Udayan Sen reflects on his time as CFO of BP Southern Africa
Delivering a stronger finance team, ensuring a succession path and enjoying the fine local gins
Udayan Sen, who recently moved on from his role as CFO of BP Southern Africa to a new role within BP, in Australia, reflected on his time in the country in an interview with CFO South Africa.
What were the challenges and opportunities that BP faced in your time as CFO in South Africa?
For best part of my time in South Africa, the economy was depressed, and in recession during a few quarters. For a country that is part of the growth economies of the world (conventionally called ‘BRICS’), growth has been elusive. This has both macro and micro-economic implications and almost all industries are impacted, some more than others. We have also seen a volatile forex exchange over this period, and as a country importing crude, this has impacted end-consumer prices. The crude price itself has been volatile resulting in significant pump price movements.
We have focused on growing the quality of our earnings and market positions. We continually look at our strategy and make changes to ensure that it is good for all seasons. We have strengthened our partnerships and recently launched the Smart Shopper loyalty card with Pick n Pay.
We focus on people, retaining the best talent, and have made changes to our internal construct to drive ongoing effectiveness. At the end of the day, our consumers have choices to make with lower disposable income and lower income earning opportunities, and therefore our focus has been to improve our market offers, ensuring differentiation and competitiveness.
What do you feel you achieved in your time in South Africa?
I had three simple objectives when I landed in the country back in 2015. The first was to find a local South African successor to my role. I have worked on this from day one, creating a robust succession pool and proud to say that this objective has been achieved.
The second was to raise the capability of the team. We have used internal processes and taken external best practices to develop a plan for most individuals and put them into action. The biggest test of the improving capability is often the pull it creates from other functions. In 2018, our success was highlighted when three finance resources developed into business roles.
The third was to improve the internal functional or business partnership. Our Global Business Services (GBS) is based in Cape Town and is the lifeline of the finance function. I have been able to integrate the GBS team with embedded Finance in terms of ways of working, and despite the dislocation of physical location, we are more of a ‘one team’ than it ever was before. The finance function is highly valued by the business and it creates a powerful sense of purpose aligned to the business strategies.
What have been some of the big successes of your time here?
My biggest success is that I leave a legacy of a stronger team, one that has been built meticulously over the last three years. People leadership for me is largely about how one inspires a team to perform well in all situations. In my time, as a function, we have had a strong focus on gender and transformation and on both counts, we have done well. I am a firm believer in meritocracy as a source of competitive advantage and have tried to build teams around that ethos. I am very proud of my team and it has been a privilege to lead them, and together we have achieved some extraordinary milestones. That said, as always, I believe from my team in South Africa, the best is yet to come!
On a personal front, I have been touched by some of the people I have met and cherish the memories of the times together and hope to stay in touch across continental boundaries.
Do you have any observations about the business culture?
These are country observations with broad generalisations, so I request your indulgence.
The first is timeliness. I have worked in three continents, going to the fourth, and have seen many cultures and experienced them closely over the years. In South Africa, I initially struggled with timeliness – a meeting seldom starts on time, and whatever time it ends is the right time! I imposed a nominal monetary fine for late starts and used it to fund team birthday cakes! It worked for me, as I saw meeting starting nearer to time rather than actually on time!
The second thing that I sometimes miss is the “can do” attitude. Some employees wait for direction, whereas I would like them to try things out and ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Empowerment does not necessarily signify action.
Positively, I have been amazed by some of the talent and skills I have come across and people I have interacted with in the business world – I have learnt a lot.
Lastly, my experience with external recruitments is that there are a lot of people attempting to rise very fast; they are gathering broad skills but losing out on the depth of experience. As someone who has spent nearly 20 years in BP, I have a strong sense of belonging to the company. It is difficult to inculcate that value. As always, it is a balance, and moving roles is important as it tests one’s worth, but moving too often creates a capability gap.
On a personal level, what has your time in South Africa been like?
I absolutely love South Africa and its people. I think my wife would also say that it has been an awesome experience. I have been in the country many times on work for a decade before my move in 2015, so I had a good idea of what to expect. I think South Africa has the potential to be one of the world’s most desired places to live.
As a family, we love to travel and see new places. We have done the usual things in South Africa – Cape Town, Safaris, Drakensberg, Garden Route, et al. Everywhere we go, people have been endearing and the food and wine have been excellent. And we added a family member here, and dare I say she is the most important member of the family – a dog who is now two and half years old! I have fallen in love with the South African gin and have nearly given up on beer which was my staple drink in the UK where I came from.
When I look out of the window and see the sun with my favourite gin and tonic in hand, I think there is really no better place to be! And then the reality of the William Nicol early morning drive to work brings me back to reality!