Last year, AFP formed its APAC FP&A Advisory Council (FPAAC). The group meets quarterly to discuss best practices, common challenges and innovative initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region. Bryan Lapidus, FPAC, director of FP&A Practice at AFP, is profiling individual members of the council every month. This month, he spoke with Cecile Francais, head of FP&A at Cartier China.
Lapidus: You have traveled a lot throughout your life having grown up in Europe, worked in Central America, and spending the past decade in China. What is unique about working in Asia compared to other places you have been?
Francais: Asia is unique because of the dynamics and pace of business. Especially in China, everything moves fast. I lived in China in 2011-2013, went back to Europe for six years, and then came back to China in 2019. In any other country of the world, not much change would have happened in six years—you can go back and find the same streets, shops and restaurants. In China, however, it feels like a new place.
The change is evident in the culture, street life, and corporations. For example, the WeChat revolution. When I left in 2013, WeChat had just started as a platform for text messaging or video calls, very similar to WhatsApp. When I came back, it had become the platform for everything in your life. You pay through WeChat, connect to people through WeChat, and basically cannot do anything in China without WeChat. When you leave your home, the only things you need are your keys and phone, there is no need for a purse, wallet or cash. All of this happened in just six years.
Lapidus: What about the way business operates? Did that change, and is that moving at the same speed?
Francais: Business is moving rapidly, and decisions are made very fast. In Asia, it is truly a “test and learn” mindset. This mindset is seen on the streets when restaurants and cafes constantly open and close. Three shops may close and two shops may open within a span of three weeks. Everyone has a new idea and people are extremely business oriented.
For most people, having one job in a company is not enough, and they do some other business on the side, whether they try creating a flower shop, coffee shop or anything that is trendy at the moment. Trends come and go, and people do not hesitate to try something new. If they fail, they move on to something else.
Lapidus: When I talk to people in other parts of Asia, they say that finance is not changing fast enough, and that it is still a control-centered function as opposed to a value-centered function. Is finance transitioning and transforming quickly, or is that moving at a different pace?
Francais: That is a great point on why finance is struggling. People still view finance as the “Safe keeper.” They believe finance is controlling the money and only cares about making savings or costs cuts. The finance person is either a controller who sends reports about past performance, an accountant who books the expenses, or a bank cashier who pays the bill; and that is it. In China, many stakeholders do not see the finance person as a business partner who can really support the business decisions with insightful analysis, and very little has evolved in that respect.
Lapidus: If you were to offer advice to anybody moving from controlling into an FP&A role, what advice would you give?
Francais: My advice would be to open your mind and be curious. To go from controlling to FP&A, the main shift is about the mindset and the way you look at the business. I was reading through some of the comments from the other AFP board members and have frequently read them say we need to move from being a “finance leader” to a “business partner with finance expertise”. We are not only here for the finance but also to help add value to the business. To convince companies that we are partners, we must be curious, learn from the business, and gain knowledge that we do not get from just a finance background.
Lapidus: What are your expectations for serving on the APAC FP&A Advisory Council?
Francais: I am looking forward to this great opportunity to discuss what is being done in other markets, industries and regions. This group is key to generating more ideas. Each industry or region has its own view or perspective, and each of us can bring something to the table. For example, I can bring my thoughts and experiences from China, luxury and my vision of the FP&A function. The big output of this council is to find some solutions and to think innovatively.
Another goal is to make FP&A known as a function in and of itself, because a lot of people still do not know what FP&A means. They know about accounting and controlling, but do not quite understand what even the “F,” “P” and “A” mean. By creating this community and animating them with platforms, seminars and webinars, it will be helpful for everyone to understand and recognize the FP&A function.
Lapidus: Based off your career and accomplishments, continuing education is obviously a priority for you. Why do you keep pursuing more certifications, degrees and education?
Francais: I am not looking for a certification just for the certification, but rather the content of it. I still struggle to find my legitimacy or get my voice through to my business partners. For instance, I am currently on the executive committee and am the youngest member. I am head of FP&A, but all the others have the director title. It is even more complicated for me because I am head of a new function. I have always tried to find legitimacy with my business partners, and that is why I am eager to learn more, study more from other backgrounds, meet more people and gain more experience outside my domain of expertise.
Lapidus: When looking at your certifications, I noticed they focused on the “softer” side such as motivation, managing talent and influencing people. Why are those skills important for somebody in finance?
Francais: These soft skills are important not only for convincing my business partners that I add legitimacy and value, but they are also important to developing my team. As a manager, I want to be able to inspire my team members about the new FP&A function and coach them about what we need to do to develop it and prove our value. Thus, I need to have my team members develop their own soft skills in this new environment and new function, help them change their mindset, and make them understand that they are not doing the same job as they have been doing for the past 10 years. That is why I believe management and leadership skills are so important, also for a finance person.
For more resources and information on FP&A in the APAC region, visit AFP’s Asia-Pacific FP&A page.