Bikash Prasad - CFO Olam International (East & South Africa): "Forecasting and budgeting are more crucial than ever"


Bikash is qualified member and rank holder of the Institute of Cost and Management Accountants of India, a member of Institute of Management Accountants, USA, MBA in Finance and DBF from the Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India (ICFAI). He has been awarded by the Finance Minister in India for top rank in the examination of the Institute of Cost and Management Accountants of India. He is a recipient of government scholarship for the highest marks in board exams. He has also received scholarship from ICFAI for academic excellence.

He is a Seasoned Finance Professional with over 15 years of rich experience in multi-cultural, multi-tasking and challenging environment in India and abroad (more than 20 African countries) with MNCs like Unilever, Olam etc. Bikash joined Olam in 2006 as Country FC in Cameroon before he was promoted as Cluster CFO for West Africa in August 2009, based out of Ghana. He has been handling country/cluster financial responsibilities for over 6 years in West Africa before moving on to South Africa to handle regional financial responsibilities for East and South Africa as Regional CFO.

Olam International Limited is a leading global integrated supply chain manager and processor of agricultural products and food ingredients, sourcing 20 products with a direct presence in 65 countries and supplying them to over 11,000 customers and employing over 20,000 people worldwide. In the South and East Africa region the company staffs approximately 2,000 people.

With direct sourcing and processing in most major producing countries for various products, Olam has built a global leadership position in many businesses, including cocoa, coffee, cashew, sesame, rice, cotton and wood products. Headquartered in Singapore and listed on the SGX-ST in 2005, Olam currently ranks among the top 40 largest listed companies in Singapore in terms of market capitalisation and is a component stock in the Straits Times Index (STI), MSCI Singapore Free, S&P Agribusiness Index and the DAXglobal Agribusiness Index.

He has been awarded as the best MIS professional in the Asia Pacific region by Kimberly-Clark followed by Execution in Excellence award from Olam International globally. He is also known for his excellent leadership skills.

What do you enjoy most about your job and why? What must you absolutely do every single day to feel fulfilled in your work and why?
The most exciting part of my job as a Regional CFO for South and East Africa is pro-active planning to build right structures, design efficient systems and processes, create enabling and non- beaurocratic environment in an extremely fast growing listed company and then to lead and provide strategic directions to the team to meet the stretched targets with proper performance management systems for the benefits of both the employees and the organization.

Other exciting parts of the job is exploring M&A opportunities, closing the deal with the target after proper project feasibility studies, followed by post mergers integration (PMI) to extract maximum value. Treasury and Risk Management functions remain exciting areas as well in a highly volatile credit, currency and price environment coupled with the tremendous business growths in our company both organically and inorganically.

I must ensure every day that I keep myself updated with the changes in external and macroeconomic environment, potentially impacting the businesses. Further, I need to ensure that I am a patient listener and keep the team motivated and going with a focus on their execution excellence to meet the team goals.

How do you perceive the role of the CFO has changed in the last five to ten years?
The role of CFOs has changed from a bean counter to strategic business partner, from accounting to decision-support and strategic planning.

Due to emergence of various international financing tools, increased focus on cost control for survival due to cut-throat competition, FP&A for informed decision-making, risk management processes in the most volatile times, stricter corporate governance requirements, investment decisions and M&A due to existence of both opportunities and threats have completely changed the profile of CFOs in and expectations of organizations from them.

How do you see the role of the CFO evolving in the next five to ten years?
The role of CFO has already started evolving from accounting to business support. In coming years, CFOs would play even a bigger role right from designing strategies for the businesses to its full implementations. CFOs may be called as CVOs (Chief Value Officer), being the custodian for preserving and creating values for the organization. We may also see a time when there would be no month close exercise but online availability of financials all the times through advanced applications and implementations of IT systems.

Would you say that accurate forecasting and budgeting is still feasible for a financial department in today's tumultuous financial markets?
In the current volatile times with the squeeze on resources (working capital, fixed capital, risk capital etc), forecasting and budgeting would be more crucial than ever. The limited resources will have to be deployed with proper budgeting and allocations amongst various BUs to get maximum returns and productivity. Cash is king in credit crunch scenarios and hence cash flow forecasting would be vital to plan and properly utilize the financial resources.

We deal with volatility in credits, currency and price using the Value at Risk model by putting risk limits in terms of both quantum and tenor. Use of derivatives and hedging techniques are must to handle these volatilities.

Which skill(s) do you think a finance professional should master to be most successful in his work? Please give an example when these skills are an absolute requirement.
I would suggest following skills to become successful in our career -

a) Domain Knowledge of finance
b) IT savvy
c) Full understanding of business models and insights
d) Stakeholders relationship (internal as well as external) and excellent communication skills
e) Leadership and People skills
f) Continuous up gradation of knowledge

Which achievement or project in your business career are you most proud of?
I feel excited about the number of M&A projects handled and closed by me in OLAM, right from identification of targets to project feasibilities to valuation to DD to deal closure and finally post merger integration (PMI). This helped my region to grow exponentially and leave behind the peers.

The other critical achievement was to get my company in Ghana the BEST TAXPAYER AWARD for 2011 by Ghana Revenue Authority through high level of corporate governance, valuable inputs to authorities resulted in increase in their revenues etc.

Please name something - a procedure or process for instance - that was implemented in your company before you were appointed CFO, which you changed after you took the position of CFO.
After I took over as Regional CFO, I revamped the financial closing and business support processes through implementation of new software developed in-house with the help of our central IT division. This ensured standardized reviews (whether a new FC/FM in the organization or a veteran) through defined checklists for financial closing. It further ensured standardized reporting across products and across geographies.

It also had features as group consolidations, web-based applications, central repository, and Excel look and feel with multiple views, process completion attestations, and online business support reports. This was implemented across organization after overcoming the initial resistance to change.

Who is your role model in life and why?
I respect Mahatma Gandhi and Nelsen Mandela for their dedication, focussed approach, outcome orientation, optimism, demonstration of great leadership and people skills, clear communications, politeness but with firmness. If we follow these traits and the approach in our lives, we can achieve what we want to.

What vital piece of advice would you give young ambitious finance professionals?
Take yourself seriously in all the jobs assigned to you, work with integrity and required aggression, never falter on deadlines,, be externally focussed, develop business understanding, be a good listener with your team and develop mutual trust, try to make your supervisor redundant by trying to take over his responsibilities of course after first fully delivering your assigned responsibilities,keep yourself updated with latest happenings in the finance world.

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