Swayam on his ascent from Bihar to the Boardroom & Leading finance with empathy

Episode Description
Have you ever pondered how high-flying careers take off from the simplest of beginnings? Take a seat as we unravel the tale of Swayam Saurabh, the CFO designate at JSW Steel, whose ascent from a quaint Bihar town to the financial stratosphere is nothing short of inspirational. Swayam's candid storytelling transports us through his early dreams of the Air Force to the boardroom's strategic battlegrounds, offering a vivid blueprint for those navigating their professional paths.

Navigating the complexities of leadership, empathy, and pivotal decision-making, this episode dissects the intricate dance between the heart and the mind within the corporate world. Hear how Swayam blends empathy with decisive action and how the delicate balance of speed and consensus plays out in real boardroom dramas. He peels back the layers on the challenges of corporate restructuring and ethical decision-making, offering a rare glimpse into the emotional landscape that finance leaders must traverse.

As the conversation shifts towards the future, we're greeted by the seismic technological shifts within the finance sector. Swayam provides a forward-looking perspective on India's burgeoning economic landscape, the integration of AI and its ramifications on jobs, and the essential role of tech-savviness in today's professional arena. For anyone with an eye towards the horizon, this episode is a treasure trove of foresight, wrapping up with a contagious optimism for India's trajectory in the global economy. Join us for this enlightening journey with Swayam, as we chart the course of finance, leadership, and the promise of technological evolution.

Listen to an audio version of the podcast below:

Audio Transcript:

Swayam Saurabh: 0:00

I personally think anywhere where you know a decision individual driven decision is not needed, could be automated. I mean, that's my hypothesis.

Ankur Bhageria: 0:20

Hey, welcome everyone to another episode of Inside Finance. I'm Ankur Bhageria, founder and CEO at CashFlo. Today, we have a very interesting guest with us, mr Swayam. Swayam, of course, has been in the finance space for now 22 odd years and he's currently CFO designate at JSW Steel. Swayam's career has spanned multiple industries, both old economy, new age, as well, as you know, across industries as well. So a very warm welcome to you, Swayam. It's great to have you here. No, I'm glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me here. Absolutely, you know the idea of you know doing this. It was very simple. We wanted to, you know, create a platform where finance professionals can learn from the best in the business. It's a lot of my own learning has come from that way and I feel like this can be a great platform for the finance community. And the intent is to, you know, bring folks across industries and across geographies together and really get them to understand the mind behind some of the leaders that operate in the space. Yeah, nobody better than to have you here.

Swayam Saurabh: 1:46

No, thank you. I mean, I don't know if I, you know, I belong to that best mind category, but it's a great initiative. Yeah, I'm very happy to be here.

Ankur Bhageria: 1:55

Fantastic Swayam would love to perhaps start with just learning a little bit about you, right? How did your journey start? What was your early childhood like? Did you always know you'd enter finance Talk us through a little bit of that?

Swayam Saurabh: 2:12

Sure. So not many people know. But I grew up in a very small town in Bihar in an ultra conservative middle income family. Both my parents were teachers. I was the eldest in family, so you know I was most controlled. I grew up in a Hindi medium environment because both my parents were teachers. You know, education was always at forefront. But then when I look back I don't think CA was ever in the agenda unless I went into my graduation. That's, I moved to Benaras to do my graduation in commerce and that's where CA sort of came through. But I always wanted to become an Air Force pilot. Oh, interesting, yeah, if I could circle back 20 years I probably that go back and do that.

Ankur Bhageria: 3:04

And why was that? Why did you want to pursue?

Swayam Saurabh: 3:07

So I had a relative, a mama, who was in Air Force and you know I grew up admiring him and the lifestyle you know they have and of course if you watch Top Gun then you add to it. So it was really one of those childhood dreams and yeah. But now here I am.

Ankur Bhageria: 3:28

Well, not an Air Force pilot, but certainly someone who's made big waves with the corporate finance space, so interesting. And you know when you did get into CA and you know, eventually decide to start your career. I think you started with L&T Finance. L&T Finance didn't exist then. And was that again a conscious choice? Did it happen by chance?

Swayam Saurabh: 3:56

No. So look, I mean, if you look at you know, if I look at my childhood, I was never the studious kind, but I always ended up getting good scores. So I was a ranker in CA and you know it all happened. So L&T sent me, you know, and basically to appear in an interview. I decided to appear in a few other companies and you know, somehow it was my dad who decided that you know, Mejao. then was one of the top three conglomerates in India. Right, which year was this? That was 2001. So that's when I became CA. So I landed in L&T. It was not really a conscious call. I was too young to make any conscious call then. But after L&T, yeah, part of my life was planned.

Ankur Bhageria: 4:47

And you held various positions across companies and industries. How did you think about your career? If you look back, you know how much of it was, you know, planned versus unplanned. What was your thought process behind how you shaped your life?

Swayam Saurabh: 5:04

So let me break it down into two parts the early part of my career, which is L&T, then to Asian Pains, where I was almost eight years. These moves were not really planned, I mean they just happened. So I was almost three years with L&T and you know, asian Pains came through. Asian Pains then was rated as one of the best employers to work for in India and I just jumped. But the subsequent ones, you know, for example, I was with Philips in Singapore. I was CFO for their consumer business In 2017-18, you know I had to take my next decision and you know there was no role for me in Singapore or in APAC, for me in Philips, because next role would have been in Amsterdam and I had two twin daughters identical twins.

