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The chief performance officer at Coca-Cola Bottling Investments Group China on her rise up the corporate ladder

How and when did you decide to become a management accountant?
From an early age I knew I wanted to work in finance, but didn’t know which industry. At the time China had just opened up to the world and Shanghai was becoming more important in terms of commerce. I studied at two institutions there – the Shanghai International Studies University and the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.

My major was in international accounting, of which a large part of the course was in English.

When I graduated, the Big Six accountancy firms had started moving into China and were looking for people who understood English and had commercially oriented qualifications.

I joined Deloitte, which had just 20 people in China then, compared to around 12,000 people now.

I worked for two years on the firm’s global accounts, including regular audit, due diligence review and internal control review. After several months I began leading some audit projects.

How did you end up working for General Motors and what was your experience there?
I moved to GM when the company first came to China and was looking for a local partner to start a business in the country.

It was looking for finance people to develop the business and as GM is one of Deloitte’s global accounts, they came to the firm looking for someone and I was recommended by my manager at the time.

When I started working for GM as an accountant, the company’s presence consisted of two hotel rooms on the 4th floor of the Holiday Inn.

The furniture and beds were taken out to make room for the desks.

These days, GM is China’s biggest carmaker, producing more than 2.5 million cars in 2011. I worked for GM for ten years in various positions, starting as an accountant.

One of my highlights there was the decision by GM in 1996 to introduce the SAP system into the group at a time when not many companies in China had installed the software.

Given the pioneering element of the work, a lot of days and nights were spent ensuring that the implementation was successful.

How did the move to Coca-Cola come about?
I had aspirations to be the CFO of GM China, but a friend who was a head-hunter contacted me about a role at Coca-Cola, which took my interest as Coke is the world’s strongest brand. In the end the role wasn’t right, but Coca-Cola came back to me with four other options that they wanted me to consider.

I moved to Coca-Cola in 2005, taking up a role in operations, which I preferred to a position at headquarters as you can physically see the impact of your decisions.

I started out at the Shen-Mei bottling plant as CFO before moving to the Bottling Investment Group (BIG) China’s head office as CFO when Coca-Cola acquired Kerry Beverages and established the BIG China head office in Shanghai.

Later, my role was expanded to cover not only finance, procurement and IT, but also manufacturing, engineering and quality at BIG China, starting from late 2010.

I was also instrumental in setting up KPIs across all areas of the organisation.

How is Coca-Cola Bottling China performing at the moment?
Coca-Cola is one of the most well-known international brands in China, with a leading position in the soft drinks market.

Since re-entering China in 1979, Coca-Cola has invested more than $5bn in the local market, including $3bn of investments from 2009 to 2011.

By the end of March 2012, Coca-Cola had established a total of 42 bottling plants in China. The group employs more than 50,000 people in the country, virtually 99 per cent of which are local hires.

In March, Coke opened its latest China bottling plant in Yingkou, Liaoning, the largest Coca-Cola production facility in China spanning an area of more than 170,000 sq m (42 acres).

The plant represents a $160m investment in China and is part of a three-year, $4bn investment plan announced last year that underscores Coca-Cola’s confidence in China and its fast-growing beverage market. It is a complex market so it is challenging for us to continuously grow market share while driving the overall business performance.

There have been ups and downs in China over the past few years, but if we look at the past five years’ compound annual growth rate and operating income growth rate, we are on track to deliver our 2020 vision in China.

How have your experiences shaped your career?
When I started out at Deloitte I was just a 20-year-old working with executives in their 40s and 50s so straightaway it became extremely important to understand exactly what the issues were and to always have answers ready for any questions I was asked.

Another big challenge was in 1999, when I was involved in GM’s attempt to acquire the financially troubled Korean manufacturer, Daewoo.

One of the issues was around the complexity of bringing the accounting system of Daewoo in line with that of GM, which worked to US GAAP.

There was also the issue that I was the only Asian female involved in the process. This presented a lot of challenges because in South Korea at that time women only really aspired to the roles of secretary or receptionist.

In China, women at the time were rarely seen above the level of manager, and very rarely at director level.

In the event, my response was to prove how much knowledge I had of the subject, which meant that my colleagues were very keen to keep me involved in all the decisions.

Where do you see your career going in the next few years?
In a global company such as Coke there are various ways in which I can advance my career, either in a general management role or by staying on the finance professional path.

It will depend on my family situation and my own career aspirations. But overall, clearly there are broader choices available to me in the future. I am happy in my current position and working in China, where the economy may have slowed a bit but is still growing at the rate of 6 to 7 per cent a year.

China is definitely still the place to be.

Why did you decide to study for the CIMA qualification?
In 2008, when I was the CFO for Coca-Cola Bottling Investment Group China, I decided I wanted all finance managers to be performance drivers and business navigators, and to do much more than a fundamental finance role. In order to achieve this I set about finding a training partner for my finance team in order to achieve these aims.

Following a comparison study, we chose CIMA to be the organisation to undertake this role. We have about 60 people studying for the CIMA qualification, of which quite a few are at manager level and stage two or three at strategic level.

To demonstrate to my team the possibility of studying and passing the exams while dealing with busy daily jobs, I studied and passed the qualification in 2010.

I thought it was important to lead by example by obtaining the CIMA qualification. The course offers my team a lot of important knowledge in key subject areas, and there are a lot of events organised by CIMA with other companies that are a great help to team members.

How has the CIMA qualification helped you?
After many years working in the operation, it is good to go back to the theory book and study CIMA to integrate the practical experience with the theory and re-engage myself by thinking about strategy and new ways in which to do the job.

What advice would you give to today’s CIMA students?
I would say never stop learning, either through CIMA or the daily job. There are always things we can learn day by day.

Finance people, especially in China, tend to be shy so even if they have ideas they don’t speak up. I would encourage finance teams to be more questioning and to participate in discussions and decisions.

If they are able to speak up, even if their ideas are not always the best, they are still participating in what is going on around them in the company.

When working in China it is good to be patient because the Chinese don’t always present their ideas as effectively as elsewhere, even compared to other Asian countries.

Photo: Eric Leleu

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