Finance is not just a support function for progressive businesses but also a value creator that plays a key role in strategy and execution !

Rajesh Ravindranathan, our next pathbreaker, Head of Shared Services & Finance function at RM Education Solutions India, conceptualises and drives the overall financial planning & strategy for the multi-division, multi-product business integrating core finance with BI and data analysis.

Rajesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how the finance function is being redefined by digitization, driven by advancements in BI tools, and the immense opportunities for businesses to innovate in order to be future ready.

For students, always be open to step out of your comfort zone even if it means that you have to do something against pre-defined norms !

Rajesh, Your background?

I grew up and did my schooling in a village in central Kerala. Both my parents were government employees.  I was fortunate to be brought up in an environment that offered enough opportunities to be part of numerous extra curricular activities.  Looking back, I realize how rewarding those experiences are in terms of developing  human skills, communication, leadership and leading a healthy life.  I was an active participant in theater performances, public speaking and coordinating events. I must mention my participation in sports where we all get our first lesson on managing failure and resilience.  Those were the times when computers were touted to be the next big revolution.  If one was good at studies, engineering or medicine were the only two career options presented to them, as something to aspire for.  I too followed the buzz & dreamed of becoming a software engineer and writing programs that automate tasks and make life easier.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my Bachelors in  Physics & joined CA after that.  I have also secured the AMCT qualification, passing the exam conducted by Association of Corporate Treasurers, UK.  Recently, I completed an executive education course with Indian Institute of Management Lucknow on data analytics for finance professionals.  

What were some of the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Failure to secure a seat for software engineering forced me to look for other professional courses.  I started with the available published material/journals introducing other career options and then reached out to seniors and professionals working in those areas as well as my teachers for further guidance.  I chose CA considering the higher chances of getting into a reputed and secured career and the option for lifelong earning through the practice.

Clearing the CA foundation examination during the second year of graduation was a turning point in my studies. My interaction with teachers, most of whom were leading CA professionals and fellow students gave me proper direction to continue with the course.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After qualifying CA, my first assignment was with Geojit Financial Services, managing operations of their branch in Cochin that offered financial advisory and transaction services to HNI (high-net-worth investors) customers. The responsibilities included a diversified portfolio of sales, team management, office administration, client service and financial advisory.  The opportunity to interact closely with many of our HNI customers who were top professionals, executives or successful businessmen taught me the first lessons of building a growth mindset and played an instrumental role in exposing me to global experiences in life and profession. The realization of the importance of “must have” skills for any professional i.e  sales, communication and service mindset was another key takeaway.  

I got my first overseas opportunity through an ex- colleague and moved to Botswana to work for Moores Rowland, a public accounting firm.  After a short stint, I joined GH Group, a diversified business house, taking over the group accounting portfolio.  Opportunity to work closely with the Head of business development and shareholders was a very rewarding experience and helped me build a new perspective of becoming a business partner from  an accountant.  

My next assignment was with Qatar Chemical Company (Q-Chem), a petrochemical manufacturing business based out of Qatar where I joined as a financial analyst which was more of a business partnering role. I worked for 10 years with the same business assuming progressive roles covering all facets of corporate finance. As a financial analyst, I worked on financial reporting, planning and analysis, management reporting and governance functions of the business, getting trained from great minds in the industry.  The opportunity to work with a multicultural workforce of more than 30 nationalities was another priceless experience.  I could closely observe and learn from my managers as to how to develop a successful career and climb up the corporate ladder.  Willingness to continuously learn and develop our knowledge, maintaining a cordial and professional relationship with peers, building your brand as a problem solver and approachable colleague, and a willingness to take and give feedback are some of key drivers to having a successful career.  

The next assignment was handling the tax and transfer pricing portfolio of the business.  In this role I was responsible for implementing the systems and processes that ensure compliance with regulations. Another rewarding experience was the opportunity to work with peer groups, and influencing them to make process changes to support compliance requirements. These interactions helped me to have a closer view of how non-finance teams approach business issues and their expectations from a finance function.   

My first management role came after this with an opportunity to lead the corporate treasury operations. The Treasury department handles the cash management, forex and investment management, project finance funding, compliance with loan covenants, relationships with financial institutions and timely payment to suppliers for their multi-billion dollar businesses. I joined the AMCT course after moving to Treasury, and the learning helped to understand in detail the best practices of treasury management as well as providing me access to a wider network of treasury professionals. I had a great team to work with and we brought in many improvements to the treasury operations and risk management.  

During the last year of my employment with Q-Chem, I worked as Finance Manager (Acting) responsible for the financial planning and analysis and internal control portfolios in addition to treasury.  The varied experiences gained over the last 12 years gave me confidence to break out of my comfort zone and explore job opportunities back in India.  I always admired the development of the startup ecosystem and was keen on joining a budding business idea and being part of its growth story.  

