Interview: Herbert Werner
Head of Finance & Controlling, Trucks Asia, Japan
"Don't make judgements on hearsay or rumors. It's important to listen to others for their opinions, but you should first do your own homework on the facts."
From Germany to Japan
Herbert started his career in finance as a Production Controller in a Daimler plant in Germany, and quickly worked his way up the ranks. After taking over all accounting for the plant, he moved to Daimler’s headquarters in a controlling role.
In that position, he was able to connect the dots between all different areas of finance, including accounting, controlling, treasury and more. Moreover, he could see how his recommendations to top management figures directly influence the company’s growth. This experience further fueled his interest in the field and cemented his decision to eventually become a CFO.
After Daimler, Herbert went on to become a general manager with AMG. Here, his role expanded to include other non-technical areas such as IT, HR, and procurement. As the company was a mid-sized subsidiary, he was able to make decisions and implement them immediately. “This was a change from my past position,” Herbert said. “In a large headquarters, you needed to align decisions with several different people.”
This was why when he was offered the role of CFO in a global operations unit, Herbert decided to turn it down. “This was far more corporate than the mid-sized subsidiary and plant environment, and was not as enjoyable for me.” Instead, Herbert decided to make a big change, requesting a move to the U.S. as the CFO for the sales subsidiary for passenger cars.
Afterwards, Herbert became more global in scope. He moved to South Africa in another CFO role, returning to his operations and production roots, while also spending a lot of time traveling and attending roadshows. He eventually moved to Japan to his current position in a fully-fledged CFO role covering buses.
His international career has had a major impact on his work and thinking. “I quickly realised that expectations I had in Germany about other countries were totally wrong.” Since then, he has been able to identify the advantages of each unique business culture by combining and optimising them in order to be a better leader.
An unlikely start and a variety of experiences
Despite his experience, Herbert has no accounting qualifications. When he was first asked to take over accounting, it came as a surprise to him and he knew very little about the subject. However, after learning more, he grew to love it. He especially credits it with helping to become a better controller.
Besides accounting, he also credits acquiring experience in practice as a factor in his professional success. He would recommend obtaining real work experience in as any experience working with different types of people and minds will benefit your career in the long run.
Herbert advises working at different companies and in different roles to better understand other functions. In his current position, Herbert estimates that he spends 50 per cent of his time talking to non-finance leaders in sales, IT and more. This is due to his core belief that the CFO has to be aligned to all functions.
“The CFO is usually the number two in the company, and is therefore involved in all different functions. This is not only because of the numbers, but because the CFO has business acumen and knows what is good for the company as a whole.”
The changing role of the CFO
For Herbert, the number crunching era of the CFO role is quickly coming to an end. The main challenge for the next 12 months and beyond, he asserts, will be to build up different skill sets. While some people will be able to handle the change, others will find it more difficult. Regardless, this evolution is important and necessary for the company to achieve its objectives in a fast-developing world.
One specific change that Herbert sees coming is the consistency of good information. In his work, it is critical to keep up-to-date with the latest industry trends. For example, he sees the rise of the robotics industry as a potential game-changer. Therefore, he makes a point of bringing in experts and others with experience in the industry to advise him. “Regarding new trends, it’s important to seek out information and keep an open mind, then you have to make a judgement on whether it will be helpful or not. You have to decide and have focus. Otherwise, you will get lost.”
However, a major issue today for Herbert and many others is the quality and consistency of information. Throughout his day, Herbert may receive various reports via different channels. However, the information he receives supposedly comes from the same source, but somehow the data does not always match.
This is because many reports are generated by individuals with their own tools and excel sheets – each report therefore has its own “flavor”. He then has to spend extra time and care to make sure that the information is consistent, potentially wasting several hours while not adding value. This is an issue that CFOs and all business leaders must commit to improving over the next five years.
The challenges and need for diversity
Given his international career, Herbert has been exposed to diversity at various levels. In his current company, there is a lot of diversity which has made management easier. The challenge he faces now, he says, is to merge the Japanese business culture with the international business culture. While this might be time-consuming, it is a necessary task which takes patience, persistence and a lot of communication.
Herbert is also concerned about the unbalanced ratio of men to women in leadership positions in the finance field. While he himself believes he has hired more female employees than male employees throughout his lifetime, he did so based on performance and skillsets and doesn’t believe installing a quota to boost the number of women on boards would work. “Having a quota isn’t fair to female candidates…we shouldn’t have to hide behind quotas,” he said.
Developing leadership and communication
Herbert’s number one advice to become a good leader is to develop good communication skills. “Communication is imperative to get information from people and to influence people.” Additionally, Herbert believes aspiring CFOs should practice exercising good judgement in other people. He estimates that 75 per cent of the position is to lead and bring people together.