In 2020, 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 Johan Van Zyl, FPAC, senior vice president of Data and Process Automation and director of the Center of Excellence for Marsh.
AFP: Can you walk me through some of the key steps in your career?
Van Zyl: I started my career working for an auditing firm, where I subsequently learned that auditing didn’t interest me. I enjoyed the analysis of the clients and the business aspect of it, but I did not enjoy the ticking and bashing that came with it.
A good friend and respected colleague moved to Gen Re (General Reinsurance Corporation) where she eventually became CFO, I decided to follow her there when the opportunity arose. Gen Re was a phenomenal training ground. The company was investing a lot of money in SAP and in the integration the fiduciary and other systems resulting in greatly improved reporting efficiencies, for example quarter end reporting time was brought down from over a week to less than a day.
I moved through several positions within Gen Re and then stalled; there were no further opportunities for growth. From the beginning of my career, I set a goal for myself: "Five years in a position and then I need to move. If I don't move up, I move out." I’ve been fortunate in that it’s always been less than five years, but that always remains a subconscious limit for me. I hit that point at Gen Re and then joined Alexander Forbes as a financial manager in their Personal Lines division, a short-term broker in South Africa.
Several years and several moves within the group later, Alexander Forbes Risk Services was acquired by Marsh & McLennan, which presented me with an opportunity get involved with the work that goes along with the acquisition deal. Marsh was also the first time I was able to get into the differences among FP&A, controllership and treasury; in my experience inside smaller offices, a divisional finance manager handled all of those functions. It was then that I decided I enjoyed business analytics and working with the business more than “the accounting of old.”
The new, combined team asked me to take on the FP&A leadership role for Africa. There were a lot of changes that came with the acquisition: we changed accounting, fiduciary and implemented Oracle Smart View and were applying that across all the businesses. Another big change was the adoption of a new accounting methodology because the U.S. methodology is quite different from the African way of reporting — U.S. GAAP versus international GAAP.
After a couple of years as the Africa Regional FP&A I had the opportunity to move to Australia as the head of FP&A for the Pacific Region. It was a much larger operation, twice the size. And during my tenure there, Marsh acquired JLT, which again doubled the size of the Pacific Region.
We started an international project to look for a BI tool for the Marsh lending group division in the U.S. We decided on QlikSense, and I travelled to New York to help with the initial proof of concept and dashboard build. It was a small team; there were initially just three of us that built the whole model.
From there I was recruited to head up the process automation team for the Center of Excellence, with the agreement that I'd work from Australia until I received my citizenship. I felt that if I wanted to learn everything about the group and the different parts of the business, the Center of Excellence had a wider reach.
AFP: This role running the Center of Excellence is finance, but it's technical and you're liaising with the IT team. How does it support your track to CFO?
Van Zyl: Almost all of the Marsh CFOs have an exceptional technical knowledge of the business. Because of that knowledge, they understand how everything fits together in a way that allows them to quickly find and address issues and have pointed discussions.
My job is of an almost IT-type technical level, which provides me with a very deep understanding of how to efficiently restructure and structure the business model locally, and know how to structure the teams to get the greatest benefit. And with that, I've got the ability to look at the company as a whole.
AFP: If you were to describe the next gen CFO, the CFO of 2025 or of 2030, how do you describe the key traits, the key experiences of that role?
Van Zyl: Future CFOs need to have a far stronger technical understanding. In the past, a CFO would have a team member that would prepare this and that. But going forward, that work will utilize machine learning and data from BI tools. So you’re going to have smaller teams, and the CFO is going to know how to navigate the sea of data. The CFOs will have more in-depth insight into the numbers and of all aspects of the company, which is going to mean a seat at the table to provide insight across the business.
AFP: Does the finance organization absorb some responsibilities, or does it give up certain responsibilities?
Van Zyl: It's going to be a give and take because It's going to become more and more apparent that if you have a BI tool that combines this information, they're going to be responsible for analyzing the data.
The CFO's role is going to have some give and take. They're going to give up a lot of the accrual type work, and growth areas such as FP&A will take on more responsibility for data combinations, analytics and analysis across the spectrum. Less about expense growth, more about the analysis of all the key factors of that, whether it's currently sitting in operations or sales ops.
AFP: Not every company’s finance organization will make this pivot. What happens to finance in the companies that don't do this?
Van Zyl: You’re right, not all companies will make it. In a way they're going to stagnate, because they're still going to do a lot of tasks that are not value-add.
What you might find in the smaller companies is a lot more of the FP&As doing all that stuff themselves. If you don't have machine learning available to you, your workload is going to increase quite a lot because the ask for information is increasing. The expectation to know what's happening, and know it immediately is going to create a lot of pressure on CFOs and FP&As. They're going to either have to develop the teams and tools, or risk having people who are, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
AFP: As we look back over the almost 25 years that we just covered of your career progression, is there a common theme or a common lesson that you've learned?
Van Zyl: The first lesson is to always put your hand up. Whenever I progressed, it was because I was there at the right time, putting my hand up when somebody else was not willing or was not able to. You can work extremely hard, you can prove yourself, and a lot of the time you'll stay in the position because you're good at it and people love you in that position. But if you don't raise your hand when the opportunity arises, you're never going to move up.
Also, I've always been very upfront with my bosses about my desire to learn and ambition to take on more responsibility.
Continuous development is probably one of the most important things, especially in this modern day. It does not reflect well if someone on our team is not engaging, and they're not showing initiative, if we need to continuously say to them, "Listen, you need to go study this,” because there's a tool in there that they need to know more about in their role or they're going to be using it ancillary.
As FP&A, our responsibilities and our asks are going to increase because these tools have become easier. It is up to us to continuously drive our development and our learning, otherwise we are going to stagnate. If you want to move up and move on, put your shoulder to the wheel and develop. That is, for me, the most important thing.
AFP: How has the FPAC certification benefitted your career?
Van Zyl: For a lot of us, we learned these things at university years ago. We never learned the practical way of applying it, and the practical thought behind it. Earning the FPAC qualification was a reapplication and refocusing of that knowledge. It was the only qualification that really helped define the FP&A side of things. It helps you think about, "Okay, what's the good way?"
One of the things it covers that was particularly helpful to me was the best way to design your models. It taught me to think about the structure of your models, and to think about the data. That was new to me in terms of training, because the ratios, the analysis of the KPIs and such is very unique to a lot of companies. For example, the insurance industry has a combined ratio and the last ratio, a commission ratio, which you don't use in other companies. So that was revisiting a lot of the knowledge that I studied at university.
The FPAC Exam Prep Platform is the preferred study resource for the Certified Corporate FP&A Professional Exam and is based on the test specifications for the 2019B - 2024A windows. This fully digital and interactive platform contains study materials, evaluations, sample questions and customized progress tracking. Demo the platform.
The last two books in the FPAC course held the information that was most valuable to me because I could immediately apply it in my own role in the company. It was building good models, understanding and analyzing the data, the projection of data, Excel tips and tricks. These are the tools that FP&A uses a lot every day. And that's where, from just the course perspective, it was brilliant.