The Evolving Role of Finance Professionals: An Interview with Poomesh Mathew

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

March 1, 2023

Tell me about yourself, your career journey, and how you ended up in the UAE.

I grew up in India, across the country, since my parents had transferable jobs. Professionally I've had a career for 14 years. I started with PWC in Bangalore, moved on to EY for a brief time, and then worked for a big conglomerate called Wipro in India. I was part of the FP&A core central team there. I built something very innovative out there, and there it occurred to me that this is a larger problem to be solved.Inspired by the start-up environment brewing in India at that point, I set up my own consulting company circa about 2014. Tried my hand at teaching at a university. I did that for about the next five years to come. Continued with my consultancy for a few years before exiting the same to join a Fintech called Kabbage.

Kabbage was a big FinTech lender based out of the USA. They set up their talent center in India, and I was heading the same for the Finance function. Unfortunately, during covid, the ops in India had to be shut down, and later the company was acquired by American Express.

Continuing my journey with Fintech since 2020, I have been into the buy now pay later space.Throughout the last 3 years, I've worked with companies like ZIP and Sezzle, and that led me to my role in Tabby, which is a buy now pay later leader in the GCC region based out of Dubai.

And that's my journey so far. That's how I got to Dubai.

The nuances of getting culture are very critical to be successful in the Middle East
Can you tell us what inspired you to become a professor at Christ University in India?

Firstly there was always a passion for teaching, and secondly, the fact that I had my own setup helped me manage time better. I was involved with a lot of L&D in the organizations that I had worked for, and this just wings my passion.

What do you think are the key challenges CFOs and/or finance professionals face in the UAE?

I wouldn't say challenges; these are more avenues for learning.

I worked in the USA, India, and now the Middle East. MENA region is very peculiar, especially a place like UAE, because an average CFO here interacts with at least four kinds of different nationalities. It could be nationality; it could be a different culture.

The first hurdle that you had to obviously come across is communication. How tasks are done and understood, interactions amongst colleagues, and business is generally conducted.

The nuances of getting culture are very critical to be successful in the Middle East because it's not just folks from UAE. Ironically, in the UAE, you'll find more folks outside of UAE, right? And especially in finance, you would find your bankers from a certain nationality. Your teammates are from different nationalities. You can have language challenges. A lot of tax laws are being evolved here. So there's always this continuous challenge of understanding the culture bit, the language bit because of its impact on the legal regulation. So culture is the biggest challenge, right?
The second hurdle is linguistics. When operating in this region, Arabic is a skill set that one should have on one’s team. Right from a simple task of reading an invoice/bill to sometimes having conversations at offices, this is an angle to be factored in. Not so much in the UAE but of course, if you look at the region, it would definitely have to be factored in.
Thirdly, the pace at which business is done here is phenomenal. The MENA region is going through a change at an exceeding pace where you see a shift from traditional businesses. But you have someone who's doing things in a traditional email way and someone using tools like Slack. Now the pace at which you have to shuttle between the two is quite overwhelming, right? So if you are a finance professional or a CFO in the MENA region, you have to be prepared to deal with both worlds, a traditional, conventional kind of world, which is, rather, I would say, stable but static. On the other hand, there's also this dynamism and dynamic world, which is full of energy; things are changing at a super quick pace. Being a CFO, you have to manage both these dimensions at the same time.

Business here is conducted swiftly and extremely professionally, so you got to be on your heels to deliver what has been promised. The laws are evolving and mirroring one of the best in the world, so there is a lot of upkeeping to be done.

You touched on the subject of culture a lot, and it's interesting because, in one of my previous interviews with a CFO, that was spoken about a lot as one of the main challenges. So I'd ask you the same question I asked him: What was the biggest cultural difference when you moved from India to the UAE? 

One cultural advantage is the adherence to rules and regulations. Both in terms of the clarity of how, what, and when to be done and the companies following the same was a pleasant experience. This results in lesser litigation and ambiguity.

So, if you know what you want to do, it's a great pace; you can chalk down your points and move on.