Swayam Saurabh: 5:52

They were six years old and that was a decision you know very consciously taken that it's time we go back, because you know a lot of my upbringing I mean, where I am has to do with how I was brought up and after living so many years away from India, I realized I'm not giving that to my kids. So the point I'm making is subsequent moves were by choice, including for Ola. I mean I had seen established industries, ola came through and Ola was very exciting. I mean the dream from Bhavish Agarwal on scooter side as well as you know what was done and what could have been done. I found it very exciting and you know that's when Ola happened. I also realized I'm then I was only 41 that you know, before I die I should try a startup. But I'm glad I made those decisions because you know they teach you a lot. You see very different pairs, you know capability, energy, culture, people and it helps make you who you are.

Ankur Bhageria: 7:00

Yeah, fantastic. And you know you talked about sort of making these conscious choices to reach where you are today. And if you contrast, you know all of these companies that you, you know, been at right, was there something common across all of them that you would say that you that drew you to them? Right, I'm sure there was something that drew you to these companies over time. And if you reflect back now, of course everybody has their own culture, but do you pick up any commonalities across these companies?

Swayam Saurabh: 7:35

So of course there are commonalities, but you discover them after you are inside. But you know, if I look back at my career, I have not repeated an industry. I think it's a little bit of who I am. I like you know. I mean, how steel is made. I find it very exciting and so was. You know how, for example, shared mobility is driven and what kind of market it could be.

Swayam Saurabh: 8:04

But I think what winds them for me? I mean, my recheck list includes a bit of culture. Culture more on, you know, governance and ethics side, because that's also one of my personal value. So that's something I try to definitely check. Also, culture on people's side you know, if I look around the organizations I have worked for, You know super organizations like Asian Paints or Philips. You know, where everybody is equal I mean a European company everybody is equal. But then I've also seen L&Tamp; earlier days of L&D where you know to go to your manager's room you have to, you know, take pre-appointment and so there was less access Versus the startup. You know where speed and execution is key. Everything else comes later. So it's really those, you know the DNA of the organization is what I try to see. But what draw me there is really, you know what they can offer, and a lot of them, for example, philips was really to get a global exposure, which is what I got.

Ankur Bhageria: 9:14


Swayam Saurabh: 9:15

Asian Paints was early, so let me skip. But I'm glad I was, you know, seven, eight years with Asian Paints. But Vedanta, for example, I was here for Hindustan Zinc for three years. It was to get into, you know, one of the large companies which is listed. So it was really listing entities exposure.

Ankur Bhageria: 9:32

Yeah, so they're different reasons Interesting, and so a lot of it, I gather, was to do with, you know, learning at some level for you right to be able to get different exposures which eventually allowed you to learn different facets of you know, or develop different skill sets in your domain.

Ankur Bhageria: 9:55

You know when you think about. You know when you like for professionals today when they think about their career right, one of the things that I've sort of heard from a lot of CFOs and finance leaders is it becomes very critical to not just be in the finance function but actually also learn business and be on the operating side. How true is that in your view? Did you ever get that opportunity? Do you feel like it's worth doing?

Swayam Saurabh: 10:30

In my you know playbook, it's number one thing to tick. I mean it doesn't matter whether you are a finance professional or a marketing professional or, you know, commercial guy. You really have to understand how business work. So, for example, you know what is iron ore versus cooking coal proportion and how it gets blended and what is ash factor. You know all of this you have to understand, and more so for finance guys, because you know everything gets done in operation has an impact on your cost, for example, and you know steel industry cost is key. And then also on the customer side.

Swayam Saurabh: 11:07

So now, who are we selling to? What kind of channels do we have access to, where we lead, what kind of pricing strategy we follow? So I think you raise a very important point. I personally have always taken interest and, after spending 23 years in industry, I think this is, this is probably one differentiator, you know, which probably would define, yeah, a complete CFO versus others, I think, gone other days where CFOs were finance domain experts and, you know, essentially focused on banking and accounting. The people I meet today, the people I have worked with, the people you know I admire around me, are all who understand business as much as any other person in the management. I think it's a fundamental skill to have.

Ankur Bhageria: 11:58

You know, while I've seen a lot of leaders talk about this, but even today, career paths for finance professionals you know CAs who graduate and they join finance they tend to sort of stick to finance as a you know, as a vertical career path. Where does the challenge come in practically implementing this? Or do you see more and more companies now beginning to acknowledge this and therefore give them exposure across business?

Swayam Saurabh: 12:24

So I think you know it partly depends on the type of organization, but I think more and more companies are acknowledging this. I mean, just to give you an insight, my first job at L&T. So L&T hires fresh CAs only in corporate audit and the objective is they will get, they will see all the businesses you know L&T had cement then and EPC and engineering construction, and then you land in a role. But the idea is, you know, first three years we actually understand the organization. This is something you know, at least the organizations I have worked for and now I have in a position to take some of those decisions we are very actively doing. So a fresher batch which comes in, spend some time in a factory, you know, gets exposed to commercial function, and this we are trying to institutionalize, even here in JSW Steel.

