Interview: Rakesh Sinha
"Immersion in overseas markets has helped my ability to manage people in teams that are cross-cultural. It's provided me with a broader perspective and taught me to adapt to new cultures, situations and markets."
Switching from engineering to finance
Rakesh Sinha realised early on in his career that he wanted to work in finance, and specifically, to become a CFO. He realised this even before he completed a degree in chemical engineering because he found himself attracted to a role that would have an impact and oversight of a business. “The versatility of the finance role was the key attraction,” Rakesh said, “and it has proved that by giving me options and opportunities throughout my career.”
After obtaining his degree at the University of Leeds, Rakesh qualified as a Chartered Accountant in practice with PKF in the United Kingdom. From there, he transitioned into a commercial role with Time Magazine where he was a production cost accountant. He then moved to BHP Petroleum as a corporate accountant in the controller’s department.
Subsequently, Rakesh took a role at Unilever in London, remaining with the company for 17 years. At Unilever, he progressed through six roles including CFO of Unilever Taiwan and Hong Kong, and then as the Regional CFO for the Unilever Food Solutions business covering Latin America and Europe. Rakesh decided to stay within the food and beverage industry, taking up his current position as CFO for PureCircle, the world’s leading producer of stevia sweeteners.
Variety is the spice of life
Rakesh’s early career path allowed him to experience multiple roles, which allowed him to understand how other departments functioned and the overall business of the company. “By taking roles that gave me something different to the roles that I had previously, I was able to build up the necessary skills and experience to become a CFO,” Rakesh said. This included “getting a mix of technical controllership, business partnering, factory finance, and group corporate roles in different environments, whether that be in different geographical locations or business pillars.”
As a CFO with PureCircle, his responsibilities remain diverse. In addition to his core role, he is involved with IT, property and strategy development. He is passionate in creating an effective IT strategy as he sees its potential to enable growth and to improve productivity.
Rakesh has had a highly international career. In fact, the majority of his career has been overseas. Over the past 25 years, he has lived in six countries including the UK, Singapore, Australia, Taiwan and the Netherlands before coming to Malaysia.
“Business is globalised these days and most of my teams in recent years have been based in different regions,” Rakesh said. In order to keep with a global business and team, his international experience has proved beneficial, “Immersion in overseas markets had helped my ability to manage people in teams that are cross-cultural. It’s provided me with a broader perspective and taught me to adapt to new cultures, situations and markets.”
People make results
The best piece of career advice he has been given was to deliver results, but also to build relationships. In fact, when asked what aspect of his job required a disproportionate amount of time, Rakesh answered that it is people and building teams, “People make the business what it is. Having a great attitude goes a long way and that is what I recruit for – attitude. Everything else can be developed from there.”
It’s not only the people within your direct team. The relationship between departments is of major importance. “Every function has a critical role,” Rakesh said, “all parts of the orchestra need to be in sync. The strategy of the business has many inputs not just from operations, including the end customer and consumer.”
According to Rakesh, a good CFO has to be able to use interpersonal skills to build their leadership style. Whilst the CFO role lends itself to general management, given the broad viewing point they must have, there are more skills that leaders must possess.” “Leadership qualities include man-management, good judgement, taking calculated risks, abilities to motivate an organisation and take people on the journey,” Rakesh added.
Challenges in the field
Rakesh sees a few challenges that the position and aspiring CFOs are likely to face in the future. The first obstacle he sees is the ability to maintain a work-life balance as technology becomes more intrusive in people’s personal lives. “Effectively, you are on call 24-7 particularly in the globalised environment we live in,” Rakesh said, “It’s difficult, but strong discipline is required to set aside quality downtime with family. Unfortunately, the sacrifice is quite often health as time for physical activities often gets dropped.”
Moreover, Rakesh believes that the world is becoming increasingly short-sighted as businesses and careers are judged more on the next set of results. “I think the challenges were there before, but the playing field has changed. The world has become more connected, and hence the pace has also accelerated.”
Switching off when necessary
For today’s CFOs, technological advancements means that switching off from work is becoming increasingly difficult. The combination of this with the growing expectations on employees has had serious repercussions. “An increase in mental health issues in the workplace should not go unnoticed, and there is certainly a correlation between the rising pressures faced in the workplace and a rise in the number of cases.”
While it is not a complete solution, Rakesh has personally found that physical exercising and socialising has helped him to relax from a long day at the office. “Exercising and meeting my friends and family provides balance, fun and fulfilment in my life.” However, he notes, it takes effort to pull away from work and make that necessary time in your day.