ESS Leadership Series
CFO Talks: Mainur Rahman Bhuiyan
Grab the opportunity, keep sharpening your networking and professional skills and prepare for your dream roles.
March 2021 | Interview
CFO Talks is an initiative by ESS & Partners to showcase successful finance leaders working in different industries in Bangladesh and thereby giving them an opportunity to share their thoughts and learning with us and with the readers. This initiative is very much aligned with our commitment to harnessing local knowledge accumulated over the centuries. Their thoughts shaped by their vast experience present us an opportunity to revisit our thoughts on these issues and, thereby, to move forward with renewed and reinforced ideas and beliefs.
This edition of CFO Talks features Mainur Rahman Bhuiyan who has currently been working as a CFO of Syngenta Bangladesh Ltd. Mainur started his career in 1998 as an accountant in Occidental International Exploration and Production Company. He spent around 19 years of his long career in Grameenphone and during that time he saw himself climbing to top of the corporate ladder, becoming Director and discharging the role of Acting Chief Financial Officer. Before joining Syngenta in June 2020, he was the Group Chief Financial Officer of Partex Star Group.
Syngenta Bangladesh Ltd, a joint venture between Syngenta AG, Switzerland and Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corporation (BCIC), is the leading crop protection and seeds company in Bangladesh. Syngenta AG, currently operating in around 90 countries, was formed in 2000 by the merger of the agrichemical businesses of Novartis and AstraZeneca.
Mainur shared his thoughts and opinions on multiple issues; these thoughts and opinions are his personal ones and do not reflect the thoughts and opinions of his employers, present or past.
I did not sit back and let it win over me as I always believe nothing is guaranteed in life, specially corporate world is not always fair and priorities change time to time.
ESS: You worked in different industries, like petrochemical, telecommunication, local conglomerate and now in agrochemical. Do you see any difference in finance roles across these industries? How?
Mainur: Basic Finance function remains the same with some additional focus depending on the industry you are working for, e.g. for a manufacturing organization you should be concerned about how you keep the COGS low, secure efficiency in the productivity ratio etc. because gross profit plays a significant part in Manufacturing concerns. Telecom and Petrochemical companies are capex intensive companies where NPV plays a vital role in decision making process. For local conglomerates, one of the key cost components is cost of funds as many local conglomerates are usually highly levered (with few exceptions). So CFOs have to spend a significant time in sourcing working capital and financing projects with low cost funding.
ESS: You worked in multinational companies as well as in local conglomerate. How does finance function in multinational companies differ from, if it does, finance function in local conglomerate? What are the reasons for the differences, if any?
Mainur: Multinational companies are mostly process driven whereas local conglomerates are more person driven because the local conglomerates are by and large family driven companies where the founder and his heirs own majority of the company shares and form the Board of directors and there is hardly any demutualization between the management and the Board. It hinders the process of management empowerment and accounts for not attracting / retaining management talents and subject matter experts (SMEs). In MNCs there is clear separation between Board and management. Again the Board members are mostly nominated by the shareholders. Business is more process oriented which makes it less dependent on persons. MNCs focus on continuous improvement, operational excellence and invest in future proof technologies. That is one of the secrets for their existence over centuries and sustainable growth. Finance should be able to understand the business dynamics and cultural environment and advise accordingly the CEO and Board.
ESS: You spent around one year at Telenor HQ in Norway. How was that experience? Is there any learning from that experience you are still carrying on?
Mainur: One key takeaway from my time at Telenor HQ is that they are not overly stressed and find a way to enjoy life. Well, Bangladesh is not comparable to Norway from socio-economic point of view. But if I see from employee mindset, they do not tend to spend longer hours in office, do not waste time in gossiping, leave office on time which helps them spend quality time with family and make better work life balance. The corporate leadership is less hierarchical. Culturally, Scandinavian society is an egalitarian society. There is low power distance between leader and subordinates. Unlike in our office culture, the CFO herself prepares her presentation. Organizational structure is relatively flat and lean. They embrace technological change faster. Currently, I work in a Swiss MNC and find lots similarities in the way of work and the overall culture. I am carrying the learnings and consciously practicing in the local setup.