Ankur Bhageria: 13:16

That's actually a great way to think about it. Give them those exposures early on that have them develop that appreciation. Otherwise you're very disconnected from business, rather than you have.

Swayam Saurabh: 13:28

And once you have done that, those two years, it teaches you a lot. You know more than what you have studied when you are in college. Also helps you become a better person. You are, you know, a problem solver. You actually have more empathy to, for example. You know a customer who needs more credit is not just digital. You know reaction for you, you understand why. And also, after having spent those first two, three years, you grow a little bit and having seen whatever path you choose from there on whether you want to become a SME or you want to go into general finance, it is more measured in my view.

Ankur Bhageria: 14:05

Yeah, if you look back at you know your career. What would you say are what is your fondest sort of memory or what you would consider as sort of your proudest moments.

Swayam Saurabh: 14:21

Yeah, there will be a few, but I think all of them relates to people. So my fondest memory was when I was leaving Singapore and it was my last day, and the whole floor I mean part of the floor where finance it was completely redone by my team Whole night. Of course, you give farewell to people you leave, but that was very special. What was also memorable for me is what people spoke there. You know people talked about things which I didn't remember, but then you know I'll use an example. Somebody you know, during crunch period of annual operating plan prep, mentioned that you let me go two days in a row because you know my son was going through some chemotherapy and some major hospitalization. You know things make an impact on people and you know those are the moments which actually are your earnings. I mean, I personally think so.

Ankur Bhageria: 15:32

And these are tough calls right, like you talked about being in crunch time and allowing people to take leave at that time and these you know, in that moment, obviously, all you know instinct is to sort of you know, do what, yeah, fix it right, do what needs to be done. But you need to have a certain level of courage to take those calls and it's admirable that you were able to.

Swayam Saurabh: 15:53

One is courage, but also, you know, empathy, I think it's. I mean, if I look at my last 23 years, it's something I have developed. I mean nobody is born with it, but it, I mean we are finance guys, so it creates a very large asset. If you do this right and if you do it with you know right beliefs you have, you build great teams. You actually build teams who are, you know, motivated to take a step more versus people who just want to do their, you know, day shift. I have seen some amazing thing happening because you know you could bind the people together as individuals performing, as teams performing. And this is my, you know, probably largest belief that you know anybody who has spent, let's say, 10 to 15 years and going into mid to senior management. This is a must have skill. If you can't take your team together, if you can't, if you can't create opportunities for them, if you are not listening to them, yeah, the success will be short lived.

Ankur Bhageria: 17:05

That's interesting that you talk about it, you know, from that perspective, because I think somewhere and this obviously goes back to leadership styles and then there are leaders and there are organizations where it's very clear that you know the thinking is happening at the leadership level.

Ankur Bhageria: 17:22

And then we, you know, they need executors below right who'll just go ahead and execute, and that can feel like it's devoid of empathy sometimes, because you're like, look, yes, of course at a personal level you can still empathize, but you know, just, let's say, problem solving in general, right like now, one way of problem solving is to sort of, you know, hear what's coming up from the ground, empathize with it and then sort of create a solution along with them, versus the other ways to sort of go like, look, you know, I know the market, I understand the customer and and therefore, you know, let's just take this and run with it. Now, obviously there's no blanket right or wrong, but how do you think about decision making in context of, you know, empathy, right, because, yes, empathy at a personal level, you know, we all, you know, subscribe to it most likely, or we at least try to, but empathy from a decision making perspective gets a bit tricky. So how?

Swayam Saurabh: 18:22

do you think about it? What you mean is empathy from a result perspective. So empathy is not leniency, it's okay. So let me answer the question first.

Swayam Saurabh: 18:34

Decision making framework is very simple. Number one decisions have to be taken. It starts from there. I generally follow an 80-20 rule. You know 70%, 80%. If I get conviction right that this is the direction to go, then I would move. I would ask my team to you know go forward.

Swayam Saurabh: 18:58

I've also learned over a period that you know, while you are on that decision path there will be moment of doubt. So you know, just hang in there, tell you are certain that that was wrong path chosen. But it's really taking decisions, taking decisions fast. I mean, if I look at a version of myself 10 years earlier, I would wait for 98% of information to come before I could say yes, I would be very comfortable. You know, at the beginning of my career, if I'm not asked to make that decision to a point where decision has to be taken without delay and sometime has to be taken purely on conviction, then you create sort of you know boundaries against which you will measure that decision. Take a kipics you know you might not have all approvals in place and you still have to sort of take those first steps.

Ankur Bhageria: 19:51

You measure them, but sorry, just to interrupt there, right? So when you talk about building conviction and decision, let's say you've reached that 80% level. Now, at that point, do you spend time creating that mind with your team as well? Or is it more about hey guys, let's execute this. Look, there is a trade-off. There is a trade-off on speed. Right Now you might, if you want to drive consensus. That could take a while. It may not, but it could. So you know that. How do you manage that trade-off?

