From Corporate Finance to CFO of a Startup Powerhouse: Adil Norat’s Bold Career Shift

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

February 7, 2023


Adil is KMMRCE's Group Chief Financial Officer, bringing more than 20 years of senior financial experience to the company. He is responsible for overseeing KMMRCE's group financial operations. 

Joining KMMRCE from Network International – the largest payment processor in the Middle East, where Adil served over 5 years, with the last position being Senior Vice President of Finance. While at Network International, he played a crucial part in several key strategic initiatives, including its IPO in April 2019 and, more recently, its expansion into KSA. He also led efforts that strengthened the business's commercial analysis and control framework. 

Adil has spent over a decade with private equity-backed Fintech (payments) businesses, helping them to develop and deliver their strategies, enhance profitability and drive growth organically and inorganically, including many M&A activities and two IPOs. 

He has also held many other senior positions across the Middle East and Europe, including Finance Director - Middle East, Head of Planning (Strategy / Commercial Finance), and Group Head of Financial Planning and Analysis (FP&A), to name a few.

Tell us a little about yourself; what is your life story? How did you get started in your profession and your eventual progression to group chief financial officer? 

I was born in the UK and spent most of my life there. I graduated from the University of London, Queen Mary, with a BSc (Hons) in Mathematics with Computer Science, bringing together my interests in maths/finance and technology. 

After that, I worked for the government as a VAT assurance officer for around 10 months while I was waiting to achieve my placement with a professional services firm to commence my chartered accountancy qualification with the ICAEW. I moved on to work for Kingston Smith (now Moore Kingston Smith), at the time a top 20 firm in the UK, and spent nearly 4 years there, after which I decided to go to a Big 4 firm. 

The role of CFO is becoming increasingly strategic and business-focused, requiring a new set of skills and a different approach to decision-making.

I spent one and a half years with Ernst & Young in the Strategic Growth Markets division, working and leading audits of clients from varied industry sectors and sizes, including startups and FTSE 250 organizations. 

After that, I got the opportunity to work at First Data, which was my first entry into the FinTech payment space. At the time, I was unaware of the FinTech space and fell into it by chance. First Data was a massive organization with greater than 20,000 employees across the world. When I joined the organization, it was under private equity ownership, previously listed in the US. I joined as a financial accountant but quickly progressed. I got promoted during my probation period to finance manager and then senior finance manager to lead the UK, Ireland, and Western Europe (UKIWE).

A few years later, an opportunity came knocking at my door to join WorldPay as the Head of Consolidation. While undertaking my due diligence, I quickly became invested in their equity story and the opportunity to make a difference and drive toward a potential IPO, so I took the leap and spent five and a half years there.

I progressed through various roles at WorldPay, from Head of Consolidation to Group Head of FP&A to Head of Planning for the largest division, WorldPay UK. My journey saw me moving away from a group role into more of a commercial focus; supporting the strategy, and working on the IPO, which was one of the largest IPOs of all time; straight into the FTSE 100.

Five and a half years later, I joined Network International as Vice President of Finance of Acquiring, which quickly progressed into Finance Director for the Middle East and eventually into Senior Vice President of Finance. During my time there, my roles focused across both business lines, Merchant and Issuer Solutions, and entailed being a trusted business advisor to senior executives through the provision of enhanced commercial analysis, insights, and recommendations, helping to drive the financial and business strategy and driving FP&A. I also played a crucial part in several key strategic initiatives, including the IPO of Network International in April 2019 and, more recently, its expansion into KSA.

An opportunity at KMMRCE came along: a portfolio of companies and investments that offers headless, agnostic, SaaS and PaaS technology & global FinTech services. This was the perfect next move as it gave me the opportunity to take the number one position in finance, gain experience in a true startup environment and obtain greater exposure to investors and fundraising. Hence, in August 2022 I took on the challenge and joined KMMRCE as Group CFO. 

What was one of the biggest challenges you've faced throughout your career?

Some of the biggest challenges I have faced in my career would be balancing short-term and long-term goals, ensuring compliance with regulation and ethical standards, and adapting to the constantly changing market conditions. This was exemplified during COVID-19, which required a lot of detailed analysis, commercial insights, and continued scenario planning due to the unpredictable market dynamics. 

