Data focus pushes finance professionals to continuously learn

Rajiv Chinniah, Australia and New Zealand CFO of the parent company of brands like Adidas, Burberry, and Gucci, speaks on using data to predict sales and stresses continuous learning.
Rajiv Chinniah, ACMA, CGMA, CA (ANZ), CPA (Canada), the CFO of Coty ANZ

Editor’s note: This article is part of the “Top Finance Skills” series, featuring insights from finance leaders across industries on skills finance professionals need to have to be competitive in the future. To receive weekly updates on this series, sign up for our CGMA Advantage newsletter.

Data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence are rapidly changing what finance professionals need to know. That is particularly true in the retail industry, where pivoting to e-commerce has been essential for many companies to manage lockdowns and store closings during the coronavirus pandemic.

Coty, a world leader in beauty and home to a roster of cosmetic, skincare, and fragrance brands, is focusing on e-commerce as part of a strategic plan to stabilise and accelerate revenue growth, improve profitability, and exit the post-COVID-19 recovery phase as a financially and operationally stronger, more nimble company that is positioned to capture growth opportunities, according to filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

E-commerce sales continue to increase across Coty’s markets in the Americas, Asia Pacific, and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, the company reported in its latest filings.

Data is crucial for Coty’s strategic plan, said Rajiv Chinniah, ACMA, CGMA, CA (ANZ), CPA (Australia), the CFO of Coty ANZ.

The Australian market recovery is different from the European and US markets, Chinniah said. Challenges are magnified due to a delayed supply chain and distribution, affecting trends and impacting demand. He tells FM magazine how important it is for finance professionals to understand data, anticipate market trends, and calculate risks, and what’s needed in finance professionals to actually turn around the business.

What do you consider your number one professional challenge?

Chinniah: When I first started 20 years ago, the skills mainly required were data reporting and actual presentation of reports and compliance. One of the key challenges I see today is technology. How we use technology to get our thoughts and ideas to the market quicker than our competitors is becoming critical amongst finance teams. There is so much data we get from the market. Being able to use that data well, to articulate that information to our key stakeholders is critical now.

How that information could be used to have a competitive advantage is more important now than what it was five years ago. If we can use machine learning, which Coty is currently integrating into its systems, and if we can have the data ready to be used in real time, it will give us a significant advantage in a very competitive market.

A key challenge is having the resources and the skillset to use that data and technology. Young accountants coming into the market need to be fully aware of machine learning and AI.

How do you see the responsibilities of finance professionals change during the next five years?

Chinniah: The responsibilities of the finance professionals are changing from working in a silo and reporting historical data to real-time, forward-looking collaborative tasks. Finance is changing rapidly and will need to be strategic business partners at a decision-making level.

Having technical skills is great, but it's how you use your soft skills that will be important. There is going to be automation, a lot of data, and it's more about what you do with that data, how you predict scenarios, offer recommendations to management, that’s going to be a key part of who the finance professional is and how they evolve.

One of the key skills of a finance professional going forward will be to analyse and visualise the data to predict patterns and forecast behaviour, build scenarios, and manage risks. The finance professional who is able to use the data and be the bridge between finance and the business is going to really thrive. For example, during the pandemic, businesses that were able to understand the change in consumer behaviour benefited compared to companies that were slow to react.

Being able to understand the market, the customers, and predict trends or which brands are going to perform and which won’t, that is how the finance person is going to evolve. Going ahead, they’ll be the ones who will be setting out the key KPIs to sales, to marketing, setting tangible targets, and realistic timelines.

How can finance executives promote collaboration and business partnering across the company?

Chinniah: One way is by bringing teams together to work on projects, sharing ideas, knowledge, giving people the freedom to share their views. As a finance person, you must bring all these ideas together and clearly communicate the objective. This is where finance is going to be part of the actual collaborations, which means a step ahead in communication and soft skills. One way of encouraging that is for the leadership team to have the trust in the finance person or team that is involved to lead and promote collaboration.

Are there professional skills you learned recently? If yes, how did you learn them, and how are they useful in your job?

Chinniah: One of the key skills that we must have now as finance professionals is to think critically and analytically, and think outside the box. Over the last 18 months, we spent a lot of time trying not to be fixated on numbers but to also understand what the long-term strategy is going to be. As we progress into bigger and more senior roles, it is vital also to continuously develop our soft skills in areas such as leadership, influencing, collaboration, and communication skills.

At Coty, there is a strong focus on experiential learning such as working on key projects, taking stretch assignments, managing change, and taking lateral moves, as well as learning from others via coaching and feedback, mentoring, and networking. We also have the Coty Academy, a virtual academy that is a one-stop shop for personalised learning enabling us to choose from a range of course topics to drive our self-development, as well as virtual classroom training on key topics such as diverse teams.

Also over the last few months, we have relied on technology a lot more. We were encouraged to undertake digital finance courses on machine learning and AI.

How does Coty support finance team members in their professional growth?

Chinniah: At Coty, we are empowered to drive our individualised learning journey with a focus on learning from experience and learning from others, supported by training via the Coty Academy as well as external institutes through which employees can enrol in courses covering their continuing professional development (CPD).

The finance organisation at Coty ANZ is structured around core functional teams, a co-pilot team that focuses on FP&A, sales, and brand finance, and a custodian team that focuses on statutory reporting, compliance, credit control, and procure to pay, and we provide rotation of jobs between these two teams. This is one way of giving the staff the opportunity to learn something that they wouldn’t normally do. By rotating roles, they're doing different tasks, interacting with different teams, thereby upskilling themselves.

Secondly, we encourage senior leaders to mentor employees. Often the leader isn’t within the same team and/or located in Australia, and they share experiences, learning opportunities, talk about hard skills and soft skills, and what mentees need to do or learn more.

How are you measuring employee performance, and how has that changed? Have the key metrics for measuring employee performance changed?

Chinniah: The performance evaluation has changed from what it was. Our key KPIs had to change as the markets and the industry have changed over the last few months.

In Australia, we've been relatively COVID-free since the last eight months, and coming into the office is no longer an issue. Yet employees have the choice to work from home. One of the key things that we looked at is working in a very technology-driven, hybrid environment where being able to access systems and processes online quickly and efficiently is important.

We revised our key KPIs to be very specific to working in this hybrid environment, and being very measurable. The key KPIs during this COVID pandemic are project-related, where you're not being measured individually but as a team. You're measured on a project-related outcome. It could be as simple as setting up an effective system or process that touches a few people and what role you play in assisting, simplifying, or creating efficiencies within the process.

Rapid-fire questions

What's the number one skill a finance professional should have?

Chinniah: Being able to analyse data, interpret information, and clearly articulate results.

Soft skills or hard skills, which is more important for finance professionals to have?

Chinniah: You can't have hard skills without the soft skills. I’d say soft skills are critical in today's world, where you must be able to communicate, articulate, and bring teams together to collaborate.

What’s the most important action finance professionals should take to advance their careers?

Chinniah: Learn, learn, learn, and network, network, network. I would encourage every young accountant coming into the finance profession to talk to the people around you, build your knowledge, and network.

If you could automate a finance process in your company, what would it be?

Chinniah: Definitely anything that is task-oriented, repetitive in nature, such as transactional tasks that are non-value adding.

Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.

Swati Sanyal Tarafdar is a freelance writer based in India. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Alexis See Tho, an FM magazine associate editor, at