasoko global CFO Sundararaman Pattabiraman to understand his views on Kenya and the finance fraternity.

CFO East Africa recently caught up with Wasoko global CFO Sundararaman Pattabiraman to understand his views on Kenya and the finance fraternity.

CFO East Africa: What is the difference between a financial controller and a CFO?
Sundar: In the corporate realm, financial leadership plays a crucial role in guiding the company’s future. A Finance Controller is primarily focused on the historical financial performance of the company, reporting information on what has already happened. They also deal with other matters such as treasury, tax filings and bank accounts. In contrast, a CFO has a more comprehensive scope which includes planning, forecasting, capital raising, restructuring, financial engineering and strategy. It is a forward-looking position as CFOs play a crucial role in envisioning the company’s future to drive growth. Additionally, CFOs handle other disciplines beyond finance such as legal and information technology.

CFO East Africa: How did you end up working in Kenya?
Sundar: Essar invited me to come through for a two-year stint. It was a big conglomerate with an interesting assignment in the country which is why I stayed for longer. A significant milestone during my tenure was when we successfully executed a satisfying exit for the company. In line with a global strategic change, we sold our infrastructure to Safaricom and the subscribers to Bharti Airtel.

Thereafter, the Kenyan market presented me with multiple opportunities. The country attracts a lot of foreign funding, which has led to a surge in the demand for versatile and multi-talented CFOs with dynamic skills that can be applied across different companies. These investors seek experienced CFOs who can work in agile and fast-paced environments to manage their funds and report to the board. This has been the situation in the posts I have held in Telkom, Kenafric Industries and now Wasoko.

CFO East Africa: How do you define success and what is your X Factor for success?
Sundar: To be successful you have to understand the company, the industry and the economic environment in which you operate. Once you understand that and comprehend the strategy, the next step is implementing the strategy by putting in place what is required to achieve the objectives including skills and resources. My X factor for success centers on nurturing a work environment that benefits both the company and its employees. This means making strategic decisions that enhance the overall business landscape while ensuring the well-being and satisfaction of the workforce. When a company achieves this balance, it experiences true success.

At Wasoko, this approach has been instrumental in driving long-term growth. By prioritising the interests of both the business and employees, we have cultivated a sense of loyalty and commitment within the organization. Similarly, at Essar, we demonstrated how a win-win situation could lead to a successful exit, where all parties involved felt content with the outcome.

As a CFO, it is essential to recognise that the definition of success can vary between companies. Therefore, adapting one's approach to align with the specific objectives of the business is crucial. This adaptability necessitates a thorough understanding of the industry, economic environment, and the company's unique goals and aspirations.

Before identifying and implementing strategies, one must have a comprehensive grasp of the company's internal and external factors. This includes an assessment of the available skills and resources required to execute those strategies effectively.

Additionally, investing in the growth and development of the team is vital since the company's prosperity directly depends on the collective effort and expertise of its employees. By supporting and empowering the workforce, a CFO can foster a culture of innovation and continuous improvement, ultimately contributing to the organisation's long-term success.

CFO East Africa: How do you see your role amidst such change in a company?
Sundar: The CFO plays a crucial role in leading the company and managing teams during times of change. CFOs provide financial expertise, strategic guidance, and ensure effective resource allocation. Additionally, the CFO communicates transparently with stakeholders, manages  risks, and supports decision-making to navigate through the transformation successfully. I see myself as a conduit between the leadership, board and the people who report to them.

I believe that inspiring my team with the right strategy motivates them to achieve their objectives, and allows them to produce much more than you ask of them. The secret is facilitating them with the right resources and support. You need to be passionate to the extent of upskilling them and providing them with the relevant coaching needed for them to deliver. If we achieve this, I believe we can collectively overcome challenges and achieve the organisational goals.

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