A renewable energy business operates in an extremely dynamic environment characterized by long implementation times, interdependence on climatic events as well as several operational and regulatory hurdles !

Sonam Agrawal, our next pathbreaker, Projects Finance Manager at GE Renewable Energy, forecasts revenue, profitability and cash flow of the business for strategic decision making.

Sonam talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the challenges and the impact of working in a Renewable Energy business with multiple wind energy projects across the country and globally !

For students, Energy Finance is a new and upcoming area filled with unprecedented opportunities to not only contribute to social good but also hone your busines skills in an exciting sector !

Sonam, can you take us through your growing up years?

I was born and brought up in Simdega District (near Ranchi) in Jharkhand. My father is a businessman and my mother is a homemaker. I have two brothers, one is Custom Officer and the other one has taken over the family business. Education was always a top priority in my household, and it was not limited to schooling but also developing social skills as a person. I did my schooling in my hometown. We have a business of stationery, paper products and text books. Me and my siblings used to help my father during busy seasons and that’s when I learnt a few things about business. I also started reading books and by 7th standard I was reading novels which was unusual in our part of town. They say books take you to places where you cannot go physically and I couldn’t agree more. Book reading helped me in developing my imagination and also helped me become a better writer. Other than this, I was also involved in many co-curricular activities in school and in my community, like singing, dancing, speeches and playing outdoor games. I like learning new things and used to participate in everything possible. Later, this habit has helped in my academics too. For my undergrad, I moved to Bhubaneshwar, where I chose Commerce stream with an objective of pursuing Chartered Accountancy.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I am a BCom (Bachelor of Commerce) graduate from Symbiosis Pune and I simultaneously pursued CA course with 3 years of full time internship. Later I completed MCom (Masters in Commerce) from the same institute and by that time I was a Chartered Accountant.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I had this dream of becoming CA ever since my cousin qualified and got a job in a big corporation. I realized the CA profession commands huge respect and pays well too. My cousin guided me throughout the process and helped me understand the importance of practical learning and Internship. I also hail from a business family, and had a knack for accounting. So when I started studying commerce, I could relate the concepts to my father’s business which helped me understand things better. 

When I joined the CA course, I met many mentors who made me realize my potential. Special mention to my Accounts and Finance teacher (Mr. VK Agarwal) who was very approachable and helped me with practical examples in the real world. 

However, my internship was the major contributor in deciding the pathway after my qualification. After college hours, I used to visit client offices for audits where I observed the corporate environment, the manufacturing processes and the real finalization of books of accounts. I attended the first AGM (Annual General Meeting) of my life which I had read about in my course books. It was a live show of how companies deal with their shareholders and all the corporate processes. This made me want to be a part of a corporation.

Tell us about your career path

After finishing my full-time Internship of 3yrs, which was a good consultancy exposure and professional experience, I wanted a corporate job. I could have easily gotten into a consultancy firm or in one of the Big 4s (the audit giants), but I wanted a different work profile and culture. Through the CA campus, I joined an Indian company in the retail industry. I was given a job role in project accounting initially, which I didn’t like. I talked to my Manager and applied for an Internal Job transfer to a new role within the organization. I was hence transferred to a new role in the FMCG business where I worked as Assistant Manager in Accounts and Finance. I used to work on MIS, Financial reporting, Investment summary, due diligence of the group companies and controlling the marketing spend of the company. It was a new learning for me and I liked the work I was doing. There were deadlines which came with late nights and weekend work, but that was just a phase. With team efforts, everything is manageable. Within a year, I got my increment and was selected in “35 Under 35” in my company. The program was created to develop future leaders within the company and it felt great to be a part of it. To hone my skills on International Financial Reporting, I also did a Diploma in IFRS, affiliated to ACCA UK. Though it was tough managing year-end closing work and exam schedule, in the end, I passed with good marks. 

I spent more than 2 yrs with the FMCG company after which I decided to switch to a new industry. I applied to many companies through LinkedIn, Naukri and other job sites, through references, and so on. 

Finally I got an offer from an MNC which is into the Renewable Energy business, GE Renewables. I liked the business and the work profile, and decided to join. It was a very difficult phase as it was a virtual onboarding for me during the 1st lockdown and I didn’t know anyone in the company. Even the online meetings were faceless and I had to call people to ask about the processes in the company and to get details of the concerned person who could help me with the given tasks. The “work from home” continued and I got comfortable with the work environment. I learnt many things and the job responsibilities increased with time. My manager was very patient throughout the process and gave me many opportunities to learn and showcase my skill sets in business finance. I also received a reward for good performance in the second quarter which boosted my confidence.

One of the major achievements of my lifetime was waiting for me all this while. I got promoted as the Projects Finance Manager for the India region in the Wind energy business. It was very overwhelming and I took my sweet time to take in the fact that I was the youngest manager in the team. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility.Soon enough I was loaded with work, but I focused more on the learning and value addition aspects. I underwent a few training sessions to adapt to the new role and am currently working on refining the financial and business processes which will help the company in the long run. I am also planning to pursue a short course on Financial Modelling which is relevant to my work profile. I believe learning is a lifelong process and hence, I like to keep myself updated on changes in the financial world. Eventually I want to be in an Executive Management position and aspire to be a good leader.