A lot of old tradition works here because many things are understood, explained, time-tested, and proven, and it has worked well. So, the culture to introduce something new and getting its acceptance to the market, I feel, was a little challenging. But once it's accepted, it's like the duck taking to water. It's adopted very quickly. But the introduction of something new requires a little more planning.

You have to be as insightful and resourceful for the business because you're no longer viewed as part of the organization that just turns out the financial reports; you're far closer to the business. 
In UAE's financial services industry, do finance professionals face a high level of regulation? 

Well, that's quite an interesting question.

At least in my experience, I have seen far more regulatory environments where you require a lot of reporting. The UAE’s financial service environment is quite advanced, I would say, in terms of its speed of setting up something. The clarity in what has to be followed and what has to be reported is very open. I would say that things are extremely clear here. There's a very reduced need for applying judgment on items because a lot of things are extremely clear.

You can take DFSA, for example, right? Take any of their regulatory reporting requirements; it's well explained, ironing out any room for doubt; I would say, a very advanced model. It does not require too many compliances, but the compliance is pretty wholesome and clear in what must be done.

I think this is one of the friendliest regulators to be complying with in the sense that you are seeking things like clarity, when, and how. So, the rules are very well laid out.

You mentioned earlier that communication is really important for modern finance professionals. And on the subject of that, we can see that the role of the CFO has changed a lot over the past decade, and it has become more focused on strategy. So throughout your career journey, have you introduced any new strategies to any company you have worked with?

I would say things evolve, and finance in the industry is primarily a support function, right? Our objective is to ensure that the business folks get what they need when they need it.

Starting from my career back in 08, the requirement, what the business guys had back then to today, has it changed drastically? Not so much. But the form in which the information is consumed, has it changed? Yes.
Today,  life has changed in terms of how they view data and information. There has to be storytelling that is compelling and insightful. Since everyone is caught up in a million things, communicating just the information is not good enough. There has to be clarity on the why, what, and how. This strategic thinking needs to be incorporated into any communication from a CFO. 

As such, anyone who's using technology for the past one or two decades has got so used to getting insightful information, and this is expected from every function and finance is no exception to that. So versus let's say 20 years ago where you could put something in Excel or put a bar in a graph chart and say, this is what has been done. Today, people would want live data, live dashboard reporting, and insightful suggestions, saying, okay, this is wrong; what should we do?
For example, just see how things have changed how we do regular stuff, like ordering food or working out. The manner in which information is consumed has changed, and hence CFOs will need to keep up. That being said, things have to be kept simple and effective at the same time. There is no one way of doing it, but one should read the audience before doing so.

Today,  as a finance professional, it's hard for you to say, hey, I do not know how to handle big data. You have to scale up. You should know how to use Power BI and Tableau and extract data from them. The proximity with which you work with business has entirely changed. Throughout my journey, the strategy I've adopted is changing the mindset and the attitude of the finance folks saying that we are not a team that just churns out information, but we work closely with the rest of the team. You have to be as insightful and resourceful for the business because you're no longer viewed as part of the organization that just turns out the financial reports; you're far closer to the business. 

Automation and new technologies are always there to replace or accentuate grunt work.
That actually takes me to my next question, which focuses a lot on technology. One thing we can see in the finance world is there are two perspectives on emerging technologies and automation. Some would say it removes the drudge work for finance professionals and leaves them room to generate value in the company, while others may believe that it's replacing positions for finance professionals. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, in my view, technology automation has always been there. For the past decade, the pace at which you're adopting these has increased.

We always had ERPs or some bit of innovation or tech to assist. Now, forget whether it replaces someone or not, if you were to ask an accountant or someone in the finance field: what would you rather do? Would you rather do grunt work full day or would you would wanna do something exciting? Everyone almost chooses the word exciting, yet there are few of us who don't wanna go through the change. So it's just the change process. Now, you have software that, let's say, can fill up a trial balance within a second. Fair enough. But still, the insightfulness of the finance person has not gone away.

Automation and new technologies are always there to replace or accentuate grunt work. It makes life easier for the financial professional, but not so much for replacing in that sense. To be honest, if the work was so replaceable, then you shouldn't have done it in the first place. They should have had an easier thing.

