Inside Thai conglomerate CP Foods' finance function
Charoen Pokphand (CP) Foods, a Thai agroindustrial and food company with businesses across 22 countries, is one of the largest animal feed producers in the world and has extensive businesses in poultry and swine farming, aquiculture, and ready-made foods, covering many points along global food supply chains.
Voravit Janthanakul, CP Foods’ executive vice-president of general administration, says the company is in the “farm to table” business. One of the first employees when he joined the company in the late 1970s, he has witnessed first-hand the making of a conglomerate and the transformation of its finance team over the past four decades, from a reporting function to one that predicts and prescribes solutions to management.
A strong supporter of management accounting practices in Thailand, he shares in an interview with FM his efforts promoting management accounting through the Thailand Federation of Accounting Professions (TFAC) and how he balances data insights and business experience in decision-making.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
When did Thailand start adopting management accounting principles, and how has it evolved over the years?
Janthanakul: There is no explicit evidence showing when the principles of management accounting were adopted in Thailand. But management accounting principles are applied across public and private sectors today. Large businesses, especially public companies, have adopted management accounting. In financial institutions, for example, it’s common to see management reporting units supporting all levels of the organisation.
Management accounting may not be as common in SMEs, but with the Thai government’s recent push for proper financial reporting, I expect that it will improve the quality of accounting information and will encourage the use of the reports for managerial purposes.
What are some initiatives that TFAC’s management accounting committee is working on?
Janthanakul: My role as TFAC’s vice-president and chairman of the management accounting committee is to drive forward policies that strengthen capabilities of accountants, especially in management accounting, to support Thailand’s economy.
Last year we partnered with CIMA with the aim of training Thai management accountants according to internationally recognised standards. We offer the TFAC-CIMA membership to TFAC members who are knowledgeable, capable, and committed to become certified internationally by taking the strategic case study. We also offer the TFAC-CIMA CGMA Corporate Professional Pathway to non-TFAC members with more than ten years of management accounting experience and are interested in further developing those skills. Lastly, we also have a Thai Certified Management Accountant (TCMA) programme with CIMA as a partner that provides a career path to nonfinance workers interested in entering the management accounting profession.
You’ve worked for CP Foods for more than four decades. How has CP Foods’ finance function changed over the years?
Janthanakul: The world has moved on a lot since. But there is one skill that’s still valuable, and that is knowing how to analyse figures. When a figure changes, say, for example, the total sales revenue, we need to know the other figures that are impacting that. When we take the facts and analyse them, we can use the results to determine our strategy and direction. Because of technology, we don’t have to waste our human resources on clerical work that is no longer necessary.
CP Foods today is a Thai listed company which invests in Thailand and overseas. The key role of our finance team is to generate organisational value by managing capital and cash effectively and to manage shareholders’ expectations. Finance’s focus is to provide the management with timely and accurate information for decision-making purposes.
We use robotic process automation (RPA) to do the repetitive and low-value tasks, and we are studying how intelligent automation can help us work even more efficiently. Through these new technologies, we foresee that the role of the finance and accounting team will shift significantly from recording and reporting tasks to providing the management with predictive and prescriptive analysis for better decision-making in the business units. There will also be more job rotations so that finance team members can perform management accounting tasks better.
We also encourage the finance team to initiate and apply new technologies to improve business processes. We have a finance and accounting innovation project award to motivate the finance team to come up with new ideas. They also undergo training courses on big data and analytics, blockchain, and design thinking so that they can respond to new working requirements. We have a new team whose specific role is to discover and test new technologies before applying them in real processes.
Tracking and reporting financial indicators form the core of accounting and finance teams’ work, but nonfinancial data is also crucial for management to make decisions. What are some nonfinancial indicators you track?
Janthanakul: We measure the results of work and work processes. For example, we measure our efficiency in raising boiler chickens because today we’re really competing in terms of costs, and margins are very low. So if we want to find out how to raise chickens in the least wasteful manner, internal data is the quickest information we have access to.
We check chickens’ breed, feed history, and growth and try to predict the quality of the meat. Today, one person can raise up to 150,000 chickens. How are they able to? It’s because the whole process has been automated. In the past, workers had to manually check the chicken coops. Now you can sit in a small room, and you can see everything on a screen in real time.
We have to know these data quickly because, if we find out too late, it can be too late to correct and can lead to massive damage and loss. We also keep track of supplier data, from their sales channels and pricing, to comparing suppliers side by side and find out why some suppliers with the same processes in a different location have lower costs.
We observe along the whole supply chain, and our finance teams can grab these data and combine them with financial data for a better understanding of the business.
Data is vital for making evidence-based business decisions. But experience and instinct are also critical. How do you balance the two when you make decisions at CP?
Janthanakul: I would say that data is reality. But experience can be used to “fix” data. Data occurs when your business interacts with the environment; it’s that playing field that creates data. For example, we can predict that we will be able to sell a product. But something could happen preventing us from selling it, or we might lose money from selling the product because we predicted our costs to be at a certain level but can find out after the fact that our costs are much higher. So these challenges can be fixed with experience.
The other thing is business experiences we get from different times in our careers are varied. Sometimes, experiences gained in a previous area are not 100% applicable in new encounters. So the solution is to bring in the experiences of many individuals to help resolve problems. The key is not having too high of an ego and to be open to seeking real solutions. Executives need to listen to the opinions of others, and to want to do it for the good of the company, and not the benefit of one person.
Sometimes solutions work, and sometimes they don’t. The most important thing is to implement more successful solutions than unsuccessful ones. That will lead to overall success.
It’s not common, especially in today’s rapidly changing business environments, to find employees staying with a company for decades. What made you stay at CP Foods for so long?
Janthanakul: Let’s start with this question: What drives people in their work or career? For me personally, I’ve been with CP Foods this long because I really appreciate the way the company takes care of me. For some, they may get a job, and after some minor disappointments, when things don’t go their way, they leave. But I’ve always felt that if I stuck with the company, I would have the opportunity to prosper and move forward in my career.
I have a core value that, when I work, I always give the company a chance to put me on a stage, and when I get on that stage, I need to perform in such a way that bosses are convinced and want me to work for them. I also evaluate and see if a company gives me opportunities, if they are convinced, they will give me authority and power to execute. The deciding factors on whether to stay or leave a company are not the same for everyone, but this is how it was for me.
— Alexis See Tho (Alexis.SeeTho@aicpa-cima.com) is an FM magazine associate editor.