How did you get your first break? 

My first job happened through campus placements after qualifying CA. We had different locations for campus interviews to choose from, and I chose Bangalore because I believed there will be more opportunities and multinational companies coming to the Bangalore campus. I prepared for the job profiles, read news and financials of the companies I was shortlisted for, and was patient throughout the process. 

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

The challenges are always there, whether it’s college or job or personal life. I learnt from my friends that we should focus only on things we can control. What we can’t control is beyond us. That really changed my perspective and helped me deal with day to day situations. 

Also talking about the problem will not lead to anything unless we work on the solution as well, this mindset helps save the time spent on solving any challenge.

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

I currently work for GE Renewables. 

My job is to forecast the revenue, profitability and cash flow of the business, and to map the actuals received against them. I also check the accounting and financial compliances involved in execution of the projects, and ensure the budget is being utilized in an effective way. All this involves communicating with various stakeholders within and outside the company on a regular basis, to be updated on pending issues and resolving them at the earliest.

Considering this is a RE business with long execution duration, during forecast, I have to take into account the external factors as well which might impact the projects’ progress. On the execution front, the team needs to ensure that we get relevant approvals from MNRE (Ministry of New and Renewable Energy) for procuring typical components for manufacture of Wind Turbines, approval from Customs department for critical imports from China, approval from local Government for execution of Wind projects at various sites (since this involves commissioning of turbines in rural areas & agricultural lands), official approval for connecting the Wind turbine to the Grid for power generation, submission of Sales information to Statistics department of GOI for tracking of Wind Energy capacity addition in India, and dealing with adverse weather situations such as monsoons, floods, and high winds at the time of installation. On the economic and infrastructure front, the team needs to ensure resource optimisation with availability of skilled manpower to install and commission wind projects, availability of cranes and trailers for handling of heavy equipment, route survey for transportation, and managing everything within budget. Depending on the risks and rewards involved in all these activities, I manage the forecast for strategic decision making.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

Everything I have learnt in the CA course has helped me in executing the tasks in my job. My subjects were Accounting, Financial Management, Taxation, Law, Auditing, Costing, IT system controls and so on. I have used the concept from each and every one of these subjects in some way or the other for my work. The internship also prepared me for the professional etiquettes and technical skills required in the corporate world.

I also did a certification in Microsoft Excel, Word, Powerpoint and few other applications which helped me in preparation and analysis of all the reports.

Also, I attended a mandatory communication course by CA Institute which prepared me for interviews, code of conduct, teamwork and leadership.

Other than this, the experience gained in each of my job roles has helped me in executing my work in a better way.

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day involves talking to cross-functional teams regarding the problem at hand and making decisions to resolve the same. I also work on report analysis to make strategic decisions for the company.

What is it you love about this job? 

Businesses run in a dynamic environment. There are frequent changes in laws, taxes, accounting rules, IT updates and so on. To implement these changes is challenging and interesting at the same time. I learn new things every time and it keeps me motivated. I also deal with multiple stakeholders which not only helps me improve my decision-making process but also hones my managerial skills. Also, it feels good to be a part of the Renewables energy business.

How does your work benefit society?

Finance is something which is required at all stages of business, right from arranging funds for starting a business to actually getting the money from institutions, to managing finances for day-to-day operations, and for liquidation of the business. However, financial management knowledge is required in our personal life as well, as we have to make decisions on investments, family planning, educational investments/expenses, insurance, loans, travel, taxes and so on. I believe financial education in schools is very important as it can make a person financially responsible which contributes to economic development. A financially literate person will know the value of savings and will know the ways to achieve financial freedom.

Talking about social impact, I am currently managing the business finance of a Wind Energy business where we have multiple wind energy projects across the country and globally too. I am glad to be a part of the Renewables energy revolution which is helping the world in the fight against climate change. It gives me immense happiness whenever we (the organization) commission Wind Energy plants. It reduces our dependency on fossil fuels and other limited resources which would otherwise be consumed for power generation. 

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

I spent an entire week preparing the financial forecast of a business which included preparation of an operational tracker for sales, profit statement, and cash flows. It was my first time doing something end to end. I worked non-stop and was amazed to arrive at the final picture. Next thing, I was asked to present it to our International Leader which became my International debut within the organization. I had answers for every question during the presentation and I knew every inch of the report on screen. It was appreciated by everyone and it felt truly great !

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Whatever dreams we have, whatever career we choose. Success does not depend only on the choices we make. It depends more on the years of hard work, efforts, experiences and learnings along the way. General knowledge and awareness is as important as bookish knowledge. Networking is also very important. Moreover we should acknowledge our growth at various stages of our life.