ESS: You have a long career and it is probably difficult to isolate a few accomplishments from others. Despite, what are the three top accomplishments in your career you are proud of? What was so special about those accomplishments?
Mainur: After completing my training in KPMG in October 1997 I started my professional career with a German based oil field drilling company called Deutag. I worked in US based Oil exploration operator called Occidental BD. During my tenure there I passed my CA final examination in August 1998 and qualified as a Chartered Accountant. After one year service as Accountant in Occidental I moved to BJ services BD. another US based oil field service company as Head of Finance and Admin. I consider this to be the first accomplishment to head the Finance function of an MNC at the age of 27. As the Oil fields were drying up, I considered to move on and try out new industries. I joined Grameenphone (GP) on 15 November, 1999 and replaced the then Business Controller who was a Norwegian. I never planned but continued my career in GP for more than 19 years until I decided to move on in March, 2019. I consider my journey in GP as a journey of learning and contributing at the same time as I was fortunate to be the part of the growth story of GP in Bangladesh. What I love to cherish in GP are my direct contribution in securing USD 350M foreign funding required for network expansion, launch of GP IPO in 2009 and serve GP as acting CFO for more than a year. My recent appointment as Head of Finance of Syngenta is another important accomplishment in my career. This gives me a sense of fulfillment as I am able to contribute in Agriculture sector as well as food security of Bangladesh by providing crop protection solutions.
ESS: How do you define career success? What you think have contributed to your career success?
Mainur: In my view career success is attaining your dream role while making positive contributions towards creating value for the organizations you serve. It is not easy to reach the pinnacle in career. It takes lots of efforts and mental preparations. I chose Finance as career path and was determined to reach the career peak. For that I did not settle in a particular role for many years and went on expanding my horizon be it within or outside the company. What I think also worked for me was my appetite to take risks and be out of the comfort zone. It was not easy to take a role outside Bangladesh without having clarity what would happen when I come back. Now when I look back I think I did the right thing and my one year work experience in Norway helped me understand better leadership expectations in strategic roles and how to work in a culturally diverse working environment. Two other things worked for me are patience and ability to lead with vulnerability. No team likes an arrogant leader.
ESS: This long career, was it a smooth journey? Can you share with us some of the hurdles you faced and how you overcome those?
Mainur: Over my 23 years’ career, it was not always smooth for sure, there were challenges. The first one was after one year of my service with BJ services and Co. as Head of Finance. During end of 1999, two years after I started my career I realized that country’s oil sector is facing growth challenge and the downsizing is imminent. I had to take the call being part of the management and we retrenched half of the resources that time. I started to think alternatives. I got a call from GP. GP was in its infancy at that time and it was not easy to join a start-up company. I took risk and it paid off. Towards the end of the career in GP when I came back from Telenor HQ I started to realize that I am not being utilized to my full potential and it is time to move on. I joined a local conglomerate as Group CFO and now in Agri sector. What I found was that it is very important to enjoy the work else it becomes a stress. The company, brand are important but not at the cost of career growth and self satisfaction. I think flexibility and risk taking ability worked for me in overcoming some hurdles in my career.
ESS: How does CFO’s role differ, if it does, from other CXOs’? What do you bring as a CFO to the strategic discussion in your organization?
Mainur: CFOs work as a bridge between the shareholders and the management. As we know there are agency problems between the management and the shareholders, CFOs play a pivotal role in securing balance between the interests of the two groups. CFOs do not have any individual business delivery targets like CMOs who need to increase market share and deliver revenue growth by giving offers, discounts etc. CFOs are not against business growth or expansion but they bring the perspectives into the discussion . As an advisor and trusted business partner to the CEO and the management team I stress on how to de-risk the business in terms of delivering performance targets. Through rolling business forecasts and value added analysis I support the CXOs to take corrective actions to mend the performance gaps. My focus is more on bottom line improvement which helps with healthy cashflow and returns to the shareholders.
