The Road Less Traveled: From Chemical Engineer to Director of FP&A

  • By Bryan Lapidus, FPAC
  • Published: 3/7/2022

In 2016, AFP introduced the FP&A Advisory Council. Comprised of top FP&A professionals from around the globe, this group aids AFP’s staff in understanding current and developing areas of focus pertinent to FP&A, allowing us to better serve our association members. We’ll be profiling individual members of the council every month. This month we spoke with Raja Ramachandran, MBA, FPAC, CTP, CMA, director of global FP&A for Owens & Minor. 

AFP: You were not an originally a finance person; how did you make your way to FP&A?  

Raja RamachandranRamachandran: It was not a traditional path by any means. I started out as a chemical engineer. I worked in the chemical plants for a number of years, but even as an undergrad, there was one course I found particularly quite interesting — the chemical engineering cost course, which was actually my introduction to NPV, IRR, etc.  I just didn't realize how interesting that was until I started getting into projects at Dow.  

I was always gravitating towards the commercial side of things, working with finance people, trying to understand their models, the economics of a project. That inspired me to get my MBA, and then move into more commercial roles and business development. Much of my career was spent in oil and gas sector, supporting a lot of deal making with various partners and governments. That got me a little bit into the FP&A world and launched me on a path to finance.  

Then I did a hardcore finance program at the University of Houston, and I think that's what really set me up to get into FP&A — the enjoyment of building up [the future through] budgets, the forecasting aspects, and working as a business partner. So, over many years, going from an engineer to FP&A was certainly not planned, but there were progressions. I think of FP&A as sort of a culmination of a lot of skills that I developed over the years, from operations and engineering to commercial and business development. 

AFP: In our FP&A Advisory Council meeting last month, we talked about how busy people are, to the extreme case of not even reading emails, being burnt out and just flat out quitting. What’s going on? 

Ramachandran: The demands on finance organizations have significantly increased. Finance has a seat at the table now. It's no longer back office kind of stuff where we just produce reports on a monthly basis. We're actually asked for a lot more insights throughout the organization. Leaders from throughout the organization are coming much more often to finance, but there's an issue of bandwidth, of our being able to accommodate all those requests.  

We have very specialized skills, the right mix of quantitative and qualitative communication skills. And I think it's becoming quite the norm for all parts of the organization to reach out to FP&A for consulting type activities. It's a great thing for FP&A professionals, but the challenge is to manage all the demands that are on us.  

AFP:  But there is no pipeline that feeds FP&A, so in order to be good at it, it's almost an apprenticeship.  

Ramachandran: Exactly. There is no degree that says FP&A out there that I'm aware of. There are obviously certification programs [like AFP’s], but by and large, it's a talent that's developed over time. I would say a lot of people end up in FP&A as an amalgamation of a lot of other things they've worked on through the years. A lot of my role is actually coaching people into having more of the FP&A skill sets, to develop the mindset of business cases, scenario analysis, etc., and trying to drive that deep within the organization. 

AFP: If I were a CEO or a CFO, I might call it an economic analysis team and set up a pipeline of talent where I would pull people in and say, this is a stop on your journey. You get to spend one to two years here, and then you go back because we're going to train you up. You're going to go out to the business and be smarter in the business.  

Ramachandran: I like that approach quite a bit. I've seen that on the engineering side, where plant engineers come into a centralized process engineering group, gain solid experience in engineering design and then go back to the plants. Bring people from the operations and other disciplines into FP&A to obtain and/or expand FP&A skills, especially the business partnering and quantitative skills, and then put them back into the operating units with those skill sets. I could see a lot of benefits in doing that.  

AFP: So where do you go next, or where do you want to go?  

Ramachandran: I think a lot about how many years I want to be doing FP&A. I do see myself going back to the commercial side of things. I've got a fair amount of experience working with sales teams, providing analytics, constructing contracts and supporting negotiations — is this a good deal or does it require further negotiation? So being a business partner with sales teams is what I think my next step would be. It's hard to say that FP&A is going to be the final part of my career, but it is certainly an integral one. 

AFP: What are the skills somebody should pick up and really develop while they're in the FP&A period of their career? 

Ramachandran: Highly effective business partnering skills. There are a lot of times business partners don't know what they want, and it's up to us to ask the right questions.  

AFP: I would add soft skills as a wrap around quantitative skills. To be able to crystalize and quantify ideas into a model and feed that honest assessment back to our partners is a skill unique to finance 

Ramachandran: I agree with that. It's the ability to say it in the right way to the business partners, without making them feel that they don't have certain skills. We have to be very diplomatic in our dealings with business partners, and that's something that develops over time. When I was in my early twenties, starting out, I don't think I was all that diplomatic. As you mature, you learned the importance of saying things the right way, and that’s a skill that develops over time.  

AFP: The last question, for someone who's moving in to FP&A, regardless of where they’re coming from, what would you say to help them acclimate and become an FP&A professional?  

Ramachandran: Spend as much time as you can with the business partners and learn their business, understand their drivers, ask them a lot of questions. Show your genuine interest in what they're doing. And just admit that you don't know a lot of things, that you are wanting to learn, show that desire to learn and be an effective business partner. I keep going back to the soft skills. Yes, quantitative skills are important, but everybody knows how to use Excel and develop sophisticated models and these have become commodity type skillsets.  It's the soft skills that people have to develop - how to become a trusted business partner and be able to connect the dots across the organization as well as with external issues. 

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