Drawing on both his accounting background and finance experience, Pankaj Kabra, Senior Vice President of Finance for Traveloka and AFP Asia-Pacific FP&A Advisory Council member, has been an active business partner for over a decade.
Bryan Lapidus, FPAC, AFP’s Director of FP&A Practice, met with Pankaj to discuss the essential skills for FP&A, how to obtain those skills and how working in FP&A prepares you for a number of different careers.
Bryan: Tell us a little about the path that led you to FP&A.
Pankaj: I started out in accounting. My wife jokes that one accounting degree wasn’t enough — I am a Chartered Accountant (India) and a Certified Public Accountant (U.S.). After serving as a Senior Financial Analyst and Country Controller for Electronic Data Systems in New Zealand for five years, I moved to Singapore, where most of my varied finance roles, with large global technology companies, have been commercially focused.
I have gained the understanding and skills to help businesses make better financial/commercial decisions, and I have been in finance business partnering roles for 10-12 years. Being a business partner is dominated by FP&A tasks and skills. You’re trying to convert data into information, information into insights, insights into an action plan, and action plans into actual execution. You’re helping influence decisions and tell a story through the data — you’re helping others visualize it.
In 2021, I joined the Traveloka specifically to focus on and dedicate myself to the FP&A function; I’m grateful for the opportunity to draw on my experience across various finance functions, particularly as a business partner, and condense that into FP&A.
Thinking about making the transition from accounting to FP&A? The 2022 FP&A Guide: The Transition from Accounting to FP&A lays out the steps needed to make a successful change.
Bryan: What are 2-3 core aspects of your day-to-day job?
Pankaj: I won’t call out things like budgeting and forecasting because I consider them to be bread-and-butter aspects of the role. So, I would say performance monitoring is a big part of what I do. Number two is converting information from a lot of different sources into actionable insights. And number three is influencing decisions on almost a daily basis.
All three of these come together at my company. We have massive amounts of usable, structured data on customer behavior. We look at things like buying patterns, how weekends versus weekdays and seasonality play a role, how different sorts of offers and other sales and marketing activities play out, what our competitors are doing, and which products/services make money and which don’t. A big part of my role is to make sense of that and help the senior leadership team understand and interpret all that information to make the best financial/commercial decisions they can to grow revenue, improve margins, increase free cashflow and allocate capital towards higher returns (M&As, geo expansions, new product introductions, etc.).
Bryan: What are the key skills needed to do your job well?
Pankaj: FP&A is a specialization in generalization. What I mean by that is that you need to know a little bit about everything. You need to know accounting and taxation; you need to understand treasury, corporate finance and business. You need to be good at communicating your thoughts concisely and clearly, and you need to be excellent at influencing and project managing execution.
A skill that is becoming more important now is data visualization: how you visualize the information and use it to communicate and influence. This also requires being assertive and having an agenda, not just reporting KPIs.
Another skill that I'm trying to develop for myself, as well as within my team, is project management. It's easy to get trained to execute the technical aspects. You can look at the market and our own business and do the annual financial budget. But how do you execute it? How do you work with senior management to set the vision for the upcoming quarters and bring it to fruition? That requires project management skills.
Bryan: Let’s talk about the difference between what we’re taught in school and the skills you acquire through work experience. What are they? How do you acquire them? And how do you help your team acquire those skills?
Pankaj: For the first three to five years of your work life in a finance role, the focus is on the technical skills, the ability to understand and execute accounting, build data structures, analyze information, work on the budgets, forecasts and so on. This is when some people choose a specialization, maybe on the technical side, whereas others end up choosing the management route or the business partnering route. As you progress, the technical skills become a bit of a given and everything else starts to matter a little bit more.
One of the challenges we face with FP&A is that there isn't a university or college degree or specific course that prepares someone for FP&A. You acquire the needed skills over time by playing different roles and through work experience.
In my case, I learned by running toward the fire. There wasn't a course that taught me this, though my background in accounting has been very important and helpful. Every business decision direct or indirect has to be for profit and cash, and understanding how a particular decision is going to impact your financial statements is a big advantage.
Thereafter it was great organizations and great bosses that coached and mentored me, providing me with the outlook and perspective I needed. And now, I'm doing something similar with my team.
Bryan: You’ve said this before, so I have to ask: Why is FP&A the “sexiest role in finance,” and what is the next step for you in your career progression?
Pankaj: I would continue to call FP&A the sexiest role in finance, even if I were doing something else. I describe it this way because you get to see nearly every aspect of the business. There isn't a faster way for you to get into the entrepreneurial mindset and see the way a business person thinks than FP&A. You work with every other co-finance function, the business teams, sales teams, cross-functional teams. Everything that happens in a company impacts the P&L and Cashflow, and everything that impacts the P&L and Cashflow becomes important to the FP&A team.
Working in FP&A prepares you for a number of different careers. It also helps you hone your interpersonal skills and communication skills, and it’s the fastest way to learn the business, the industry, the market, the competition, etc. It’s just amazing the length and breadth of what the role offers.
The other thing FP&A does well is partner with the leadership of the organization. All of the above makes it the sexiest role in finance.
Read more interviews with the AFP Asia-Pacific FP&A Advisory Council.