Swayam Saurabh: 20:23

No, it's a very interesting question. So there are some decisions. Success of those decision depends on certain stakeholders buy it. So there it's not really building consensus. It's part of decision making. You have to make sure there are people on board who understands, you know, direction this decision could go in. But there are also decisions, or part of that decision making, could be an outcome which need to be delivered by a certain time and then you have sort of you know set of people who need to execute it. Again, you have to communicate right. Ideally, consensus should be there, but it's really the objective. I mean sometimes, for example, you know if we take a decision, I mean we should be trying to automate our entire FPNA dashboard. You know, not everybody would see its value immediately. So those sometimes you have to politely push through without being too aggressive. But then you help them see its value and along the path they do, and then you know, then it just becomes faster and more effective.

Ankur Bhageria: 21:34

What's been the toughest decision that you had to take, if you look back, which involved, let's say, the organization or your team, and how did you sort of? What was your approach towards it?

Swayam Saurabh: 21:51

Yeah. So there would be a couple of them. One of them was personal. So you know, I have grown over these years and one of the things I've always held is my value system, personal value system, and that was question mark in one of my organizations and it was a decision for me to, you know, make if I want to continue accepting or if I want to sort of move on. It was a very difficult decision because it was a great place, you know, great rapport with the entire management team, promoters. So it took some time. I still took that decision, I'm proud of it. I did move on. So that is one. But you know there are other decisions as well. I mean in Phillips.

Swayam Saurabh: 22:46

So I was responsible for APEC and we had very large finance team. Then, you know, we started setting up a shared service, very large shared service, and that would mean, you know, people losing their jobs and I was extremely uncomfortable knowing the impact it will have across these countries. But I started to engage people early, created a method where, at least optically, you know you are differentiating in good performers versus not so good, made sure that you know good performers, even though the roles become redundant, are placed somewhere and the other who had to, you know, be sort of had to let go. I actually approved a separate budget which allowed them to have career counseling. In fact use my personal contacts for some of them in Singapore. Yeah, but it was a very tough decision, I mean at a personal level. I still remember I didn't sleep well first two nights after I knew that it can't be avoided.

Ankur Bhageria: 23:59

And this was a call that was left to you to take, whether you want to consolidate and therefore like create a shared service center, or was it any way a management call and it was more around. How do you execute it?

Swayam Saurabh: 24:11

Yeah, so how global companies work is you know? Once in a while you would suddenly have somebody looking at fixed cost and saying 20% out, and then the execution communication, all of them is left to, let's say, you know, down the ground.

Ankur Bhageria: 24:31

Yeah, interesting, yeah, done. there, was there like, was it difficult to reconcile with the idea of, you know, letting people go? Was I mean? How did you come to terms with it?

Swayam Saurabh: 24:44

No, I, I, yeah, I found my reason to explain it to myself Because, you know, business, a part of business, was not doing well and that would you know. If that goes down, everybody goes down. So, once the decision was clear, the whole focus was on how to execute it, how to soften the impact of people who are affected. But I, you know, after this whole thing was over, I did learn a lot of. So that's something you know, teaches you a lot.

Ankur Bhageria: 25:24

What was your ?

Swayam Saurabh: 25:27

Talk, engage and you know, more so than prescribed there will be moment of outburst there will be, because you know every individual who is part of your team has a different. You know financial, family situation right, and you might not know about. And you know, try to minimize the impact. I mean this is all you can do. Yeah, but it's really. You know people are so I've heard cases where you know on a Zoom call 2000 people have had. I think it's just the execution right, it shows lack of empathy. Yeah.

Ankur Bhageria: 26:08

Yeah, I mean, you got to do it. You got to do it, but there's a way of doing it, I suppose. Yeah, have you? You're just on this topic. I find this topic of decision making very fascinating, so I'm going to delve a little deeper, and there's a lot to learn on this. Have you encountered situations where you feel there are, you know, potentially two parts, both potentially making sense, right? I mean, they're very rarely wrong, Like if it's very clearly right or wrong, there is no decision to be made. But when there are two right parts, potentially what's you know? Have you encountered a situation like that, first of all, and you know what was your decision framework at that time?

Swayam Saurabh: 26:48

Yeah. So and I mean it's something finance professional see very often. Bad news do you give now or do you wait for the quarter to end? Because both are right. You know your situation could change and you could actually end up recovering. And if I use this example, I've always believed in being very open. If there's a risk, while the risk could be mitigated and everything will be Hunky Dory, the risk need to be expressed.

Ankur Bhageria: 27:26


Swayam Saurabh: 27:29

So yeah, I mean the situation like this you basically go with your instinct.

Ankur Bhageria: 27:33

Yeah, and which is informed by your personal value system at some level, right, yeah. So what are the top two or three things that sit in your, you know, personal value system, personal integrity?

Swayam Saurabh: 27:47

And personal integrity is not. You know. A lot of people use a narrow definition of it it's thought about money. It's really about anything you do, you know, you start a project. Integrity means you do with, you know, right heart, you want it to work. I mean, that's the largest, if you ask me. Yeah, I mean, everything revolves around it.

Ankur Bhageria: 28:16

Yeah, Swayam. You know, I'd love to learn a little bit about, when you look at all the people you worked with over these years in your team, especially what, according to you, has differentiated you know the really great ones from, let's say, the good ones, right, especially, keeping you know, the finance function in mind, anything that stood out. I mean, of course, functional skills are one thing, but beyond that, Right.

Swayam Saurabh: 28:46

So you know, I think what stands out for me, you know the talent which I would call great is sort of people who are result-driven High conviction, positive body language, again, strong value system. I mean these are the people I've generally seen doing exceptionally well. You know result-driven out, you know basically orientation of what will be. The outcome would be the people. Yeah.

