Ep. 157: Wes Saber - Serving as a Co-pilot for the Business Transformation Journey

Wes Saber, CFO for HARIBO of America, joins Count Me In to talk about the popular topic of business transformation. Wes has been an international leader in innovative management philosophy and business development for more than 22 years. His expertise in developing global enterprises has led him to his current role as Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer for HARIBO of America, producer of the #1 gummi in the U.S. He spearheaded the development of the $242M investment to build HARIBO’s first-ever U.S. factory, projected to create hundreds of career opportunities in the first phase build-out. In this episode, Wes talks about why business transformation is such a popular topic, his experience with transformations and the specific role(s) the finance team played, and how finance leaders can manage change and promote teamwork and adaptability. Download and listen now!
Adam: (00:05)
Welcome back to Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. Here with you again, as your host, Adam Larson, as I kick off episode 157 of our series, Count Me In has shared a number of conversations relating to business transformation, but today's featured guest speaker shares a unique perspective on the topic Wes Saber, CFO of HARIBO of America joined us to talk about how the finance function and finance leaders serve as best copilots for any business transformation journey. Wes is a great leader who constantly encourages his staff as he promotes change and transformation. So keep listening to hear more as we head over the conversation now.
Mitch: (00:54)
We have heard a lot about business transformation, particularly in finance and accounting. So to kick off our conversation today from your perspective and through your experiences, really my first question is why? Why is this such an important topic for our listeners?
Wes: (01:09)
Thank you very much for having me today. Business transformation is the constant, in the current business world. Business transformation is important to keep the business relevant, the strategy of the business agile and us as professional, very relevant in terms of competency and business acumen as we go. Business transformation is a journey that has different milestone as we grow as a business and as professional, it's very important to be able to adapt change. What makes finance and accounting professionals and overall business professionals successful in their career is the world resilience and business resilience. And us being as professionals, resilience is being demonstrated during business transformation in a form of a project in a form of system change, even culture evolution as well. So there is so many transformation that happens around us. Sometimes we're directly in the middle of it as professional as finance and accounting professional. And sometimes we are in the co-pilot seats and sometimes we're impacted with it. So it's very important to understand where we sit as professional in terms of the business transformation.
Mitch: (02:28)
Well, thank you for that. Very good perspective to kick things off. And I want to go in a little bit more about your personal experiences and, you know, your company HARIBO is a 100 year old private company. Now there's been a lot of innovation and modernization since inception. So as an established company, how have you been able to manage such a digital transition over this time?
Wes: (02:51)
So, I'm proud to be working me and my colleagues in a company that's privately owned and celebrate a hundred years, December, 2020. And, as we are proud of the values we live and the company, we are, very proud of the projects and the success that we achieve every year. In HARIBO of America, we started a growth journey, starting 2015 and we're embarking in building our brand and our business capability and manufacturing facility and our organization and culture. We are predominantly a European company, that adds most and the majority of the business in Europe, but the North America business is, taking off, starting 2015. So it's kind of like a startup in our hundred years old company and looking into the future, especially after what happens in 2020 with the pandemic. It's important to look at that as a challenge. However, it's more critical to look at that as an opportunity and prepare ourselves, for the future to be able to compete. digitization of business, there can be an aspect of, simply handling data to all the way to producing a product. We are, embarking on, opening our, new first North America manufacturing facility next year in 2022. And, we are talking these days about industry 4.0. Remote guided vehicles, robotics, big data, troubleshootings and to be able to actually utilize our scale and be efficient and get the best quality of our products to consumer. And as a professional and different functions, including manufacturing, engineering, sales, and finance and accounting, everybody plays role in getting that achieved. Sometimes in the most famous example of, digitization in, the finance and accounting world is the ERP implementation or the system that integrate the entire business, from end, to end. And that would include typically the costing that we have, the inventory that we look at, the analysis, the management accounting, the financial accounting, the reporting, the consolidation, of course, we all know about this, but what's changing in the digitization is how do we use PI? What tools we have in the world? What's relevant to our industry and what's relevant to our function? And how is that gonna help the company and educate from now to be competitive and continue to achieve on strategy? So digitization is no longer just, an element of the future, but actually absolutely is, how business is being done today. And it develops, and it develops in a high speed.
Mitch: (05:51)
Now you just mentioned, the function specifically, right? How it's impacting the industry, and then it funnels into the individual function. So accounting and finance, how did the finance function specifically play a role in some of the transformation projects that you've been a part of so far? And what would you say are some of the top enablers when it comes to the finance function, going through business transformation, digital transformation, and along those lines?