In the Middle East, personal relationships are highly valued in business, which can be a key factor in building trust and establishing business connections. This is known as “wasta," the Arabic word for connections.
You have worked in the UK and Europe and then moved on to work in the Middle East; what differences have you noticed in the business landscape?

In general, the business environment in the UK and Europe tends to be more heavily regulated than in the Middle East. This can include areas such as labor laws, taxes, and health and safety regulations. Additionally, the UK and many European countries have a strong tradition of labor unions, which can also affect how businesses operate.

The Middle East, on the other hand, is known for its relatively less-restrictive business environment. This can make it easier for companies to set up and operate in the region, but it can also make it more challenging for employees to assert their rights. In many Middle Eastern countries, labor laws and regulations are not as developed or strictly enforced as they are in the UK and Europe.

One major difference that I have noticed is the cultural differences. In the Middle East, personal relationships are highly valued in business, which can be a key factor in building trust and establishing business connections. This is known as “wasta," the Arabic word for connections. On the other hand, in the UK and Europe, decisions tend to be more formalized and based on contracts and legal agreements rather than personal relationships.

What do you think are the top qualities of successful CFOs? 

There are a number of qualities that are often considered to be important for a CFO to be successful in their role. Some of the most important ones include:

  • Strong financial and accounting skills: A CFO should have a deep understanding of financial and accounting principles and be able to apply them effectively to the business. This includes creating and interpreting financial statements, analyzing financial performance, and identify areas for improvement.
  • Strategic thinking: A CFO should be able to think strategically and understand the broader business context in which the company operates. This includes identifying and evaluating potential business opportunities and risks and developing and implementing financial strategies that align with the company's overall goals.
  • Leadership and management skills: A CFO should be able to lead and manage a team of finance professionals and communicate effectively with other members of the senior management team and the board of directors. Also, in this day and age, it is crucial to show and have emotional intelligence.
  • Strong analytical and problem-solving skills: A CFO should be able to analyze financial data and identify trends and patterns. 
  • Excellent communication and interpersonal skills: A CFO should be able to communicate financial information clearly and effectively to stakeholders, both internal and external. This includes the ability to explain complex financial information to non-financial managers, board members, and investors.
  • Risk Management: A CFO should be able to identify and evaluate financial risks and develop strategies to mitigate them.
  • Adaptability and flexibility: In today's fast-paced business environment, CFOs need to be able to adapt to change and be open to new ideas. They should be able to navigate through uncertainty and respond to the constantly evolving economic and business conditions.
  • Technical Knowledge: A CFO should keep updated with the latest technology, software, and regulations to drive the company’s growth and compliance.

Of course, every company and every situation is unique, so the specific qualities that a CFO needs to be successful will depend on the company and its circumstances. But in my view, a CFO who possesses a combination of these qualities is likely to be successful in their role.

You have worked at one of the largest processors in the region – Network International. Tell us a little about your journey there and how your experience was shaped by being part of a robust financial infrastructure business built in the Middle East.

Over time it's been about putting the proper controls in place, delivering enhanced reporting, which allowed the business to make easier decisions and moving the business forward by helping drive the strategy, which included delivering the IPO and supporting through various other M&A activities, which included the DPO transaction.

Looking at my journey in a little more detail, during my early years at Network International, I helped apply the control framework, set up the right reporting mentality, improve the reporting to drive more insightful analysis, and shape the FP&A function in the business. I also helped in delivering data insights, thus allowing the business lines to make the necessary commercial decisions and drive for success. 

Driving the right balance across all facets of finance is tough with a small team, but you strike the right balance to deliver what’s required. 

This inevitably led to introducing profitability analysis for the business, which allowed us to look at it across various segments of the company, including business lines, customer groups, industry sectors, and at an individual customer level. This helped the business make critical decisions and, in turn, improve profitability.

I also worked on and supported quite heavily through the IPO, including building out the five-year business model, working on the long-form reports, supporting the prospectus, and various other streams that come as part of an IPO. 

Throughout my tenure, I was involved in driving the strategic direction of the business in conjunction with senior stakeholders, including identifying key strategies and outlining the financial strategy to support. Some key strategic initiatives included the drive to focus on SME customers to increase profitability and the renewal of significant contracts (including for Emirates NBD) with a contract value in excess of USD 300 million. 