Ankur Bhageria: 29:22

Do you have a way of identifying these? How do you like? What's your interview process like? What's your way of identifying these folks?

Swayam Saurabh: 29:41

So you know you can do it to ways one observe, you know, somebody with a very positive body language, you know doesn't have to be very, let's say, skilled communicator, but somebody who brings that positivity, that's a vibe you get when you talk, somebody who is measured in the conversation. But also you can ask your questions, you know, for example, I asked what did you change in your last role? It's an open-ended question but you know, puts a lot of people to think, yeah, because questions like these, with that, you know it gives you a vibe. I mean you get a sense of course technical and education is given. Yeah, why is that interview is happening?

Ankur Bhageria: 30:29

So yeah, and then what have you heard, Like what's the great answer according to you? You know, when you ask that question of what have you changed, what do you look for? You know that answer.

Swayam Saurabh: 30:39

Yeah, so you know, what I look for is somebody who is not holding status quo, somebody who is not follower of, let's say, an SOP, somebody who you know, who can use first principles, somebody who could see that you know, despite something being done this way 20 years, it can still be bettered, and I look for any such trigger. I mean, I don't expect that you know the person to have made change, but I'm looking for somebody who could spot that this can get better. I see a problem here. Yeah, that's that you know. That's my first tick.

Ankur Bhageria: 31:15

And is that something you expect from even the junior most folks? Absolutely.

Swayam Saurabh: 31:20

Absolutely. I mean you know people, for example, sometime when I'm talking to freshers, or you know when, one year, two year, post qualification, I sometimes ask them how did you study differently? I mean, you know, what would you? What are the one or two reasons because you did well in your studies? How did you do it? That gives me a lot of sense. You know there's very clever guys out there.

Ankur Bhageria: 31:43

Yeah, yeah, interesting. And, and what would you say? You know so, I, you know. One of the questions I love to ask is about failures. Right, like, what is it that you failed at in the past? And I think, more than the answer, it's you know how they a, you know what example do they take, but also what they learn from it. Right, you know, in a way it tends to give a sense of. You know what is their grit. You know, and how much of grit do they possess? I don't know if it's needed in the finance function as much, but is that something that? No, no, it's a.

Swayam Saurabh: 32:25

It's a very important one to ask, actually, because it's also, you know, it reflects back on somebody's ability to have self-realization. I think awareness is important, right? Yeah, so it does happen, in finance, I mean, and in fact, if you ask me, I'll tell you five things where I failed, but everything taught me something.

Ankur Bhageria: 32:47

Yeah, while we're on the topic, what do you have like you know? What do you consider as your biggest point of failure in life?

Swayam Saurabh: 32:58

And it's now asking me to die. Well, just to see great.

Ankur Bhageria: 33:04

The second biggest perhaps.

Swayam Saurabh: 33:07

So there are many. I was running a very large transformation for Phillips and that transformation involved, you know, me engaging local management and leadership. That project, you know, missed deadlines multiple times. I only realized later that the root cause is. You know, the narrative is not clear. I'm just trying to execute. I have not gotten people on board because I'm just trying to execute. That was, you know, sort of early part of my career but it taught me a lot. But that project was a failure. I made sure next one is not.

Ankur Bhageria: 33:53

Yeah, fantastic. Okay, maybe we'll mix things up a bit. Right now, there is a small segment we have which we call rapid fire. I'll throw a few questions at you and let's see how you fare. Sure, yeah, okay, hold on. Okay, when you're not working, what do you do to unwind?

Swayam Saurabh: 34:19

I place quash badminton or run or spend time with my twins, twin daughters. How old are they? By the way, they are 11 now.

Ankur Bhageria: 34:26

Wow, fantastic. What is an app you can't live without and you can't say WhatsApp.

Swayam Saurabh: 34:33

LinkedIn, or yeah, LinkedIn.

Ankur Bhageria: 34:39

Got it. What was the last book that you read?

Swayam Saurabh: 34:43

Yeah, I read a very interesting book. It's called Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. It's a book about finding the purpose, and the book has a backdrop of Second World War concentration camp and the person was locked there with no outlook of what will happen if he's going to die there. And what it teaches you is what nobody can take away from you is your choices. You can choose to stay positive, you can choose to say stay hopeful, and you know that gives you a different type of strength and which can allow you to overcome what otherwise is seemingly extremely gloomy.

Ankur Bhageria: 35:35

That's power. That's going in my list for sure. Now, if you could have dinner with anyone in the world, who would that be and why?

Swayam Saurabh: 35:48

Nirmala Sita Raman. Well, I mean, I'm awestruck by the way she has handled the country's finances after COVID. I mean we are, you know, depending on who you ask, 3.5 to 4 trillion economy today. We were 2.2 ten years back. She has a very large role to play and you know, the reason I put her name is just a very personal thing. Her initial interviews, you know she was less confident and I've seen some of the press conferences. Her first budget but look at her now yeah, Shanktikanta Das would be another yeah.

Ankur Bhageria: 36:37

Fantastic. What is one quote or mantra that keeps you motivated in life?

