THE ability to dissect accounts and crunch financial data appear to be must-have traits in the climb up to CEO-hood. In fact, it explains the growing trend of finance chiefs stepping straight into the top job and the rising number of accountant CEOs.
“In global companies these days, the chief financial officer is the de facto deputy CEO ... they’re the ones the CEOs turn to when the chips come down. So it’s natural that CFOs are potential CEO candidates,” says Datuk Johan Raslan, executive chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers Malaysia (PwC).
The slew of corporate scandals, financial crisis and recessions that have made businesses feel vulnerable has clearly raised the appeal of hiring financially-oriented CEOs. In Malaysia too, the past decade has seen a marked shift from the swashbuckling CEOs of the early 90s to more trusted professional managers.
So with that, it is not surprising that the resumes of CEOs in many companies across diverse industries carry a common thread – accountancy.
“Accountancy opens up many doors for you. Also, it’s a high pressure environment – there’s a lot of competition to succeed and perform. And as you climb up the firm, it separates the women from the girls and the men from the boys. People are exposed to a lot of diversity as well as global practices,” says Johan.
“We’re like a business school,” laughs Johan, with more than a hint of pride. He’s got good reason for that – over the years, PwC, like many of the other large accounting firms in the country, has watched many of its executives take the journey up to the C-suite. Malaysia Airlines managing director/CEO Tengku Datuk Azmil Zahruddin was attached to PwC offices in London and Hong Kong where he handled audit and business advisory services, specialising in banking and capital markets before joining Penerbangan Malaysia Bhd in 2005 and a year later, the national carrier as director. Before he was appointed to succeed Datuk Seri Idris Jala as the airline’s boss, he was the chief financial officer.
Mohammed Rashdan Yusof or Danny, as he is widely known, served with PwC for over ten years specialising in financial services. In 2002, he left the firm to set up boutique advisory outfit BinaFikir Sdn Bhd with close pal Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar. Last year, in November, he was appointed to the top seat of Maybank Investment Bank.
Other notable individuals include Pos Malaysia Bhd group MD/CEO Datuk Syed Faisal Albar and Malaysian Assurance Alliance Bhd CEO Muhammad Umar Swift and Azmir Merican, CEO of AWC Facility Solutions Bhd.
Johan is quick to point out that those who have left the firm for top jobs are not necessarily from the accounting side, but also from the advisory and tax side.
“The accounting profession produces more outstanding leaders than anywhere else,” he adds.
But that’s not necessarily always a good thing, well at least, for the firms they leave behind.
“True, we face a high turnover rate. But we have a choice – we can say, let’s get the best of people and face the phenomenon of them getting recruited elsewhere or we can jump down and recruit the so-so ones in the knowledge that nobody’s going to want them,” says Johan.
“We love our people to stay but at the same time, we are really proud of them. We’d like to think that we’ve played a role in these former employees making a difference and improving the state of business in the country,” he says.
For an industry which thrives on rapport and networking skills to secure clients and mandates, surely there are advantages to having its ex-employees atop many large corporations. Not quite, says Johan. “Our alumni is incredibly professional. We have to work our socks off to impress these people. They choose what’s best for their company. No free lunch in this world.”
Truth is, there is demonstrable evidence that suggests that financial acumen alone is not the sole determinant of business prowess. There are great business leaders who are engineers, salesmen, developers and technology and marketing experts or in other words, “operational specialists”, who have made it to the rung of great CEOs.
“Apart from finance, there’s a great deal of other things to learn as well. Accountancy does provide an edge but at the end of the day, great people will find their way (up) there (anyway),” says Johan.
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