Being part of a robust financial infrastructure business in the Middle East has shaped my experience in several ways:

  1. Exposure to cutting-edge technology: this has been through continued investment in innovation on the platform and delivery of new products and solutions. 
  2. Opportunity for growth and advancement: With the rapid growth in the financial infrastructure sector and, in particular at Network International, I was given many opportunities to grow and enhance my career with the company.
  3. Contribution to economic development: Working for a market leader, we were able to help support businesses to grow and develop, in turn contributing to the development and stability of the local economy.
  4. Cultural diversity: The Middle East is a region with a diverse cultural landscape and working in a market-leading financial infrastructure company provided exposure to various cultural perspectives and ways of doing business.
  5. Challenge and learning: The financial infrastructure sector in the Middle East is rapidly evolving, and with that, I had to continuously adapt and learn new skills and technologies. This was party showcased through the introduction of automation, including the use of bots for some mundane and repetitive financial activities. While this was challenging, it was a rewarding experience.
As a head of finance for an acquirer, minor changes in your pricing model can dramatically change your bottom line. This is where the CFO becomes extremely crucial – what does making decisions at such a large scale look like? How does one go about them?

As the head of finance of an acquirer, making decisions that can significantly impact the bottom line is a crucial part of the role. These decisions include pricing strategies, mergers and acquisitions, and other financial transactions. The CFO must be able to balance the potential risks and rewards of these decisions and choose the course of action that is in the company's best interest.

When making decisions at a large scale, a CFO typically follows a structured process to ensure that all relevant information is taken into account and that the decision is made in a thoughtful and deliberate manner. This process can include the following steps:

  1. Identify the problem or opportunity: The first step is to clearly define the problem or opportunity that the company is facing. This could include a change in pricing strategy to maintain/increase revenue or to ensure continued profitability.
  2. Gather and analyze information: Once the problem or opportunity has been identified, the CFO will gather and analyze relevant information. This could include financial data, market research, industry trends, and competitive analysis. The CFO will use this information to understand the potential risks and rewards of different options.
  3. Generate options: With a clear understanding of the problem or opportunity, the CFO will generate a range of potential options for addressing it. This could include a range of different pricing strategies.
  4. Evaluate options: Once a range of options has been generated, the CFO will evaluate them to determine which one is the most viable. This evaluation will consider various factors, including financial performance, risk, and alignment with the company's overall goals.
  5. Make a decision: Based on the evaluation of the options, the CFO will decide on the best course of action. The decision will also consider the internal and external environment of the company, as well as the political and social situation.
  6. Implement and monitor: Once a decision has been made, the CFO will work with the rest of the management team to implement it. This may include developing a detailed plan of action, allocating resources, and communicating the decision to stakeholders. The CFO will also closely monitor the progress of the decision and make adjustments as necessary.

Of course, the specific details of the decision-making process will vary depending on the situation and the nature of the problem or opportunity. But in general, this structured approach can help CFOs make large-scale decisions that are well-informed, thoughtfully considered, and aligned with the company's overall goals.

Has your experience shaped your current approach at KMMRCE? Anything you are doing differently now than before?

The experience gained throughout my career has always helped to shape my approach in new roles and businesses. This remains the case with KMMRCE also.

I have been able to put to good use the experience gained over my career, including delivering a best-in-class financial control framework, helping to drive the growth of the business, and being able to provide the requisite insights and challenges to ensure success.

Having progressed from more established businesses to a startup, I have had to adapt my approach to deal with the challenges that go with the territory. My focus is now heavily weighted on improving and maximizing cash flow, identifying opportunities to drive revenues, and ensuring that the business's funds are deployed in the most effective manner to deliver the greatest ROI (return on investment). In addition, I am also focused on ways to deliver enhanced business value and subsequently deliver fundraises. While I have been critical in record-breaking IPOs and large M&A activity, I have not had much direct exposure to fundraising, and this is an area to which I am adapting very quickly. 

The CFO must be able to make strategic decisions that will help the company to achieve its goals in the long term while also keeping a close eye on the financial health of the company in the short term.

Aside from the above, it's about working with much smaller teams. In an early-stage startup, as you can imagine, you don't have the privilege of a full finance team; hence, it is about making effective use of the available resources and getting stuck in yourself. Driving the right balance across all facets of finance is tough with a small team, but you strike the right balance to deliver what’s required. 