Swayam Saurabh: 36:48

Yeah, so there are a few songs on this. It's Karma. What, basically? What you give is what you get returned, something I've always believed, and so when you are going through a tough patch, if you know that you know you have generally done the right things, it gives you strength that this will also pass.

Ankur Bhageria: 37:14

Yeah, got it. What's the best piece of advice that you've ever received? Hang in there. Never give up. Hang in there. And what's a common myth about corporate finance that you'd like to debunk?

Swayam Saurabh: 37:33

That it's only for super brainy, genius. It's not. It's not. You just have to find your love for it.

Ankur Bhageria: 37:45

If you weren't in finance, what would be your profession? Air Force, oh yeah, you already answered that, so that's fair. And what's the one piece of advice you'd give to a new CFO?

Swayam Saurabh: 37:59

Believe in yourself. I mean, I see a lot of them these days and I meet them. There are ups and downs. You know when your chips are down. There is a lot of doubt and if you know starting point is right and you know if you have taken a courageous decision, hang in there and believe and it doesn't matter how this comes out, but you'll come out stronger and it'll teach you something. Most likely it'll work out the way you want.

Ankur Bhageria: 38:32

And it is related to the point Do you feel CFOs are best positioned to eventually become CEOs in companies? Yes, more than like so. The conventional wisdom was like somebody who's risen to the ranks in sales. You know they tend to eventually lead companies or lead businesses, but do you feel finance leaders are equipped?

Swayam Saurabh: 38:52

So I link back to an earlier question where knowing business, how important it is yeah, and I think the new age CFOs are more intertwined in business and how actual business work. In my view, you will start to see and you already see, many of those CFOs taking over as CEO. I'm a very strong believer of that Because even when you are CFO you are sort of, you know, co-running the business with CEO. And if you understand business, if you understand, one says, if you understand, you know the variables external, internal, you anyway understand cost. But it also depends on individual's personality because not everybody is suited to be, you know, doing a job which requires a lot of external interaction. But I think CFOs are naturally suited to do in most cases.

Ankur Bhageria: 39:55

That's interesting, but do you feel like the professionals coming out of the ranks today? They aspire like in the finance function in particular, do they aspire to become a CFO or a CEO?

Swayam Saurabh: 40:08

I mean the finance professional obviously aspire to become CFO, but as they grow, some of them, you know, start to believe that they could actually move into general business. So, as I said, it's also the personality, because that dictates very largely how you know, how you grow yourself over your career.

Swayam Saurabh: 40:26

If you wouldn't spend the time you spend in business time understanding nuances, the time you take out to go meet customers, the time you take out to actually sit in those process plants. Because within finance professional you know there are SMEs who knows the job is defined A to Z and there are people who are curious. So I think it's the other one you know have higher probability to move to a general management role eventually.

Ankur Bhageria: 40:55

Curiosity is a big one, right, I think. Just I personally. You know value that rate. A lot of people if they have that. It's one of the core values that we have as a company as well. Tough to identify sometimes, but I don't know if, in again, you know with and maybe this is my perception but finance professionals you expect them to be like specialists in their respective functions. If you had to pick between somebody, let's say, who's done a general management kind of role, or let's say, has been in a plant, has a CA degree, has the credentials, versus someone who's been a specialist, Of course one, let's say the one in the general function, shows more curiosity. Would you then pick that person for a finance function?

Swayam Saurabh: 41:45

No, so it depends on which role within finance. I mean, if I have to just pick one person out of two, you know one brings SME, other general, I would always pick general, not because the only because of curiosity, but also you know the experience, the exposure that person brings in. But to fill a role, it depends on the role. So tax, you know role will be filled by tax, but I do have an affinity to this other side. They are, you know, they bring the problem solving, they are result driven, especially in more business partnering kind of roles. I'm guessing Business partner, FPNA, you know those roles where these people sit better.

Ankur Bhageria: 42:34

Got it Fantastic. So, Swayam, I'd love to pick up. This is my personal favorite topic of technology in finance. You know CashFlo at are at the intersection of technology and finance and we're big believers in what technology can do in the finance domain over the coming years. I'd love to get your perspective, you having sort of seen the last couple of decades across these companies. What is your view of how technology can impact finance?

Swayam Saurabh: 43:08

Big time. It already is. So again, if I go back, how you FPNA as a function was run 15 years back. Versus today, there are very large changes which has already happened. I mean the whole shared service related automation. Anything which is less value add, for example processing an invoice or, you know, processing a transaction or employee claim it's already been sort of automated. You don't need a lot of human intervention. It's a big shift from what I saw 15 years back.

Swayam Saurabh: 43:44

If I look at business side, you know the whole decision support system. You know getting information right, information on fingertips, having right analytics in place, having a dashboard where I can actually see my Rai Gurdike unit production and you know what is my coal consumption rate. A lot of that is only possible, you know, because of you know all the digital interventions we have seen and I think there is much more to come. I mean I personally think within finance we have only seen a small part of what is going to happen. I personally think anywhere where you know a decision individual driven decision is not needed could be automated. I mean that's my hypothesis, unless you know somebody justifies why not and that could include anything.