ESS: What do you consider as the defining features of a business leader?
Mainur: Besides being a good story teller, energetic and inspirational, a business leader should be having the sense of vulnerability which helps him to learn things quickly and get along with the team with trust and openness. One critical success factor is the ability to delegate some of the work to his team members. So leaders should invest time to recruit the right persons. To be successful in business world A leader should have the features of ACT (Ownership and Accountability, Customer centricity and ability to Take risk with new projects and business ideas).
ESS: When you recruit people for your finance team, what skills in the candidates do you look for?
Mainur: Recruitment process varies depending on the hierarchy of roles. If we recruit for junior roles we assess candidates’ depth in functional knowledge, problem solving and technology skills. At the same time it is important for us to understand how he or she will be performing as team player. For more senior roles, besides functional skills we focus on the candidates leadership traits eg. inter-personal skills, story telling capacity and critical thinking ability.
ESS: Do you think finance role has changed significantly over the years since you started your career? How?
Mainur: I will say Finance role has not changed but evolved over the years more with the technological advancement and innovations. The importance of business partnering has increased manifold as business and management come up with more requests for value added and quick analytics to support actions. If I look 20 years back, the number of Finance resources engaged in transaction processing was much more than what we have today. A recent survey from McKinsey reveals that Finance function cost reduced by 29% over one decade. This was possible for adoption of new technologies, reliance on outsourcing and shared services.
ESS: What new and mature technologies and how are those technologies going to change the shape of finance function in the next 10 years?
Mainur: It is often said that technologies will take a significant number of jobs currently performed by human. We can see, this is no more a myth. Finance is not out of that threat. We can see use of Robotics in Finance processes. In Insurance and banking sectors more and more AI driven technologies are being used. AS a group we have already moved to Cloud based accounting software. We can contemplate Finance will be evolved more in partnering and strategic roles in planning, performance management, efficient tax and treasury planning with minimum resource in transaction processing.
ESS: Which performance metrics do you think CFOs should always keep an eye on?
Mainur: The Key performance metrics are: Revenue growth, EBITDA and last but not the least, free cashflow as cash is king and it is important to pay healthy dividend to shareholders and take on new projects for business growth.
ESS: Coming back to your personal story again, do you have disappointments in your career or life?
Mainur: Yes of course, but I did not sit back and let it win over me as I always believe nothing is guaranteed in life, specially corporate world is not always fair and priorities change time to time.
ESS: How should we approach setbacks in our career?
Mainur: We should never lose self confidence, build resilience in our attitude and be flexible to take up new opportunities. This is not easy because we feel pressure from peer, family and social groups. One piece of advice will be not to sit idle even if you think you deserve a better placement. Grab the opportunity keep sharpening your networking and professional skills and prepare for your dream roles.
ESS: What should the young finance professionals do to prepare themselves for the future leadership roles?
Mainur: First and foremost, the young professionals should grow more patience. This is applicable for all kinds of professionals. It is important to invest time to learn the professionals skills, build a strong foundation, make yourself ready for more senior roles. It is better to start your career with a small or medium sized company where you get to handle more than one role which helps develop multi tasking capabilities and face different business challenges. The World Economic Forum in a recent study has identified top ten job skills that 50% work force needed to be reskilled by 2025. The skills are of 4 types, problem solving, self management, technology use and innovation and working with people. Young finance professionals should embrace new technology, spend time in learning leadership skills through e-learning resources available. It is important to prepare themselves for leading cross functional project through influencing skills and impactful communication.
ESS: Any final remark you would like to share with us?
Mainur: Our Finance professionals are talented. They have access to the latest technology and educational materials. They can earn world class degree from home. All they need to have the determination and consistent efforts to turn their dreams into reality and be part of winning Finance team so that he or she can be a trusted partner in value creation and winning business.
Syed Md Enamul Kabir, MBA (Edinburgh), FCA, ACA (ICAEW) Managing Director