You have been in the Fintech industry for some time now, and a lot of the finance stack, including accounting, is now getting superpowered. Have you gone through a digital transformation phase with your team? What did that change management process look like?

Yes, I have been through a digital transformation phase which has included the implementation of new systems (ERP, Data Analysis Tools, etc), the introduction of new technologies such as the use of bots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, and finally adopting cloud-based systems and processes.

This digital transformation leads to changes in processes and workflows, requiring a change management process to ensure a smooth transition.

Some examples: 

A change management process for the digital transformation included:

  1. Assessment: Assessing current (AS-IS) processes and identifying areas for improvement and potential for automation.
  2. Planning: Developing a detailed plan for implementing new technologies and processes, including a timeline and resources required.
  3. Training: Providing training for employees on the new technologies and processes to ensure they are equipped to perform their roles effectively.
  4. Communication: Communicating the changes to all stakeholders, including employees, customers, and partners, to ensure they are informed and understand the reasons for the changes.
  5. Implementation: Implementing the new technologies and processes, including any necessary changes to systems and infrastructure.
  6. Monitoring and Evaluation: Monitoring the performance of the new processes and technologies, evaluating their effectiveness, and making any necessary adjustments.

Change management processes can vary depending on the specific organization and the extent of the changes being made, but the key is to ensure a smooth transition and minimize disruption to operations.

Typically it takes a while for startups to become profitable. How do you, as a CFO, navigate profitability versus growth?  

As a CFO of a startup, balancing the need for profitability and growth can be challenging. It's important to remember that startups typically require significant investment in order to grow and scale and that profitability may not be achievable in the short term. However, it's also important to have a plan in place for achieving profitability in the future, as investors will want to see that the company has a clear path to generating revenue and earning a return on their investment.

One way to navigate this balance is to focus on achieving product-market fit and achieving a level of revenue that is sufficient to cover the costs of operations. Once this is achieved, the company can start to consider strategies for scaling the business. This might include expanding the product line, increasing marketing efforts, or investing in new technology to improve efficiency and reduce costs.

Another approach is to set clear milestones and goals the company aims to achieve in the short and long term. This can help the company to focus on the areas that are most critical to achieving profitability and growth while also providing a framework for making strategic decisions. For example, the CFO may focus on building a strong and efficient financial model, keeping track of important financial metrics, creating a forecast and budget, and regularly assessing whether performance is on track.

It's also important to manage expenses and allocate resources efficiently. CFOs should be familiar with the company's burn rate, which is the rate at which a company is losing money, and make sure that the company is not spending more than it is taking in. This could include reducing or eliminating non-critical expenses, negotiating better deals with vendors, and finding ways to increase revenue without significantly increasing costs.

Ultimately, navigating profitability versus growth requires balancing short-term and long-term thinking. The CFO must be able to make strategic decisions that will help the company to achieve its goals in the long term while also keeping a close eye on the financial health of the company in the short term.

You mentioned you think the role of CFO is changing a lot and evolving into a more strategic role. Please tell me more about that and how it differs from the traditional CFO role.

Traditionally, the role of a CFO (Chief Financial Officer) has been focused on managing the financial aspects of a company, such as budgeting, accounting, and financial reporting. However, in recent years, the role of the CFO has been evolving to include a greater focus on strategy and business management.

In recent years and particularly in 2022, there has been a significant increase in investment in the startup and technology ecosystem in the Middle East region. This trend is expected to continue as the region continues to present opportunities for growth and development in these sectors.

One of the main reasons for this shift is the increased complexity of the business environment. Companies are now operating in a global economy and are facing more competition than ever before. To succeed, they need to be able to make informed strategic decisions, and the CFO is in a unique position to provide the financial insights and analysis that can inform those decisions.

In this new role, CFOs are expected to be more strategic in nature, with a deep understanding of the business, the market, and the competitive landscape. They work closely with the CEO and other members of the leadership team to set the company's overall direction and to identify areas for growth and improvement. They also help to shape the company's business model and to make key decisions about investments, acquisitions, and partnerships.