The simplest example I can give is the bank and the ATM. What would you rather do? Would you rather go to the bank and tell it and then withdraw the money in cash, or would you prefer an ATM? So did ATMs make banks redundant? Did credit cards make banks redundant? No. They just found different avenues. These two help us in our work, and the finance has to cope with and match up with the pace, and if they're able to do that, then the value extraction is immense. So the trick is to know how to leverage it rather than be scared of it.

On the same topic, do you see any particular technologies transforming finance in the future or becoming valuable to finance teams?

Yeah, certainly. The talk of the town, Chat GPT. When so much autonomous intelligence is put into a software which is able to judge basic work, right?

So just imagine a scenario there, you know, you're talking to a supplier. The supplier just mails the quote, and the engine knows who to take the quote to, gets the response interactively, get back to the team, and if the budget is already fed into the engine, it knows whether to approve it, not approve it. You don't need the finance persons group always to give us his or her consent. Take the supplier, create the PO, and then do it.

So the autonomous auto chat bot, I feel, has a huge potential to transform the way we view finance today. One challenge is that a lot of us try imagining the future with the present, what we're exposed to. It need not be, right?

Back when we had the feature phone, no one really imagined how the smartphone would transform things, but once it came, now you can't imagine. The challenges we try imagining the future with the tools that we have. The tools will change. The requirements will change. Any interactive chatbot, which I feel, once it has a little more autonomous capability, would take out a lot of tasks that are time-consuming and not so much of value add today. I don't know exactly the technical specifics of what the technology is called, but intelligent bots would replace a lot of non-value add tasks that humans perform today, especially in finance.

Business folks want simple, straightforward, actionable information they can work on.
Are there any critical skills you think a modern finance professional or CFO needs to be successful?

Yeah. Certainly.

Apart from traditional, analytical, and problem-solving skills. I think learning and relearning, unlearning and relearning, is extremely important because every five years, the process or the technology completely transforms itself. You must deploy something new. Although your objectives sometimes remain the same, the way to achieve them completely changes. Democratization of success or democratization of technologies that is available to all. You have to transform these tools into your process.

I think the skill is the ability to learn, know about new technology, new tools, and how the world functions, and fuse it back into what you do. So you don't have a large team, our process will not remain constant for 2, 3, 4, 5 years, or decades like it used to be earlier. The critical skill would be learning and unlearning, unlearning old things, relearning new things, and trying to fuse them into your average day.

We see a lot of CFOs talking about the importance of communication and storytelling as you progress in your finance career. Can you talk more about that?

Numbers don't attract anyone or don't attract a lot of people. So you obviously got to make things simple for others, and that's where this ability to make a narrative and a story comes into play.

In one of my very, very early career roles, where I was building a dashboard for business folks, one of them came up and he was like, yeah, that's fine, but what do I do? I explained again the P&L, and he again asked, what do I do? And that's when it kind of dawned upon me that what he's asking is that if things are bad, what should he work on? He needs a simple message, and that's where you realize that you should be able to tell the story.

When we're children, we grow up, and we hear stories, right? And usually, the end of the story has a moral, that's your take home, and that's what you act upon. When every CFO is talking about storytelling, I think what they're referring to is this particular feature that we narrate what's happening in the business, but at the end of the day, you give the business folks what they have to act on. And that has to be powerful. The easiest example I always give is your Apple watch. If you've been sitting for two hours, your Apple watch says stand up, walk, and that's what human minds like absorbing; simple messages. That is storytelling that finance has to align with versus number differences and percentages.

Business folks want simple, straightforward, actionable information they can work on. And that is easier because not everyone would have the degree to understand a complex financial statement. It's more to do with, “hey, this is what I need to work on, this is what I need to achieve, and that's the storytelling scene.”

For our last question, do you have any advice for young finance professionals?

One, I think young professionals are way better than when we, or at least when I started, in terms of their exposure, curiosity, and knowledge. I would say a few young professionals know the breadth of things, but they aren't interested in knowing the depth of things. This is something that needs to be addressed. There has to be a fundamental understanding of how things work and how to understand something completely. One should avoid skimming through the surface-level understanding.


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