Workday goes SA: top exec Gonzalo Benedit talks shop

Workday's top executive Gonzalo Benedit on success, change and new challenges

Since its launch in 2004, Workday has been eating away at the hegemony its competitors, mainly in the United States at first, and now also in the rest of the world. In fact, the company opens its office in Johannesburg mid next month. Over the past decade or so, Gonzalo Benedit has been one of the most successful leaders in the finance technology space. The Argentinian turned SAP into an enormous success in Mexico and put the ERP firm on a growth curve in Latin America before making waves in the Paris-headquartered EMEA region. Last year, he joined competitor Workday and now heads up the barnstorming finance and HR solutions company outside the United States. We sat down with Gonzalo to talk about his biggest successes to date, what attracted him to Workday, and why he believes his new professional home is convincing so many multinationals to jump ship and partner with the cloud-based services provider.

 

How do you personally connect with CFOs?
“Initially, my aspiration was to be a CFO myself! I was born and raised in Argentina, outside of Buenos Aires. Throughout the early days of studies, I always saw myself in finance. I started in corporate finance and then did project finance. I have always liked that combination: the analytical aspect of finance and the connection with the real business. That led me to management consulting and technology. My finance background has always been extremely useful, as it provides the ability to dive deeper into different dimension of the business and understand the levers that can be pushed and pulled.”

What do you consider your proudest career achievement before joining Workday?
“I think that was back when I was running SAP in Mexico as a managing director. It was an interesting individual challenge. Mexico is a large economy with a large population and we really had to take the operation to the next level. We invested a lot, hired new people and the acceleration of SAP’s operation in that market turned out to be phenomenal. It is now one of the top markets for SAP, where the company has an incredible footprint, particularly in retail.”

Why did you decide to join Workday?
“It was not an easy decision, but there were a few things at Workday that drew my attention. First of all, I was impressed by the technology that Workday offers, being a single cloud platform with an incredible user interface. You can run it from your mobile device and because there are new releases every six months, there is a great focus on continuous innovation. I don’t think it compares to anything out there in the marketplace. I find that very fascinating.”

“The second aspect that drew me to Workday is the incredible obsession the company has with customer satisfaction. It is not just a focus, but really an obsession. We don’t take our customers for granted and work on their experience and the value they receive day in and day out. Of our 1,900 customers across the globe, 70 percent are already live with Workday. The satisfaction rate among them is an incredible 98 percent.”

“Thirdly, what inspired me to move from a competitor is the culture at Workday, as instilled by our founders and the CEO Aneel Bhusri. It is something very special. Values like integrity and respect are truly central to what we do. We also believe happy employees make customers happy.”

Were your friends in the industry surprised about your job move?
“Their surprise was related to the fact that I had been building a career at SAP for a long time, but – especially in North America – Workday is very well known so there was no surprise about the choice of employer. The business community has an incredible respect for the company. We have customers like Unilever, GSK, BP, Rolls-Royce and Airbus, all pretty incredible companies in their own right that have decided to move to Workday. Around 30 percent of the Fortune 500 works with Workday these days.”

How do you explain Workday’s impressive growth?
“We are very strong at offering human capital management and finance and analytics solutions to organisations that are big multinationals, right through to medium-sized companies. More than 50 percent of big companies have already decided to host their solutions in the cloud, particularly in HR. When it comes to the cloud, we believe Workday is the safer choice. Our competitors talk about being simple, but they are not. We were born in the cloud. We were born with simplicity at our core.”

“One thing that we are seeing is that technology from previous generations requires big implementation projects. Companies have done so many customisations that they are stuck. Workday works with a different paradigm. We focus on configuration over customisation and have an incredibly powerful platform for this purpose."

"Every bi-yearly update has on average 400 new features of which some will be embedded and some can be enabled. This is a story of continuous innovation. When Workday 29 launched recently, it came with a totally new customer interface, which was based on customer feedback. In a couple of hours, every Workday customer across the world had the new customer interface. This is a completely new way of working and updating your enterprise technology, and it is immensely powerful.”

Although most CFOs advocate zero customisation, they also all have unique businesses and requirements. How can they cater for that?
“The power of the simple model is something we want to protect, as we believe it is one of the key differentiators. That means there are things we cannot tackle. We will always be open about that. At Workday, it is totally forbidden to oversell or set wrong expectations. But, after many requests, we launched a Platform-as-a-Service model in 2017. The intention is not to create a new business unit, but to allow customers to add specific extensions for specific scenarios under the safe umbrella of Workday, without endangering the regular upgrades.”

What is your brief for the coming years?
“My responsibility is to run the business outside of US, basically EMEA, Asia Pacific and Japan. It is a beautiful responsibility. Our operations outside the US now comprise 21 percent of the business, and last year we won big deals like Lloyds Banking Group in the UK and Siemens in Germany. Typically, when coming into a new market, we start with addressing very large corporations, focussing on HR. Then we go deeper into the market with financials. We are now also going for midsize enterprises with a unique combined package of HR and finance that can basically run your entire back office.”

What are your expectations in South Africa?
“Opening an office in South Africa is a very exciting part of our expansion strategy. Very recently we opened offices in Asia Pacific and last year we launched in Spain. With regards to South Africa, the good news is that there is already some sort of Workday community through the local operations of our global clients. With Barclays Africa, we also have a big, local customer. All in all, we currently have more than 250 companies in South Africa operating on Workday, of which a handful are locally headquartered. There is already a pretty vibrant community.”

What role does the community of CFOs and CHROs play for Workday?
“That has perhaps been the greatest surprise for me since joining. The CFO and HR communities are very vibrant. People share practices and are often very open about how they run the business with Workday. It is fascinating to see. Every year, we have a global event called Workday Rising, where the community comes together. Last year’s event in Barcelona attracted nearly 2,000 attendees, of which 60 percent attended Rising for the first time. We use the event to get customers in a room with each other and with prospects. We then leave the room to let the conversation flow freely. Nobody with a Workday badge is allowed in. I don’t think there is anything else like that in the industry.”

“We also strongly believe in the power of local events; there is no better way to build relationships with the regional community. Critically, it is not about Workday talking about the Workday product. With over 250 customers already operational in South Africa, these events are about the power of the community and thought leadership. As I have said, we approach things quite differently to the past – it really is ALL about the customer!”