Wes: (06:18)
Absolutely. So everything starts from the strategy of the business and where the business is heading, and everybody plays a role in that, especially finance and accounting and finance and accounting always have two hats in the business, a custodian hat and a co-pilot hat, looking at the business, from a custodianship standpoint, looking at the digitization or the systems or the strategy being a custodian means finance and accounting plays such a critical role in keeping the business in, strong governance environment, understanding risk management. What will we face, during our, growth revenue invoicing, risk management to the plan we set to ourself allocating resources on budget to certain initiatives. So custodian, is very important and everybody in finance and accounting is a custodian by default, it cannot be a custodian or a co-pilot. The percentage might be different of playing a role of custodian, versus a co-pilot. But everybody has whether in account receivable or NGL accountant, or accounting manager, or a financial controller, or a CFO or a financial planner, a co-pilot is a second hat that everybody has. Understanding the business performance is always first step to drive decisions in a business to adjust plans, to, look and review what resources available resources here can be financial resources. It can be, budget. It can be, associates, people, vendor, customers. So the co-pilot is always in for finance and accounting is always in the copilot seat of different functions. So, understanding sales, understanding, marketing, understanding customer marketing service level supply, technology is always a very important part of the success of, finance and accounting professional to play an effective copilot role. I would always say that finance and accounting never sell, buy anything or make anything or purchase anything, but they are the one accountable to make sure that everything is working and delivering the right profit and the right strategy. So we're always on the co-pilot seat and making sure that the business is, under the direct governance and custodianship.
Mitch: (08:45)
Yeah, that's a great point. You know, many of our previous conversations on many different topics, always somehow veer towards, you know, the importance of business partnering, right. And being the co-pilot that you're talking about. So particularly within business transformation, obviously it's such a huge responsibility understanding how the whole business is transforming, but then the impact on the financials, right? I mean, that's the number one responsibility, as you were saying, you know, you really oversee all of that sore within these projects and going through business transformation, what are some of the benchmarks or milestones or things that the accounting and finance professionals need to be aware of, keep their eyes on and, you know, ensure that the organization is hitting along this journey, as you said.
Wes: (09:32)
Absolutely. From my personal experience, I lived in six different countries and I worked in over 25 countries around the world. It's important to understand the difference in terms of regional accounting standards, U.S. GAAP vs German GAAP or IFRS and not to the top level, but really having at least amazing understanding of how that work and how that impacts, the role in terms of, as well, the, industry, if working as an, accountant, for example, in a service industry is completely different than manufacturing. The way we look at, the general ledger, the trial balance, the process we follow, how we close the month, how we go through another process, it's different, the areas and the focus area might be different. So if I'm an accountant, for example, and I'm very strong in cost accounting, most probably I would be more successful in a manufacturing, in a capital and a growing business versus a service industry, for example. So it's important to have clear match between the capability and the benchmark for comparing ourselves to. During business transformation for example, we look at our competitor and the structure, and we try to set standards for ourself. So a business that's $200 million, how large an organization for accounting should be based on the complexity, a business that invoice 600 customer is different than a business that invoice 100 and the more need for technology is different, but it doesn't mean it's simpler. The lower, the number is simpler or the larger, the number it's more complex. Actually, it's much more into this, which means what's the mission of the company, because I can work for example, for an auditor in the accounting department of an auditor, and I am not immediately interfacing with the customer well, I'm responsible for the back office. So that means my focus at that time would be more in providing a robust finance operation, a robust systems, a robust governance, and, really looking from a different perspective. But if I am working for a company that works in beverages or fast moving consumer goods, product that we all buy in grocery stores, the same job will have more interaction, direct interaction with customer in terms of, collection in terms of cash management, working capital understanding. So it's very important that when we, embark on, business transformation or a project or being part of an organization that we understand where our business sit in light of the industry we operate in, the competition, competitive landscape, as well as the country we operate in. And if we work on a country or more.
Mitch: (12:10)
So I really like how you, you know, structured that response because it kind of helps me go into the latter part of this conversation here. You talked a lot about, you know, the financials, but then you kind of got into some of the softer side and some of the people skills. So I I'd like to, you know, ask a couple questions in that area, you know, business transformation you're putting an entire team, or, you know, numerous people in new situations that may require completely new skills oftentimes is we were talking about technology earlier. So as far as what these team members need in order to complete their jobs, how do you go about training them or bringing them up to speed, encouraging them that this is a change that's, you know, not just useful for the organization, but it's helpful to them as an individual, as part of the team as well.
