The CFO is key to business agility, says Alexander Visser, CFO of Philips Procurement
Although he originally intended to pursue a career as a banker, a realisation that he wanted to be involved in a more tangible business convinced Alexander Visser, the new CFO of Philips Procurement, to instead focus on finance. "I chose Philips because of the strong role finance had in decision making. I felt I could make a strong impact from the get-go."
Alexander has just moved into this new role, having previously been CFO of Philips Africa. He was in South Africa for almost three years, and says he liked the diversity of operating in Africa. He had mixed feelings about making the move back to Amsterdam: "From a business perspective, the challenges that you experience in Africa are not found anywhere else in the world or in the company. That makes it very attractive. Every day you can apply your full mind and skill set to the problem at hand."
"I'm very proud of what we achieved over the past three years and I'm glad I had the opportunity to meet so many great South Africans and other Africans. The learnings I take about cultural differences and African complexities are invaluable."
The majority of your career seems to have been with Philips, albeit in different capacities and in different divisions. What is it about the company that keeps you here?
"Every role has given me continuous development opportunities to extend my learnings and gain greater influence in the organisation. Also, it's a very diverse company. I went from commercial to industrial roles, to now CFO roles. That makes it very interesting. On top of this, the mission of Philips as a company is to be a health and well-being organisation, so it has a very positive mission statement, which I really like. It's about improving people's lives, and that's a very positive message."
In which post that you've held over the years did you learn the most?
"In all positions there are learnings to be had. I greatly enjoyed the time when I was Global operations controller for Philips Lighting Electronics division. That said, working in Africa was the most diverse. It triggers you to be sharp and look out for things coming from every angle - something you simply do not have in western Europe or elsewhere in the world. For example, the currency crises or new legislation, or ensuring the company and all its people remain focused on compliance in the highest ethical standard when the environment demands different of the company. This makes Africa unique in its overall challenge. You need to be quick on your feet!"
In your opinion, how can finance contribute to flexibility and agility? Moreover, what can a CFO in particular do to make a business more agile?
"The CFO is key in this game. He must be on top of his numbers and understand how certain events influence business parameters. The CFO must understand how to treat a portfolio of investments to influence the result in both the long and short term. And finance is at the heart of the matter."
"There are so many factors playing a role in successful business development but together the CEO and CFO need to decide how to make the most of these to move the organisation forward in the long term, while ensuring profitability and cash flow in the short term."
What do you most enjoy about the CFO role?
"I enjoy being involved in all the strategic components of the business. That's very rewarding. Making a decision, making an investment and seeing it come to fruition and seeing the returns."
What is the toughest business decision you've ever had to make?
"People decisions are always tough. In one of our previous jobs we had to completely overhaul a 7,000-people-strong business. Personally, the most impactful was when I had to let someone go very early on in my career. You simply do it but it's emotionally tough, especially the first time. I was 27 years old at the time."
When, in your career, have you been the proudest?
"When I was working together with the GM to overhaul a business and move it from a loss-making unit to one that showed 20% profitability in just 18 months. We worked day and night and had to make a lot of tough decisions. But when I saw the improved cash flow and improved performance, that made me very proud."
In your opinion, what does the CFO of the future look like?
"I think the CFO will be more the person in the organisation where complex data becomes decision-making information.
The CFO must look forward not backwards and process this highly complex data and work with his management team to drive the organisation in the right direction.
The amount of data is so much more than in the past. If you start linking stats to market share and performance, your insights are so much greater. But how do you translate that into action? That's where the CFO plays a greater role. And this requires translating both financial and non-financial information into a course of action."
In light of that, what skills do you think CFOs would thus require?
"The broadness of the education of the CFO needs to improve. He needs to deeply understand supply chain, marketing, finance, and so much more. He needs to be a generalist; a co-pilot alongside the CEO."
Do you see much value in peer-to-peer learning?
"I think that sharing information among CFOs in critically important, especially in markets such as Africa, where not everything has yet been thought through. When talking to CFO colleagues at the CFO Awards forum last year, I discovered that many of the companies at the table where making the same mistakes. With more interaction we could've learnt earlier from each other and stopped making those mistakes. In frontier markets especially peer-to-peer learning makes a lot of sense."