In addition to their traditional responsibilities, such as budgeting and financial reporting, CFOs are also taking on additional responsibilities, such as:

  • Managing risk
  • Advising on technology strategy
  • Advocating for the company and its vision to investors and stakeholders
  • Understanding and providing insight into customer needs, market trends and technology advancements to leadership team
  • Being the liaison between finance and other departments such as sales, marketing, operations, and IT

To be successful in this new role, CFOs need to have a combination of financial expertise, business acumen, and strategic thinking. They also need to be effective communicators and leaders, able to influence and collaborate with a wide range of stakeholders across the organization.

Overall, the role of CFO is becoming increasingly strategic and business-focused, requiring a new set of skills and a different approach to decision-making. In this new role, CFOs can play a critical role in helping their companies to achieve sustainable growth and success in the long term.

We've been seeing a lot of capital flowing in the Middle East region in the startup and tech ecosystem. What are your thoughts on this, especially in comparison to how other parts of the world are dealing with the current environment, and what's your prediction for 2023?

In recent years and particularly in 2022, there has been a significant increase in investment in the startup and technology ecosystem in the Middle East region. This trend is expected to continue as the region continues to present opportunities for growth and development in these sectors. However, it's worth noting that the investment landscape can vary across different countries in the region and is also subject to various global economic and geopolitical factors. For example, UAE and KSA are at the forefront when it comes to available capital by virtue of their sizeable populations, relatively lower penetration of digital payments as compared to Europe, and also the speed of adoption of new technologies and payment methods. 

In comparison to other parts of the world, the investment environment in the Middle East region is unique and has its own set of challenges and opportunities. Some of these include access to talent, regulatory environment, and infrastructure development.

Being able to effectively communicate with a wide range of stakeholders, including team members, senior stakeholders, and clients, is essential for success in a leadership role.

It's worth noting that the global economic environment continues to evolve and can impact investment patterns and trends in various regions, including the Middle East. Therefore, it's difficult to make a precise prediction for 2023. Still, it's expected that the investment activity in the region's startup and technology ecosystem will continue to grow, albeit possibly at a more modest pace compared to recent years. 

2023 is going to be an interesting one. With a strong capital markets agenda in both KSA and UAE, and the drastic measures taken to facilitate offerings in the markets in terms of ease of doing business and performing exits (IPOs), this will create an environment that is very constructive for a further influx of capital. In addition, UAE and KSA are rife with a very constructive base of local investors who have deep pockets and are willing to participate in transactions.

The continued urge of investors to diversify away from other regions, including western Europe, China, and other emerging markets that are becoming less attractive, will also result in greater liquidity for the region. 

In summary, I would expect more of the same in 2023 unless there is a radical change in the macroeconomic environment or energy prices and the sentiment turns. Otherwise, I expect interest from investors to remain and deliver an elevated level of activity in 2023 

What advice would you give senior finance experts looking to transition into leadership roles? 

My advice would be as follows:

  1. Develop strong communication skills: Being able to effectively communicate with a wide range of stakeholders, including team members, senior stakeholders, and clients, is essential for success in a leadership role.
  2. Build a diverse skill set: A well-rounded skill set that includes not just financial expertise but also leadership, strategic thinking, and problem-solving abilities is crucial for thriving in a leadership role.
  3. Stay current with industry trends: As a leader, you need to be aware of the latest developments in your field, including new technologies, regulations, and market trends, in order to make informed decisions.
  4. Build a strong network: Having a strong professional network can help you stay informed, access new opportunities, and gain valuable insights and advice.
  5. Embrace change: Leading a team often requires making difficult decisions and navigating change. Being open to new ideas and approaches, and having the ability to adapt to change, is essential for success as a leader.
  6. Lead by example: A leader should lead by example and be a positive role model for others. This includes being honest, trustworthy, and accountable.
  7. Develop a leadership style that works for you but is adaptable: Everyone has their own unique leadership style. Successful leaders know how to adapt their style to different situations and teams.
  8. Be a good listener: Listening to your team and taking their feedback seriously is a key to becoming a successful leader.
  9. Have a proactive and collaborative mindset: While leading a team, you need to be proactive in your approach, be that by identifying challenges or in achieving/leading the team to achieve the many goals of the business. You will note that on most occasions, you will need to collaborate with other teams, and colleagues in order to achieve these goals. The days of “this is not my job” are well and truly behind us. 

While doing the above would help with the transition into leadership roles, it is also important to develop your own vision, keeping in mind your role and business strategy and be able to impart that on the team so they share and are invested in the same. 


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