PEOPLE

The Unconventional CFO

Sukesh Lal, CFO, Lifecell, shares some of the many lessons he has learnt over the course of his career

R Sampath Sukesh Lal
CFO, Lifecell

Sometimes, one becomes the CFO of a successful business because of a happy accident – and almost always, following an unconventional, 'off-road' path helps actualise one's personal goals. This, at least, has been the experience of Sukesh Lal, Chief Financial Officer of LifeCell, a leading neo-genetics healthcare service provider dedicated to minimising disease burden among Indian children, and bringing life-saving cures at affordable prices.

Learning from different experiences…

Mr Lal's career can be viewed as a story in two parts. The first 18 years – from 1982 to 2001 – were about learning and growing amidst some of India's leading professionals and greatest business minds. He worked at the respected professional firm, Lovelock & Lewes's historic Calcutta office; in dramatic assignments, spanning 7 years across the length and breadth of India, for the Tata Group, including at Voltas, its most diversified entity; and at Unilever, where he spent 11 years in the foods business in India and Egypt.

In the second phase of his career, Mr Lal has relished his freedom from 'big company protocol', allowing him to actualise some truly audacious, India-centric ideas in entrepreneurial setups. These are businesses that have saved lives, improved living conditions, created pioneering opportunities for women, and sustained employment on a mass scale. Emerging locally, they have set global standards for their industries and delivered world-class goods and services at Indian prices, all whilst realising value for both the individual and the community. In 2001, after his 11-year stint with Unilever, Mr Lal joined Radhakrishna Foodland, a company with a mission to provide safe food to everyone, every day. As an integration team member for Unilever's JVs, he helped it create an implementation framework for rapid expansion, and to flesh out its 'farm to plate' business model in record time.

In 2005, Mr Lal was appointed Group CFO of Dimexon, a global Big 5 player and pioneer in the diamond and jewellery sector. His role entailed bringing together a team of technical and commercial resources under the promoter, so as to strengthen product quality and meet stakeholders' pipeline integrity expectations. Together with SAP/Siemens, Dimexon developed a state-of-the-art ERP standard for the industry, allowing for end-to-end traceability across the global diamond and jewellery value chain. Literally each stone could be tracked at every step from mine to market.

Mr Lal joined LifeCell in 2014 with a mandate to provide functional maturity and support to the Board. At the time, LifeCell was set for a dramatic growth phase, with big-ticket investments in category building, and an expansion into genetic screening services. Initially, the role was a deeply operational one, and included stabilising the core Finance and HR processes. Being a company with performance obligations extending to 21-lifetime years, the business model relies on highly focused cash management, and investments in operating and strategic assets that can grow or generate sustainable returns perpetually.

…and past successes

His stint with big companies taught Mr Lal several lessons. In a nutshell:

  • Confucian philosophy works: I hear/I know (forget), I see/ I remember, I do/ I understand. So, be hands-on, learn the frontline and machine level process first-hand, do it yourself, check for yourself, be present at the customer call or the data input point, and only then speak.
  • Do today what you need to do the day after tomorrow: Do now, account now, analyse now, and act now.
  • Plan/checklist/schedule your day, week, month, year: Do not just fly by ear
  • A rupee saved is a rupee earned

Meanwhile, working in a smaller, entrepreneurial setup taught him to never undermine the wisdom and value of the 'first family' of employees who helped build the company, and to leverage their passion and loyalty. He has seen, first hand, the fervour of home-grown teams, and their knowledge of the intricacies of the business. This is what helps design world-class technology platforms, create ingenious processes, and set industry standards – which is what ultimately accelerates the journey to full compliance, handsome valuations, and most of all, respect and credibility for an Indian outfit competing globally. Last but not least, Mr Lal recommends 'believing in a perfect world', which is to say, neither see, speak or hear evil.

Current Mandate

At LifeCell, the CFO has the huge responsibility of building a world-class Finance function that supports a business which is contractually obliged to serve the customer for their entire lifetime. He is also expected to institute strong financial controls that help self-finance rapid volume growth – essential in a market where steep price-compression is a reality, but where service providers must offer the most advanced, life-extending solutions. Another big ask is to build a commercial model that makes LifeCell the lowest-cost cell-banking, predictive diagnostics and biologics company in the world. In this regard, the stem-cell community model is a step in the right direction. At a mere one-fifth of the cost of stem-cell banking in other countries, LifeCell's solution provides access to matching units from an entire community of qualified, consenting cord-blood banking families to not only the child, its siblings, and parents, but also its grandparents. Further, the family gets medical support sufficient to cover the costs of a stem-cell transplant as well.

Seeking inspiration…

Mr Lal has several role models, including his then-CFO at Voltas, who helped steady him during the course of large-scale system breakdowns, catastrophic fires, and record-breaking recoveries, and who entrusted him with some of his most complex and challenging roles, including as Head of Taxation. His other role model was his CFO at Lipton, who hired him in 1990, and provided strong guidance and support. Under his watch, Mr Lal's team won accolades for receiving India's first post-liberalisation FDI inflow, in 1992.

Mr Lal also reminisces about the CFO of Unilever's regional headquarters, who recognised the value and ability of Indian managers to leverage local skills and culture. Returning to India to take up a complex role, Mr Lal's experience proved to the well-respected MNC that 'world-class' sometimes means 'Indian class', and that emulating the speed and ingenuity of local trading practices can be the difference between success and failure. This trial by fire helped defined his career, and gave him a chance to do some path-breaking work both in India and abroad. Mr Lal also looks up to Indra Nooyi – that quintessential CFO, who morphed PepsiCo into a Snack Foods giant, and then helmed it as its CEO – and YM Deosthalee, both for developing L&T Finance to significance, and for his smooth hand-off to the well-groomed R Shankar Raman, among his heroes.

…and unwinding

Few things help Mr Lal unwind from a frenetic work-life better than listening to jazz music (he recommends the Jazz24 app) or biking. At a minimum, he does a 30-minute sprint daily, and does longer cycling trips over weekends or when travelling to Europe. He happily admits to enjoying the high-quality theatrical and cinematic content available on streaming apps. Since early in life, he has valued the opportunity to offer 'seva' at nearby places of spiritual and cultural significance, such as the ashrams of spiritual masters at Belur Math and Dakshineswar when in the East; Thiruvannamallai and Kaladi in the South; Shirdi and Alandhi in the West; and Amritsar and Haridwar in the North.

Ambition

At the top of Mr Lal's bucket list is tracing Adi Shankaracharya's trail from South to the North(having already climbed Mount Moses in the Sinai), and savouring that great natural wonder, the Siwa Oasis in the Sahara, which Alexander the Great had hoped to reach. He also seeks to expand his experience of living music and theatre at their places of origin, perhaps driving through towns along those popular jazz standards, 'Route 66' and the 'Pony Express Trail'. He also wants to take an Amazon river cruise, from Peru down to Manaus, Brazil, perhaps catching up with a school friend who teaches math at the university there. A personal mission for Mr Lal is to create a sustainable framework that provides a quality lifestyle and healthcare security to special-needs people – really a cooperative of natural guardians and well-wishers.

Career highlights

Sukesh Lal has over 35 years of professional experience with big MNCs and India-centric companies, including start-ups. He was born and raised in Kolkata, where he completed his schooling from St Xavier's Collegiate School. Mr Lal holds a bachelor of commerce degree from St Xavier's College and is a Fellow member of the Institute of Chartered Accounts of India. Having previously worked with the big companies at remote sites, branches and corporate offices across India and abroad, Mr Lal and his wife Jyoti presently live in Chennai.