Swayam Saurabh: 44:41

I mean your book closing process. A lot, You know large part of book closing process today is automated. You know you could have auto JVs and journals and so on, but my book can be closed if I create right rules. So yeah, there's a very, very large shift today and I think it's for good, because you are becoming more efficient, you can take right decisions because you have right information available. I think, as CFO, this is such a powerful tool to aid to the CEOs I mean my. You know, for example, monthly business reviews are way different than what I've seen, you know, 15 years back. So the big changes are happening and they will continue to happen.

Ankur Bhageria: 45:33

Is there a particular area of finance that you feel has been most impacted by technology, positively impacted by technology? Fpna. In what way so?

Swayam Saurabh: 45:45

I mean, if you look at again, I have seen a traditional MIS function management information system where you know Excel sheets would be crunched together and, you know, converted into tables which will take like two days, numbers won't add up, still you know you'll somehow present something which, for example, the promoter or CEO wants to see to a point where everything is live. I know exactly what happened, but tools are becoming so smart that I have a fair bit of predictability. This is my. You know production run rate. This is my heat rates. This is my fuel consumption. This is my. You know export shipments. Where will I end this month? So performance management system, I think, is the biggest beneficiary I mean among the biggest there are a few more of this big, huge change.

Ankur Bhageria: 46:49

In a company like JSW, for instance, and you worked in Asian Payments LNT Irwin as well. Now, these are all companies that historically, you know, haven't been technology first per se. The industry never demanded it. At least, the finance function in these industries wasn't necessarily looking at technology to be a big enabler. Do you feel like technology is getting its due from a budgeting standpoint, for instance, Because there's always going to be trade-offs, right? Which areas do you invest in? Where does technology feature in your packing order at JSW, for instance?

Swayam Saurabh: 47:28

I think very high. But you know the right way to answer this question is any technology investment, whether for finance or for any other function, needs to have its ROI and once you have ROI, then you create one single matrix to measure all your investment. Now the reason I said this is there is no natural decision on putting a finance initiative first. It's really a decision-making process where I see most value there and that's something you know naturally to an extent ensures that finance gets a large part Because, for example, if you look at back office, you know you have very large fixed cost base and a lot of work can just be automated. So it makes sense to you know create automation there or bring right tools there. Also, the back office is where all your payments happen, so you know some of those risks can be mitigated. But also, looking at core business, you know automation of you know your digital factories. They get, you know, enough investments as well. But in the end, the decision really is where the priorities lie and the only one matrix which I use is ROI.

Ankur Bhageria: 48:51

Yeah, but let's take the example of back office automation versus, let's say, investing in, you know, business from a finance perspective, Is you know? Does it come down to ROI in that case? Because it could also be, you know, changing the ways of working, which might give you potentially some intangible benefits which you may not be able to directly quantify. Or is it like there's a math behind all of it as well?

Swayam Saurabh: 49:20

Yeah, so you're right. I mean, the math is exactly not very clear for anything which is, let's say, which is difficult to measure. But you know, inherently everything can have ROI. Yeah, one has to, just, you know, ask few more questions. It's just that that ROI will be not as authentic than a pure play. You know investment and return. So you know ROI does play a role, but of course, more of framework to use.

Swayam Saurabh: 49:54

And then there are other factors as well. If, for example, if your system tells you that you might have a double payment risk, then you would plug that risk, then return is actually not making those double payments.

Ankur Bhageria: 50:06


Swayam Saurabh: 50:07

Or if your system throws that, you know you have no way of knowing if all your environmental compliances are in place, yeah, so you plug them because you know not having that compliance can cost you much more.

Ankur Bhageria: 50:18

And that was partly the reason I asked, because you know some of the stuff that we do here at CashFlo is around managing risk, controlling the risk around payments around. You know, invoice processing and that's not always easy to quantify from an ROI standpoint. But you know you're sitting on a ticking time bomb if you don't plug those risks right. So is there a really good ROI framework to justify that?

Swayam Saurabh: 50:43

So ROI, together with risk mitigation, is what you have to look at. Even cost of risk can go in ROI, by the way.

Ankur Bhageria: 50:52

Yeah, Exactly so. You just need to use the framework appropriately there. Yeah, Makes sense. What's been your you know? If you think about where we are today with respect to technology and AI being sort of beginning to sort of reach its inflection point, do you see AI playing a big role, particularly again in finance, and if so, what would the finance function look like five years from today?

Swayam Saurabh: 51:21

No, absolutely. I mean I don't think many of us fully understand potential of what AI can do. We have all experienced it. I already see few AI use cases, for example in our shared services, you know, just to use an example, predicting you know if certain type of invoices could go wrong and may require one more level of checking, use cases in treasury. So you know, again, predicting a specific, let's say, combination of options. I mean these are very early use cases.

Swayam Saurabh: 52:04

But to answer your question on what kind of jobs would be at risk will be a difficult one. But I think many jobs could be at risk, at least the jobs which are, which are you know, which are, let's say, defined by a rule. So anything to do with processing any back office for sure will be at risk. But I think the opportunities which is also coming together with it is people who understand AI can work with these new age tools would be in demand. So every time we have internal conversation around because this is a very hot topic what kind of jobs can go I keep telling them that upskilling is key Because I personally I mean I don't think the jobs which requires a lot of decision making, which are not predictable in next 5, 10, 15 years or maybe later, that probably are not at risk.

