In conversation with Adarsh Nahata, Finance Head at PhonePe. He started his career at ITC Ltd. as a Finance Controller, and then worked his way up the corporate ladder at Flipkart, becoming a Director there in 5 short years. He is now the Vice President - Head Of Finance at PhonPe. We would like to understand the role of the Head of Finance at a fintech company from him and how to become one.
I head the finance function here at PhonePe and there are 3 sub functions that I lead as part of the finance org. These are:
a) Business Finance: This works very closely with the business development teams and cost centres like marketing, IT and CS for problem solving, targeting, strategic planning keeping in view a long-term view of what the category goals are and how does it fit into the company’s vision/goals.
b) Corporate FP&A and Investor Relations: Brings the entire org together in terms of reporting, planning, target setting as well as becoming a conduit for all internal and external communication with the company leaders and investors. This function also aids me in fund raising, deployment of funds, market research, keeping a pulse on competition updates as well as competitive benchmarking.
c) Controllership: This makes sure that company follows reporting and compliance guidelines set by Companies Act, IGAAP (in our case USGAAP is also critical since we are a subsidiary to Walmart), IFRS. So, controller org is something which makes sure we operate and report back to different stakeholders and shareholders within the guard rails set out for us. Besides this they also take of various controllership functions, Processes and accounting operations, making sure there are no leakages in the system.
To summarise finance stands for, raising of capital and then deployment of funds in the organisation thereby allowing the company to grow within the governance and execution framework.
My day starts generally going through my inbox and going through reports on data trends in various business verticals within the company over the last few days. I follow that up with regulatory updates/articles, notifications about competition activities and important trends/movements in the ecosystem. This enables me to answer various questions:
Spending first couple of hours for keeping pulse of the daily KPIs at
company level and business vertical level as well staying on top of the email inbox, gives me a good head-start for the day. I follow that up with review meetings. Then there are spikes (long sessions or even full days) at the end of planning cycles (monthly and yearly), month end book closing, investor communications or board meetings where I spend disproportionate time towards these tracks.
I believe surrounding yourself with the right set of people has played a very crucial role in leading me to where I am. By this I mean both mentors and the team which works for/with me. In Flipkart I got the opportunity to work with people like Vaibhav Gupta, co-founder at Udaan, a leading B2B company in India right now; Kalyan Krishnamurthy with whom I spent considerable time working directly in his first - FK- stint as CFO and as his Chief of Staff during his CEO stint. Now I work with Sameer Nigam the co-founder and CEO of PhonePe. Each of these individuals were very different and I have learnt a lot from them. Outside of that I have been blessed in terms of risks paying off at different points of time in my career. I have worked with manufacturing firms like Sterlite and ITC, and it was at ITC where the opportunity to work at Flipkart came along and I took the risk to move there. Most of my peers and close
network were against my decision to join a start-up which was burning through cash and was not a conventional decision to make at that point of time when start-up ecosystem had not yet matured in India. I joined Flipkart as a manager in 2012 and the risk has paid off. I have had 5 promotions in last 7 years, people generally don’t go through that kind of journey. I have been rewarded consistently for the work I have done a part of which stems from associating myself from the right people at the right time.
I have also ensured that I always have a superb team under me who I can lean on. So, I would say it is a mix of both taking the risks, being fortunate enough for it to payoff and surrounding myself with the right set of people at all levels.
There are industry stalwarts and much more experienced CFO/financial leaders who I think are better equipped to answer this. Let me nonetheless take a shot at what I believe has worked for me till now.
Problem Solving: Always thinking from first principles and building scalable solutions by design. Stakeholder Management / Business Partnering: Building the right relationships for executing and strategizing for the benefit of the company is a must. One never
grows alone in a role or even as a professional. Working holistically with cross function involvement, building the right rapport is indispensable irrespective of the role one is in. Fast Decision Making: Given the fast-growing sector I have been a part of decision making is a critical element in the current era.
The speed of decision is more critical than the decision itself.
Pros: Finance as an org is uniquely placed. It gets a bird’s eye view of the entire org as well as an in-depth view of any area they might want to go deep in. You can make people / teams accountable through data, establish governance frameworks for people / company to operate in, understand the nuances of the business through planning and reporting. Work closely and with the business to problem solve org level complexities and challenges. It keeps the function and org excited.