I joined Ryds, a shared and sustainable mobility startup in Bangalore heading the finance function.  The pace and dynamism of the start-up environment gave me an opportunity to apply all the learnings gained over the years not only in finance but in people services, admin, IT systems and data management areas.  I experienced the need to integrate and use data generated across all functions of the business and ways to build a forward looking finance function based on it. Though we couldn’t take the business idea to the heights we desired to, the experience of being part of building  a business was a long cherished dream come true. 

My experiences over the years have taught me that it’s the people who make the difference in any business. So, as a leader, we need to work towards creating an environment of trust and transparency where people feel valued and cared for.  

How did you get your first break?

I preferred working with a corporate business compared to practice and got the first break with Geojit by clearing the multiple interview rounds for the position.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1:  Being in a customer facing role, the main challenge was to stay updated on what’s happening in the financial products market as well as the issues that shape market trends and the economy in general . In order to gain knowledge, I consistently spent time every day reading, and learning through interactions with more experienced colleagues in the company.

Challenge 2: The role also demanded business development for the branch through upselling and sourcing new customers. Sales and customer service were completely new for me and there again, I reached out to colleagues and seniors in the organization to learn from their experiences.  I accompanied them during their client interactions which was a great way of experiential learning.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work with RM ESI India Pvt. Ltd based out of technopark Trivandrum, a subsidiary of RM Plc. In my current role, I head the Record to Report function in the shared financial services area, where our team is responsible for the General Ledger, financial planning and analysis and core treasury activities for the group.  

What are the skills required for your role?

The position demands both technical as well as management skills.  Technical knowledge and skills include knowledge for proper maintenance of books of accounts, internal controls, reporting framework and standards, knowledge of ERP systems, Excel spreadsheets to build and maintain financial models for planning and analysis, usage of reporting tools like Power Bi/Tableau and familiarity with digitization trends in accounting and finance area to drive productivity and process improvements. People skills and management skills are another main requirement including leadership skills, coaching and mentoring team members, problem solving, communication and influencing. All these skills were acquired through experience and continuous learning.  

What’s a typical day like?

On any typical day, I will be spending 2/3rd of my time in meetings with team members, internal customers and other stakeholders including peer groups.  Meeting with the team is usually intended for taking stock of current priorities, planning activities, assessing progress, solving problems and providing feedback and course correction.  Other stakeholder meetings help to get more clarity on the service requirements and demands from the business, as well as help to remain updated on business developments, which is key for our team to align plans with business goals.  Rest of the time goes in working on financial reports, systems, understanding the story behind numbers to provide insights for business on variance from planned course of action. 

The financial reports and insights that my team generates from numbers help the business to understand the current position and serve as one of the inputs to chart out the future course of action. 

What do you love about your job?

There are two things I love most about my job.  One is the value created by my team, in terms of their output to the business.  Second, in my role as head of a department I enjoy my responsibility to inspire people toward achieving their best potential through our interactions, and at the same time learning from each one of them. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The Finance function in any business plays a key role in supporting the growth of the economy, making right decisions to avail the required financial resources and proper usage of it while ensuring all the business laws and practices are followed.  The ethics and standards of work we follow forms a key basis for the trust and confidence the investors have in business as they assess the performance through the numbers  reported. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

While working as Head of Treasury in Q-Chem, our team worked on designing an investment program to park the liquid funds of the business.  There were many challenges and a number of stakeholders had to be convinced before we could implement the plan.  First was getting approval from a consortium of project finance lenders agreeing for a carve out on the project finance covenants, then from shareholder finance leadership convincing them on the risk-liquidity-return aspect and finally the international banks to park funds in agreement with the project finance and shareholder requirements ensuring liquidity and higher returns at same time. The benefit to the business from the program was really good and I along with my team members who worked on this project were awarded the top performer award for the successful completion.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • Identify the values you stand for, live for it and that will help you as a framework to take right decisions at critical junctures.
  • Remain a student for life, i.e be ready for continuous learning, unlearning and relearning to stay relevant irrespective of the career path you chose.
  • Along with technical skills, work on improving the social skills or the ‘soft skills’, make best use of online available information to learn from the best. In spite of systems and technologies, people are the base of any business. 
  • Learn to work with people and create a positive environment that promotes productivity. 
  • Develop a good network of friends, seniors and fellow professionals in your field and have mentors to show you options while taking critical decisions.  You will be surprised to find that there are many others around us who traveled a similar path to ours and encountered the issues, so learning from their experience helps us make a more informed decision.
  • Follow thought leaders in the industry and listen to their ideas to help your professional development. 

Future Plans?

I look forward to gaining more knowledge in finance digitization and data analytics and applying those to building high performance finance functions that act as value creators for business using the latest technology.  I also want to devote more time helping budding professionals by sharing my experiences and learnings to help with their career journey.