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Q&A: Group CFO of Coca-Cola Amatil, Nessa O’Sullivan

What was your career path to becoming CFO?

I completed a Commerce Degree at UCD (University College Dublin) and then completed a post-graduate finance degree there. I became a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants while working at Price Waterhouse (PW) in Dublin, worked with PW in New York and then transferred to the Sydney office in 1989. During my time with PW I covered a broad range of business audits across banking and finance as well as in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector and resources companies.

After two years in Sydney I entered the commercial sector with an engineering and construction company, and then took a finance role with Pepsico in Australia (which owned the KFC and Pizza Hut brands). PepsiCo spun off the restaurant division as a separately listed public company listed on the NYSE and it had a number of name changes until it became YUM Restaurants.

I took on a number of roles in finance, IT and strategic planning during my time there. I worked with a group of highly driven and smart people, including franchisees, who were passionate about the business. I gained cross functional experience in the operational detail of the business and also experience in global consumer brands, retail and franchise systems in Australia and in developing global markets, including China. I also gained experience in asset investment and optimising business returns in roles which required me to ‘stand in the shoes’ of the franchisees and rigorously evaluate proposals and allocate resources as if it were my personal capital.

With my son due to start secondary school and wanting to further growth my career and broaden my experience, I joined CCA, an ASX- listed company, in 2005. I joined initially as CFO for the Australian beverage business and was later promoted into a Group operations role and subsequently into my current role as Group CFO.

What are some of the challenges you face in your role as CFO?

The need to stay close to the business is a key challenge. This is critical to gaining an understanding of the risks and opportunities. Engaging with the business enables me to understand how to deliver the right longer term outcomes as well as the short term wins, enables me to work with management across the business units to identify and manage both risks.

It’s also critical to understand the perspectives of the key stakeholders in a publicly listed company – which include the Board, shareholder groups, employees, analysts, ratings agencies and the ASX – and the requirement to find effective ways to communicate with them. The stakeholders of a public company are a much broader group than those of a private company.

What are the key areas of focus for CFOs this year?

1. Compliance and governance: Rules and regulations change, as does the nature of your own business, so it is critical you are up to speed with these changes. You also need to understand the requirements and get the right advice when new issues or changes occur.

2. Independent thinking: As a CFO to add value you must be able to develop your own perspectives, be prepared to challenge the status quo and ultimately find ways to translate that into adding value by developing proposals and improving business outcomes.

3. Allocating resources: A key role of the CFO is to provide an impartial assessment of proposals and recommendations in the long-term interests of the business and allocate organisational resources to balance the need for short, medium and long-term outcomes.

4. Talent: Most importantly you need to get a great team in place so recruit well and develop a diverse team who will challenge you and the business to do better.

Has the CFO role changed or evolved during your time in the industry and how?

The global financial crisis (GFC) and a number of high-profile corporate failures over the last three to five years have seen boards and investors more conscious of risk and risk management. The market place now places more value on consistency of earnings and related quality of earnings, with an increase focus on cash flow, returns relative to capital employed and recognition of the value of a strong balance sheet. There has been an increased focus on compliance and governance with the expectation that the CFO needs competencies in risk assessment and risk management.

The big changes to global capital markets and exchange rates over the past two or three years have also created a range of challenges and also some material opportunities.

Finance, as an internal function across many businesses has moved from being a compliance and reporting function to being an integral part of growing the business, managing risk and creating value for the business.

What are some of the biggest challenges in the industry at the moment that affects CFOs?

The three big ones currently are consumer sentiment, global uncertainty and the ongoing high Australian dollar.

What is your advice for other CFOs just starting out in their careers?

• Be an avid learner – know the detail of the business and understand the broader context of your customers, competitors and the overall global and domestic environment.

• Develop your own perspective and engage with the key decision makers to drive outcomes.

• Actively seek out change and improvement. Be open to new ideas.

• Think beyond the short-term and understand the potential implications of the decisions being made in the business and how you can also lead and contribute to decisions that will deliver long-term sustainable business benefits.

• Don’t rush from company to company and from one role to the next – take the time to understand the inner workings of the business so that you can leverage your knowledge and experience to add increased value to the total business outcomes.

• And enjoy it – a CFO role is a great role with the ability to lead and drive change in a business.

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