Reimagining the CFO

From crunching numbers to capturing imaginations

by Jyotsna Krishnan and Richa Pandey

2019 was a busy year for us at Elevar, with multiple companies joining our portfolio (both in India and Latin America) and some new CFOs coming on board. As we looked at the cross section of CFOs across our companies, it became apparent that we had  a special group of people – an interesting blend of maturity, technical expertise, experience across sectors, perspective on stakeholder management and most importantly, an entrepreneurial spirit. Some of these aspects are not necessarily what one thinks of when imagining a “CFO”. 

That’s when the thought occurred that while Elevar has had many a meet designed to pull together our founders, it would be fascinating to bring the CFOs together. Each one of our companies aspires to build an everlasting brand that redefines distribution into underserved customer segments/markets. This journey involves nuances around governance, stakeholder management, data driven decision making, business understanding and negotiation ability, all of which lie in the CFO’s domain. The importance of establishing credibility with public and private stakeholders has been core to our investment thesis, and there again, the CFO’s role becomes central.

With this context in mind, we planned a Beyond Discussions event for the CFOs of our India portfolio (India because it was logistically easier, quicker and they share the same country level regulatory environment) who have a rich mix of pre-current role experience ranging from 15 to 30 years, in a diverse spectrum of industries like FMCG, Retail, Manufacturing, IT and Financial Services. For the uninitiated, Beyond Discussions by Elevar is a series of thematic events pulling together a subset of the Elevar portfolio (usually the India portfolio or the Latam portfolio) – and on occasion, we invite the broader Elevar ecosystem. The goal is simple – to share and get to practical and execution oriented ideas, much “beyond” a “discussion”. 

The event was designed to cover a range of topics and conversations peppered with the usual Elevar-style candour, with our earliest founders and closest advisors pitching in to share insights from their areas of expertise – a day moderated by our very own legal counsel, Ankita Kansil.

The day began with a dramatic opening up of possibilities, with Ramaraj (Founder, Sify – and Senior Advisor at Elevar), in a conversation with Rajat and Akshay (Elevar), narrating the success story of his company and the key role his CFO played, as strategic partner to the CEO and storyteller to the investor community. As he recounted taking his company public on  Nasdaq, there was considerable enthusiasm and discussion around capturing the imagination of the global investor. This memorable phrase from Ramaraj set the tone for the day by not only fuelling ambitions but also implying the need for a right-brained twist to a traditionally left-brained role. 

Manan Lahoty’s (IndusLaw) conversation with Shobha (Elevar) on aspirational governance was a clarion call to CFOs that public capital markets expect world-class standards of governance (more than ever), and systems need to be in place long before an IPO happens. CFOs had a range of questions for Manan, from when diligence should start, to timing acquisitions before IPOs and looking beyond Indian capital markets for listing. KT Chandy (E&Y) and Sandeep (Elevar) helmed a session that helped bring business considerations around “structuring” come alive with classic first-hand examples and shared experiences. The key takeaway from the conversations that were sparked was that focusing on structures aligned to business objectives rather than taxation leads to far more elegant and viable solutions. 

Jyotsna and Vipul’s (Elevar) session on how investors negotiate was about giving CFOs a window into how the other side thinks and equipping them with the right tools to speak the language of investors. Models were discussed for evaluating multiple future scenarios well into Series C and D rounds, encouraging CFOs to look ahead from here and now. As CFOs across the board shared individual experiences, the spotlight came back on the storytelling aspect of their role, in showcasing the enormous potential of our companies’ untapped markets to the investor community.

In a candid and freewheeling conversation, Vinod Rai (former Comptroller and Auditor General of India) provided insights into the challenges of holding public and private institutions accountable and ensuring good governance, in the Indian landscape. He covered examples from the business community, sports, religion, government etc. CB Bhave (former Chairman, SEBI – India’s securities market regulator) brought in valuable perspective from the other side of the table and threw light on the complexities Indian regulators must deal with, in the context of a broader business environment culture that often leans towards non-compliance. 

Sandeep and Jyotsna spoke about the Elevar journey so far and their vision for the future – in a session moderated by Alok Mittal (Founder & CEO, Indifi – one of Elevar’s portfolio companies). In a lighter vein, when participants were asked to name an animal that best represented the ethos of Elevar, there was general amusement and a volley of very interesting ideas – from the agile Cheetah to the nurturing Elephant. The jury’s still out on that one!

With the CEOs of our portfolio companies joining us towards the evening, Jyotsna led Samit Ghosh (Founder, Ujjivan) and Nitin Chugh (CEO, Ujjivan) to talk through the experience of finding a successor to the founder and lessons learnt over the years in building an organization. Samit had some astute insights to share, urging founders to have the objectivity to recognize that the team involved in the inception of the company may not have the competencies to scale it up, and at times leadership positions may have to be filled from the outside. He advised the old guard to keep long term interests of the organization in mind, and know when to “bow out with grace”. Bringing in the new guard perspective, Nitin spoke about the importance of knowing what to bring in from past work experience, and what to unlearn and start afresh.

As the day wrapped up, enthusiasm levels still ran high and there was a collective feeling of time having flown. We got the sense that the CFOs had a lot to think about – apart from all the conversation around world-class standards expected from the core finance function, the day had been about paradigm shifts and reimagining the CFO’s role- once relegated to back-office compliance and control, it now features front and center in shaping a company’s destiny. And the CFO of today has to be accomplished in aspects that go far beyond number crunching, to being a strategic partner, conscience keeper, influencer and storyteller. We hoped that each of our participants would take away reflections that have the potential to cause this shift in mindset. However, we knew that the true mission of the event had been accomplished when one of our CFOs wrote in – “The camaraderie which is now developed with the fellow CFOs and the Elevar team, in particular, provides us a strong port-of-call in our journey”.