Wes: (13:04)
Absolutely. There is absolutely clear two sides of this. One side is the functional side. And one side is the developmental side as a professional. If we talk first about the functional side, is we talk about the functional competency the person would have, and it is kind of like three level of functional competency. And I wanna pick an example of a functional competency, for example, of an accountant. Or for example, an accountant would be able to lead a trial balance is the competency level required for that person can be beginner, is the job just require somebody to understand what's the structure of the trial balance? How do I get data and what do I use, how do I use data, or is it, really essential? Like, somebody who's more competent in dealing with the trial balance and understanding V classes and really can do reconciliation or even professional, which mean really, like kind of an assistant accounting manager, an accounting manager, or controller who must have a professional level of understanding what trial balance. I'm just picking that as an example of a functional competency that would have three different levels. So it's important to look at each other, each one of us and understand, the level of, functional competency on the other side as, a personal development. Very important to look at other competencies like collaboration with other teams as a person working as an individual contributor, being part of a team. How do you collaborate with a team? How do you manage conflict? How do you have conflict management, for example, drive for results, business acumen? So there is the other side, is there is a long list of competency as professional that we must have and possess to be successful, not only just the functional side and not only the personal development side, but both of them comes together to prepare a person to be successful. That brings the learning. So what are we learning at work? Normally people in accounting and finance 70%, based on, studies and statistics and only, but other businesses as well, 70% of the learning happens on the job. So the job that that person is doing must be offering that learning. And I would ask everybody to think twice, if the learning is not 70% of that job, doesn't offer enough learning. And 20% of the learning, can happen in, through project. Like we talked about business transformation or through assignments or, changes that we make in our work, whether it's a system or an additional objective that we have in a year and 10% can happen actually in a classroom, in a year that can be in a classroom set, can be in a training settings or coaching or with mentoring. So 70 20 10 rule is a very famous rule for us to understand where we sit as an individuals and as well, how successful we're gonna be.
Mitch: (16:08)
I'm just curious as a quick follow up as a finance leader, understanding these educational needs, essentially. How conscious are you of it, maybe not on a daily basis, but a regular basis. And how do you structure various opportunities, learning opportunities for your team to make sure that they are up to speed? You know, are you aware of particular learning benchmarks per se, anything along those lines.
Wes: (16:34)
There is a structured process to do this in every business. And there is unstructured process to achieve that as well. I wanna start with the structure process. So every business would have, a performance management system that would, schedule and organize either a monthly, get together with the line manager or on a quarterly performance review where the professional and the line manager would align on the objective of the year where we are doing set to competency. We need to develop a media review is the most common one that everybody doing in the midyear and the most famous one, well is the tier end. Frequency is important and the quality is even more important and it's not more important than the frequency. So the quality of time spent on understanding, developing smart objectives, being the development areas, the functional competency required, the training needed the 70 20 10 rule, as well as understanding the personal development as a professional is very, important. So that comes and happens under the umbrella overall of the, performance management of the entire business. However, zooming in into the function itself, a finance and accounting here, and the unstructured process, having a CFO or a financial controller myself is very, very important. And it happens constantly, not on a monthly basis, not on a quarterly basis. And that dynamic of open door, on discussion between everyone of us, doesn't start only from the line manager or the leader, but it starts from everyone and a talent will always find a space and opportunity to speak, take initiatives and talk, about requirements for learning and development. And the question at that point would be how do we match the right opportunities we have in the business to their need and the development of the individuals. The more we have that fit, it would be great cause businesses would have great people and great jobs, but doesn't mean it's fit.
Mitch: (18:32)
So I'd like to, kind of take what we were just talking about and then go back to the, the main part of the conversation being business transformation. I would assume that as a finance leader, through learning and development, the main goal would be to develop future leaders, right? And the more leaders you have in the organization, the more individuals that can contribute to strategic decision making and contribute to these larger organizational projects. So within business transformation and understanding the team you have working with you, how do you approach strategy, as part of this project? You know, I suppose this really could have been more the first question, you know, how do you go about approaching business transformation, but, you know, to wrap things up and kind of bring it all together, the projects, the goals and the people, how do you formulate that strategic decision making process for the organization?
Wes: (19:28)
Absolutely. So, there is a, in terms of leadership, like, understanding the mission and the purpose of the organization and the business is super important for everybody to be successful in every function, including accounting and finance, and every business would have so many large number of projects running at the same time. Some of them are cross-functional and of them are specific to a function. So we may have projects specific to finance and accounting and a long list of other, projects or business transformation project that are cross-functional where finance play a role, understanding how the overall picture of how these project business transformation and fit together is the accountability of leaders to explain to the organization. And I would encourage everybody who's not having that clarity to ask and see clarity. There's absolutely no issue of asking question and understanding how is my project fit with the bigger picture or how my role help, the business transformation or the entire business to be successful? How do I work with my cross functional team, putting this all in perspective and coming to how do we make decisions and the right decision and strategically be clear about what long term looks like is very important. There is a saying that those average strategy and excellence in execution is better than excellent strategy and average execution. And that's the dilemma that every business in a professional go through every day, every month, you can have great plans and great strategy, but if you can't translate that strategy into execution into our business transformation, into our project and have that dynamic of discussion, what do we need to change and what clarity we need to add to the project? It's gonna be a challenge, not only for professionals, but for the entire structure. And with actually question is the, if the strategy is really the right one, cause we can have 10 different good strategy. The question is which one is right. We can have 10 approaches for business transformation. The question is which one is correct for our business and not only for our business, which one we are capable as an organization to do. So to your question, Mitchell, about like capability and success, they are all connected. So the staffing of the company, the style, the company follows the strategy the company has, the structure and the organization design that the business has is very important and that must fit together, to make sure that business transformation is successful as well as we, as professional play a key role in creating and adding value to the business.
Closing: (22:05)
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