PEOPLE

FROM BALANCING FINANCIALS TO STRATEGY AND PURPOSE

Pankaj Vasani, Executive President and Group CFO - South Asia, at Publicis Groupe, shares his role in the organisation, work-life, and learnings. He also answers a few questions of a more personal nature.

Pankaj Vasani Pankaj Vasani

My two decades of cross-sectoral experience across multiple domains and diverse roles have enabled me to develop an end-to-end, holistic and unbiased view of the company’s entire value chain.

CFOs stand at the intersection of multiple functions and thus have a unique vantage point of the enterprise. Consequently, their roles are becoming increasingly aligned to business strategy – and that of the CEO. The overriding demand is for CFOs to contribute to business growth, manage complexity and control costs – all at once.

Mr. Vasani has developed an end-to-end, holistic and unbiased view of the company’s entire value chain. Enabling this is two decades of cross-sectoral/industry experience across multiple domains (Finance, Legal, Tax, Operations) and diverse roles (super-specialist, specialist and generalist). Further, as the role of the Finance Head shifts from fiduciary to visionary, he believes he is now better equipped than ever to appreciate the nuances of various facets that impact business decision-making. Being able to connect the dots and influence outcomes more directly, his job involves translating both insights and philosophy into specific action items and advantages.

Current Mandate

It takes an iterative, always-on approach to analyse and adjust one’s technology investments.

Mr Vasani is part of the Groupe’s Leadership Team (GLT) for South Asia, which focuses on helping brands accelerate transformation, enhance collaboration and achieve cumulative growth for clients. Among other things, he and his Finance team are responsible not just for performance management, strategy, transformation, change management, value focus (realisation/optimisation) and market positioning; but also, for quality stewardship and in-the-time and effective advisory to agencies and businesses. They achieve this by leveraging their detailed understanding of the Groupe’s commercial strategy and the business objectives of key stakeholders. Mr Vasani is an active member of the Publicis Global Finance community, ensuring that the handling of financial matters in South Asia is aligned with global priorities, and that the Corporate has full transparency on this.

Top endeavours of the finance team

Mr Vasani started as a Senior Financial Officer with RGA, a chartered accountancy firm with a focus on accounting, auditing and tax. Thereafter, he moved to Subros as Legal Advisor (Commercial and Tax); Coca-Cola as Country Tax Manager; Publicis Groupe (then Sapient) as Head of Compliance & Tax; and Vodafone as CEO (Cable & Wireless), Head of Finance & Tax- India HoldCos, and Board Member. In a 20+ year career, he has seen the Finance function’s role in the organisation deepen and widen. Looking back, he now identifies five key ‘endeavours’ for any Finance team:

  • Ensure sophisticated financial fluency: To monitor and communicate financial performance, coupled with a focus on accentuating the top line, cost containment/vigilance and profit improvement.
  • Instil a high-performance culture by finding the right things to work on. The key is to define several metrics that track performance and recognise success. These reveal trends, risks/opportunities, and also determine awareness of the outside world. These metrics should not be treated as inert. Instead they should be frequently reviewed and polished in line with changing external conditions.
  • Champion the cost agenda to enable a structural shift towards much higher PBOI/EBITDA levels. Focus on financial control during the process of efficiency enhancement.
  • Ensure that the decisions made across the organisation are based on sound judgement, and that they enable the development of a coherent strategic plan aligned to business and functional plans. Further, these must have the support of key stakeholders, including but not limited to strategies and M&As underway.
  • Establish a comprehensive culture and people agenda to ensure an ongoing focus on sustainable and profitable growth. Also, make changes to the structure of the Finance organisation to enable true business partnership.

Lessons Learned

During his career, Mr Vasani has learned several valuable lessons:


Stay delivery-focused: Define the right arena and build a culture that is more operational than corporate, clearly laying out where to play, how to play and how to win competitively. It should be all about performance and delivery, devoid of politics.


Speak operations: He believes that ‘A lot of accountants are experts with debits and credits, but when dealing with business colleagues, your language should not be Hebrew to them. Go beyond the numbers to be a co-partner of the organisation’s agenda. And remember, patience is a virtue.’


Do not let the problem slide, because it will only get worse: ‘Management wants to know when the dog is not well – not when it is dead!’ There is no situation that cannot be resolved by tackling others in a determined and constructive effort.


Embrace technology: Leveraging the impact of new technologies and analytics to drive value, and to anticipate threats and opportunities. Having the necessary tools and insights are a must. It takes an iterative, always-on approach to analyse and adjust one’s technology investments.


Build a great team: It is an immensely busy role, so CFOs need a fantastic team, one that is entrusted with power and accountability. CFOs need to step in now and then to check.

De-stress Mantras

Mr Vasani believes that stress is a great leveller, which helps us become better versions of ourselves. ‘It is an affirmation of resilience. And that is not an anti-thesis.’ He is of the view that there is no single pill that can get us to de-stress. Instead, he follows three mantras to keep stress at bay:

Breathe in, breathe out

Breathing, according to him, is an exceptionally potent tool. It forces the brain to isolate for a little before coming back to the pandemonium again. It oxygenates the whole system and energises the body-mind, and is probably one of the best ways to stay focused and high-pitched.

Wabi-sabi

This Japanese concept involves embracing things that are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete – the converse of our conventional perception of beauty as something flawless, lasting and monumental. We can rewire our brains to accept imperfections and everything within and without.

This, too, shall pass

This mantra is chastening if one feels smug, and encouraging if one wants to thwart negative feelings. It reminds us that all conditions are ephemeral and transitory, and we cannot control everything in life – personal or professional. We can, though, control how we feel and respond to situations, and not leave things to fate.

On Physical and Mental Fitness

A fitness enthusiast with his name in the Guinness Book of World Records for finishing a mountain half marathon, Mr Vasani believes fitness is not about the end result, but the process. His philosophy is to wake up every morning – barring a few odd days – at 4:30 am, and ensure that he always gets at least 6 hours of sleep. His workout regimen includes generally outdoor activities like running/walking, calisthenics/bodyweight training, tennis, badminton, yoga and swimming. In terms of his food regimen, he does not count his calories, rarely eats packaged food, and stays away from white sugar.

Mr Vasani practices nothing-ness (not even thinking) for at least five whole minutes daily. He believes everyone deserves this break, and that physical fitness is a by-product of mental fitness.

Career highlights

Pankaj Vasani has over 20 years of experience in the automotive, beverage, software, telecom and services sectors. He received ICAI’s Chief Financial Officer of the Year award in 2018, and ICAI Professional Achievers award in 2014. In 2019, he was recognised as a ‘Strategy Visionary Leader’, ‘Finance Personality of the Year’, and ‘CFO Veteran’ among other recognitions at various events across the country.
Mr Vasani is a Chartered Accountant (India), Associate Certified Public Accountant (Australia), Lawyer and Commerce graduate (Delhi University, India). He also did his EEP (IIM Bangalore, India) and EP International Tax (Leiden University, Netherlands).