Last year, AFP announced the formation of its APAC FP&A Advisory Council (FPAAC). The networking and advisory group meets three to four times a year to discuss best practices, common challenges and innovative initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region. We’ll be profiling individual members of the council every month. This month we spoke with Kevin Wong, director of Finance, APAC at Blue Bottle Coffee.
AFP: Describe your role within Blue Bottle Coffee.
Wong: Blue Bottle is a U.S. company that some say is a pioneer of the “third wave” of coffee — where people forge different ways to improve and enjoy good, quality coffee. Blue Bottle has been in the U.S. for more than a decade, and I was excited to join as we started to expand into other Asia markets, including Japan, Korean, and Hong Kong, which is when I joined the company.
As we scaled up the business, we realized it was time to open a pan-Asia office to consolidate information, learn about the business models and create consistency across markets. As the Asia finance lead, I helped drive consistent financial process across all the markets, making sure the team members felt culturally included as part of Blue Bottle. As a brand investing in new markets, there is always a tendency for the company culture to dissipate as the teams are diffused. My role helps engage teams and make sure we spread the culture and sense of being at Blue Bottle.
Another part of my job includes maintaining the reporting and accounting, reducing operating ambiguity, and improving consistency across all the markets. When I was promoted to Asia finance director last year, my role expanded to include examining different business models and finding ways to spread different operational models across markets.
AFP: You joined a company that was relatively young, U.S.-based and expanding into Asia—a company, a market and model! What about that newness appeals to you?
Wong: Curiosity. From childhood, I watched my parents start from zero and grow their local business in Hong Kong into an international business. Watching their journey piqued my interest in business. I started my career as a financial analyst for an investment company; however, I never thought of myself as a purely finance or accounting professional, I always felt like more of a business partner with a set of financial, and perhaps mathematical, skills.
Over time, when considering jobs, I look at opportunities to grow within the finance role and to grow the business itself. This is why FP&A fits me — to be a successful FP&A professional, you need to understand the finance function and every other function, as well as the motives, incentives and objectives to create a view that drives the organization to succeed.
AFP: You easily talk about the importance of culture and the personal interactions; describe the role of emotional intelligence for an FP&A professional.
Wong: Accounting has concrete evidence as a basis for its work, such as invoices, debit notes, credit notes or inventory audits that help support the assumption we put in. FP&A relies on softer assumptions, including expectations, thoughts, ideas, and visions that are driven by business leaders in the company.
Therefore, FP&A must work with everyone to get a sense of their vision. Sometimes it needs to reach a personal level to understand what teams envision for where they want to be. Building that perspective allows us to gauge how leaders want to management and grow the business
I do not think it’s possible to quantify an individual’s degree of confidence in their projections, because it changes over time depending on where that person is in their career path. As leaders grow in their careers, they tend to gain more confidence in how they manage the business because they have more control over a wider variety of factors and an increased level of confidence or accuracy in the numbers they provide.
AFP: Talk about the role of finance in considering different business models.
Wong: Sometimes serendipity is involved with business models. With a startup like Blue Bottle, the team constantly bombards corporate with new ideas. Sometimes, small-scale projects became a phenomenon and succeed in the markets. My job is to jump in and say, “Okay, this seems like a really promising project. Now, let's see if it's scalable and what it will look like in different environments and across different markets. If we were to scale this 10 times in these markets, what would it look like? Do we have a business case for this? Do we have a finance or investment case for this?” These conversations eventually build up to full-blown business models.
In Hong Kong, we took an old Airstream trailer and reframed it into a small coffee shop. Now we are setting it up as a popup all over Hong Kong, and the idea is getting picked up by various regional and market leaders all over. In this example, everyone is asking, “Do we have a business case for this?” Since I helped build and scale that business, I can jump in and tell them what their metrics, investments and returns might look like if they applied this in their market.
Ultimately, the concept formed a new type of space on its own. As a coffee shop, we traditionally invest a ton of money to renovate café spaces and create an aesthetic for people to enjoy coffee. Now there is a whole new concept of turning the café experience into a trailer and bringing it to people who would otherwise not have access to our coffee. During the pandemic, consumer behaviors are changing, and people are working from home instead of office centers; we can adapt to a new group of consumers.
For more resources and information on FP&A in the APAC region, visit AFP’s Asia-Pacific FP&A page.