Swayam Saurabh: 53:18

But all mundane jobs a lot of you know. I said book closing can be done, potentially could be a risk. But what could also happen is some of those jobs taken over by AI could create bandwidth at top. That could create, you know, more linear organizations getting created, but it's a bit far out. I think what is real now in next few years 5, 7 years is really these processing tasks, shared services. You know all the back office treasury related work, even basic report preparation, fpna, a lot of accounting, you know transactional part. These would you know would be a risk when it comes to, let's say, ai taking over.

Ankur Bhageria: 54:06

Is this an active? Is leveraging AI like an active topic internally at JSW? Is it an area that you feel you know? At least for the time being may not be immediately relevant, but we need to keep an eye on it. Perhaps you're down the line. Start looking at it.

Swayam Saurabh: 54:23

No. So we are looking at, you know, for example, machine learning tools. We are actually deploying some of them and you know, when machine learns enough, it could have, you know, some sort of intelligence build. I think, yeah, I could get built on that. So, for example, today, as I said, predictability right, so an email can use your past data to predict likely failure, right, yeah, AI goes a level above. I mean, with right data, you could be more accurate. So we are doing a few things, but it's also something you know we keep debating internally if there are real use cases available, but I think for AI it's too early.

Ankur Bhageria: 55:11

As we speak, there are professionals coming out of, th e CA Institutes and, you know, early on in their careers, you know, who've been trained and who've learned a certain set of skills. Today, right, what would be your you know message to these folks? You know, given that, let's say you know, given how fast technology is moving, what would be some of the key messages you would want to convey to them?

Swayam Saurabh: 55:38

I mean one message which I, you know, keep communicating is re-skilling. You know the institute products, I mean people who come out are, you know, nourished bend in a certain way, and that makes the first batch of CA. No matter what path you choose you want to become an SME, you want to go into general management always keep looking for opportunities which you know, which gives you an additional skill. That's one. The other big input to them is becoming tech savvy and what I see more and more, you know the, you know current generation. They are, by design, more tech savvy, but this is relevant for anybody who is, you know, working today to be aware what tools are. You know, if you look at 10, 15 years back, people who know SAP are considered tech savvy, but it's not true anymore. So you know, being aware of all the tools which are available, using write analytics I mean that's again part of re-skilling, but that's something I, you know input them.

Ankur Bhageria: 56:51

Yeah, perhaps there's a message here for the institute as well, right? Do you feel like they need to change their curriculum in some form? I think they're doing it.

Swayam Saurabh: 57:00

I think they're doing it. I think they're doing it and eventually it will. You know, it will reflect what market needs. Yeah, they're doing it. Yeah.

Ankur Bhageria: 57:09

Got it Great, I think. If I had to just, you know, some closing thoughts, right. If I had to ask you what would be your let's say looking forward? Right, what would be your outlook for the country over the next decade or so? Of course you know we're talking about growth and there is a lot of optimism there. Is there something that you worry about for this country going forward?

Swayam Saurabh: 57:45

No, so I'm very positive about what lies for India five to 10 years from now, maybe longer. First reason for that is if you look at India, unlike China, which is an export driven economy, we are a domestic consumption driven economy. If you look at, you know some key data points. I work in steel right Today. India per capita steel consumption is about 95 kg a person. The global average is 250, 240 to 250. China is an outlier with 600 kgs. Look at any sector you know.

Swayam Saurabh: 58:25

I think the room to grow within country and consume is very large, so that this growth which we have seen I mean quarter to GDP numbers have come out at 6, 7.6%. I think this trajectory will continue for next three, five, seven years at least. Yeah, and I think other strength we have as a country is really capability. I mean the people. You know we are a younger country so we can offer talent and you know we already lead when it comes to service side of, you know, industry and export. I think manufacturing is becoming another very large opportunity, not only for domestic consumption but also, if you look around, a lot of global companies are, you know, talking about China plus one. I think we naturally stand to benefit. We have a very stable regime. Our, you know, investment regime is becoming simpler. We have a stable government. You know skill levels are very high. The government is doing a lot to stimulate it. So this could actually make us also an export hub, I mean, you know, replacing China. So I'm very positive about India. In fact I'm very bullish about India.

Swayam Saurabh: 59:42

Now, only thing, one or two things which I think you know could possibly derail us. I have, you know, I have zero doubt that this will not happen. It could just take longer and the reasons for them could be, you know, for example, next year we have elections, you know, if the government is not stable. Also, china, you know the China is slowing down. We will have to see where it goes. Third could also be the fact that you know our, you know, economy still has a very large import dependence and you know, in economy everything is linked dollar rupee. So you know factors like, for example, this geopolitical war. So far I don't see an impact on India, but you know, for example, oil prices. You know it's our largest import bill here. If it goes north, you know our balance of payment has a gap. So these you know, minor trickles could come, but 10 years from now. I'm very bullish about India. It's the right time to win India Fantastic.

Ankur Bhageria: 1:00:52

So on that note, I think we'll wrap it up. Thank you so much, Swayam. This has been a super, super engaging conversation, super insightful as well, and I really appreciate you taking your time. Thank you.

Swayam Saurabh: 1:01:03

Thank you, Ankur, thank you for hosting me.

Ankur Bhageria: 1:01:04


Swayam Saurabh: 1:01:07


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Published on:
Mar 22, 2024
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