At the same time a function like controllership can add a lot more value in terms of identifying opportunities and arresting leakages through Processes, analytics etc at design level. They are a critical part to overall finance org because somethings still go unnoticed whether you are talking about business finance or corporate FP&A.
Cons: Resistance with one team or the other because of the governance framework you introduce or the intent of joint problem solving is misplaced with Business team. Business Teams generally love to stay independent and enjoy flexibility after budget allocation is done from the finance team. They do not enjoy being challenged on the business calls or their instincts.
On the contrary I have also had wonderful business partners who have worked so closely with finance and me that they see the value that we could drive through data and lean on us to operationally run the category. In terms of con this is the only thing which I have solved for on a case to case basis instead of a design level solution which works seamlessly agnostic of the Category leader in charge. Every time an org change is done I have had to align stakeholders to what finance does, why they do it and how they do it. Sometimes it takes more time for them to see the value add we do to the business. But once they see the value add they adapt to it.
I think two things make a difference
Experiment a lot and get a width of different experiences. What worked for me was that I moved around of lot of profiles. I started as tax consultant, working with the transfer pricing teams, moved on to working in a manufacturing org and spending time at the plant location before moving to divisional head-quarters. By the time I moved to Flipkart I had already experienced 5-7 different profiles. Even within Flipkart I have not
spent more than 1 to 1.5 years in a role. In fact, the stint at PhonePe has been my largest stint in the same role in terms of the time I have spent. To bag a role like mine I believe it is important to diversify your portfolio and learn about as many functions as you can. Work with mentors who teach you how to manage an org, how to manage a team. That is another very critical skill which people need to possess. As an example: During my stint as Chief of Staff to Kalyan I worked very closely with technology and product teams where I learned a lot. Again, in my last stint at Flipkart, I was doing Network Design for Supply chain which is a very specialised profile. I was working with experts who possessed 20+ years’ experience on supply side. The only problem was they did not know anything about the demand side. My job became very simple, to connect the demand and supply side. I learned a lot in the implementation process.
Be passionate about what you do. If your heart is not in it your role then it is time to move on. This advice might seem bookish or cliched to some, but this is what I believe in and I have kept myself true to it. You can not simply succeed if you do not like what you are doing. It is as simple as that.
I have been asked this question a lot. The only advice I give freshers is to start with whatever comes their way. The reason is simple. Every job will give you an opportunity to learn. Skip hop and jump as and when new opportunity comes your way. Thinking long term without knowing or realising what the short-term role has to offer is a shortcut. Explore various possibilities as and when they present themselves. Do not block your mind on one path too early in your career. Try different stuff, if you are not enjoying a role then move on to something else. 1st 5 years don’t think if this is something you are supposed to do, don’t become territorial and have high sense of
ownership to whatever you do. Explore whatever you can. I believe that gives you the exposure and experience to decide what you want to do in the longer run. In all the interviews in the initial 3-5 years, whenever I was asked to question
what do you want to do in the long term I used to say, I want to grow with a company and manage a large portfolio under me. I kept it as generic as possible for the simple reason that I wanted to be honest in my answer and that I did not know. I realised with time that this was true for most of the people around me. No one knows for sure. Not only does this exploration allow you to decide what you want to do but it also enables you with skills which shape you up and enable you to excel at your job in the mid-term career
This is only what I have done and seen around me as well. There might be different playbooks and different experiences. For example, the CFO of Graphite who I worked with. He worked for the same company for 35 years. He had the belief that working at the same organisation gives you stronger depth and niche skills which helps you grow. That could be track which someone might enjoy but one needs to be passionate about the job at hand. If you find what you really and deeply care about and enjoy then you should stick with it. No need to change just because I am suggesting you to.
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“I’m a Commerce graduate from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata and have completed CA (Rank holder), CFA(USA), FRM(USA), CAIA(USA), CCRA, CIPM, AIM and CS. At present, I am a visiting faculty at St. Xavier’s College, NSE, BSE; B-Schools like iLead, BIBS along with several other institutes; am a full-time trainer for CFA, FRM and SFM – CA Final. Provide trainings at organizations like Tata Interactive Systems, Volvo-Eicher(VECV), Genpact, AIITA, EIRC-ICAI, Saregama, Quaker Chem, Century Ply, AUM Capital etc. on Finance and Advance Excel.