The Future CFO: Less Finance and More Strategy

Rakesh Gupta shares what it takes to becoming a strategic CFO

Francois de Thomasson
Rakesh Gupta,
Group CFO at Apollo International Limited

The most effective CFOs today are those who add value beyond the traditional Finance activities of accounting and control, and deliver on strategic outcomes. This means having to develop expertise in areas such as technology implementation, the management of new types of risks, and data and analytics. On top of all this, CFOs are expected to play an active role in driving profitability and competitiveness. Rakesh Gupta, Group CFO at Apollo International Limited, strongly believes that becoming a strategically-oriented CFO requires both specific skills and capabilities, and leadership support. His three decades of rich experience, including 24 years at Apollo International, help him drive growth at the company, which has multiple diversified businesses in integrated logistics, the distribution and marketing of tyres, leather garments, shoes and accessories, and EPC.

Key Lessons From Past Experiences

Mr Gupta entered the corporate world at the age of 22, when he joined Modi Continental. The seven years he spent there were foundational in making him a well-rounded professional. In his own words, “The experience brought about a mindset shift, and made me more aware of the softer yet complex nuances of dealing with people.” He credits his seniors, who he believes were instrumental in mentoring and coaching him. Mr Gupta joined Apollo Group as Finance Controller and Company Secretary in 1994. From early on, he has gone beyond the call of duty to contribute to Apollo’s business. For that, he received an ‘All Rounder Performance Award’ during his early years with the company. Gradually, through hard work, perseverance and dedication, he rose to the Group CFO level in 2009. Since then, he has been responsible for various functions, including Finance, banking, compliance, taxation, M&A, legal and investments, and in addition, is directly involved in business and strategy. Recently, he was being ‘Identified among the Top 20 CFO’s for their Continued Commitment to Excellence’ by the ‘CFO Leadership Summit’ held at New Delhi. To him, interesting and challenging tasks matter more than fancy designations.

“As an influencer, change agent and advisor, a CFO must possess superior communication and interpersonal skills to translate insights and leadership into tactics that drive strategy and the business forward”

Focusing on soft skills

While functional competencies like risk and cash flow management are must-haves, the capability of a CFO is only as valuable as his reach. Therefore, one of the essential traits of an effective CFO is the ability to communicate clearly and concisely with both sets of stakeholders – internal and external (customer, shareholders, regulators and others). As an influencer, change agent and advisor, a CFO must possess superior communication and interpersonal skills to translate insights and leadership into tactics that drive strategy and the business forward.

Managing time effectively

A complex business environment and rising expectations from CFOs make time management a critical factor in job and organisational success. To that end, both technology and delegation are keys. Of these, the delegation of responsibilities is one of the most effective time-management tools for improving a CFO’s efficiency. However, to ensure effective delegation, CFOs must surround themselves with good and trustworthy people. Another approach is to leverage technology tools, especially for repetitive and non-value add tasks. This frees up valuable time and enables a greater focus on strategic matters.

Building a strong finance team

A good Finance team – one that is driven, motivated, honest, and capable – can provide great value to the business. To that end, hiring the right people is one of the most crucial, but also very challenging tasks –especially when the focus is on soft skills. This is the main reason why, while assessing new candidates, Mr Gupta assigns only a 20 per cent weight to technical skills, and focuses mainly on the softer aspects, such as attitude, interpersonal skills and temperament. The leader’s role is critical in driving performance, since it helps staff build the skills needed to get to the next level. Mr Gupta constantly lends support in developing his people. His advice to senior leaders is that they should not commit the mistake of not hiring a better or a strong person under them due to any insecurity to themselves. A strong person under a leader will increase the effectiveness of the leader as well as the function.

Fostering greater collaboration with business teams

Finance is often viewed as a siloed function. To overcome this, it must proactively involve itself in project planning, and offer solutions rather than merely highlighting problems. At Apollo, Mr Gupta built a collaborative approach by bringing in business partners in several verticals. This has helped the company break through to the next level of growth. Specifically, he has implemented a ‘run rate’ process, which assesses the performance shortfall of a business at any point, and fosters competition among business units. Every month, the Finance team generates a detailed MIS, which lends insights on performance-versus-target for each department. In general, Mr Gupta believes, regular networking with the business as well as customers, vendors, banks and investors can help CFOs create new avenues for collaboration.

“Senior leaders should not commit the mistake of ‘not’ hiring a better or a strong person under them due to any insecurity to themselves.”

Seeking inspiration…

Mr Gupta looks up to people who have clarity of thought, and who can solve complex business problems by keeping things simple. In that regard, he considers Apollo’s MD Mr Raaja Kanwar to be his role model.

…and pursuing passions

Mr Gupta is passionate about movies and writing – so much so that he has taken the leap to becoming a filmmaker and an author. He produced a short film, ‘Raaya’, which aimed to spread a social message of not losing hope even in the face of adversity. The movie was exhibited at the 71st Cannes Festival in May 2018, and got the ‘Special Festival Mention Award’ at the Dada Saheb Phalke Film Festival 2018. He also plans to write a book on unlocking the power of the subconscious mind.

Career highlights

Rakesh Gupta has over 30 years of professional experience, including 24 years at Apollo International, where he serves as Group CFO. Previously, he worked with the Modi Group as a Financial Controller. In 2018, he won the Finance leadership award by ‘CFO Leadership Summit’ held at New Delhi.

Mr Gupta is a Fellow Member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, and of the Institute of Company Secretaries of India.