Q&A : FP&A Director at 10B region of 24B global company

I've been a fan of WSO for awhile and I have some free time so decided to do Q&A for those who are interested.

Here's my background.

  • migrated to U.S. at age of 14, didn't really speak English but was a straight "A" student until senior year (when I decided that grades don't matter in life)

  • went to public state university, majored in engineering, and graduated with 2.4 GPA (I was doing bare minimum just to get by since I was still believing grades don't matter at the time...which turned out to be a huge mistake!)

  • was very very fortunate to land an internship (corporate strategy) at current company...which turned into another internship after senior year and then a full-time role with FP&A

  • been with FP&A for 8 years. Spent a year with internal audit. Became FP&A director at age of 28 thanks to some people who believed in me

  • currently 3 years in the role. Was on track to become BU CFO/head of finance until COVID-19 hit...and our revenues are currently down 30-40%. Still trying to figure out my next move...

You know the drill. Ask me anything.

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Comments (28)

  • Analyst 3+ in IB - Ind
Nov 28, 2020 - 7:56pm

What are the backgrounds of people you work with / people who have left their previous jobs to join the firm? I'm a third year IB analyst who is wanting to exit IB for a more relaxed yet not monotonous career and am wondering if FP&A might be an option. 

How hard would you say the work is / what are the hours? Is everyone expected to be very autonomous? I've generally struggled with the lack of guidance and fast-paced nature of IB, but I am definitely able to do well when given enough time to think and enough guidance.

I'm also not the best at complex financial modeling so am wondering how difficult the technical aspects of the job are at the junior level but also at the more senior levels lik the ones you are in.  

Nov 28, 2020 - 10:10pm

The people in my group are high performers (you won't be around for long otherwise) but most of them don't have the flashy resumes. My boss (who just left the company) came from operations, went back for MBA at Cornell and started out as analyst here. My ex-boss (who hired me as analyst) was Booth MBA and came from Microsoft. And the ex-VP was MIT undergrad, Dartmouth MBA who came in at director level from Arthur Andersen. Most people have MBA and/or master's degree from decent schools but not all M7 MBAs. We have a few ex-Big Four people who joined at senior manager/director level. Although I've been with this group for nearly 9 years, I'm still considered new to the team because people don't leave. And there're a lot of internal people trying to get into our group so we rarely hire external candidates.

The work is very easy in my opinion. I say the phrase "It's not the rocket science!" to my team a lot haha but you need to be very detail-oriented and good at catching your own mistakes. The work that we produce usually goes to the region CEO & CFO...so if your numbers are wrong, they'll get embarrassed in front of the global CEO & CFO...and you can imagine the consequences. As for hours, I didn't have to work more than 40 hours until I became a director. Now I have more responsibilities so I average about 45 hours/week (there're some 60 hours week when we have budget presentations and quarterly business reviews at the same time but we have a lot of down time also). And my VP probably averages around 55 hours/week. The best part about the team is the work-life balance and flexibility culture. I'm not required to be at my desk 8-5 as long as I get the job done. My boss will find me if she needs something urgently (she has my cell, work cell, home phone, wife's phone, etc.). There is an expectation of max 24 hours turnaround time on requests from the management...unless it's a bigger project.

FP&A won't be monotonous unless you want it to be. I've worked on a lot of different projects with cross-functional people (Operations, HR, IT, etc.) and consultants (BCG, Bain, OW, S&O, etc.) because I asked for it. Some people just want to do their job that they've been doing for 20+ years and go home. I like doing new things so I'm always asking for projects/stretch assignments. As for your "autonomous" question, I guess it depends on your boss. A good boss will know what you want and will work with you. I personally enjoy having that freedom because it gives me opportunities to make decisions on my own...and I have to own those decisions. It's a good practice to understand "when to make the call" vs. "when to call your boss for decision" because it doesn't matter what level you are, there will be a boss above you at corporate!

I came from engineering undergrad so I had zero knowledge of financial modeling when I joined. But I'm a quick learner so I learned. At junior level, it's good to have strong technical skills (advanced excel like VBAs, python, Power BI, Oracle BI, etc.) that senior level people don't have time to do and that's how you can add value by making things look good and efficient. At mid/senior level, we spend way too much time in meetings...presenting, arguing, hand-holding, etc. with the CFOs from business units and other stakeholders. It's a different kind of fun but I miss rolling up my sleeves and doing the work.

  • Analyst 3+ in IB - Ind
Nov 29, 2020 - 1:51am

Thanks for the long response. Looks like while you all are high performers, not a lot of people end up leaving considering you said some people have stayed for 10+ years at the firm. Have you generally seen people fired? Or is it more like as long as you are eager to learn and making an effort to improve, then you should be fine considering the job is easy as you say? Looks like none of the people you mentioned were from IB but do you think FP&A is easier than IB? 

Also, how often do people leave your group for better opportunities or for a promotion? You mentioned there's not a lot of movement at the top but what about the junior levels with a lot of people switching jobs every 2-3 years? 

Nov 28, 2020 - 10:57pm

Sure. I'm 25+ miles outside of a major city so maybe a tier 2/3 cost of living area? It's not cheap but definitely not NYC, Chicago, San Fran, Boston, etc.

Analyst - 1.5 yrs - 50k base

Sr. Analyst - 1 yr - 58k base

Manager - 3 yrs - 68-80k base + 10-25% bonus (ended up averaging ~95k all-in for those years)

Director - 3 yrs - 110-150k base + 15-30% bonus + 10-20% RSUs

The funny thing was...I was always at the lowest of the pay-band because I was more obsessed with climbing the ladder than pay. Just like any other companies, our pay-bands have wide ranges so we have sr. analysts making 100k base, managers making 140k base, directors making 200k base, etc.

I said a lot of "yes" to projects/stretch assignments that allowed me to showcase that I can do the job. A lot of people in the group has been there for 15-20 years so we are kind of middle heavy with directors. And some of those people don't want to take on new challenges like I do. Once I started proving that I can do the job consistently at high level, the management saw the opportunity to boot some people who were getting fat and lazy out and replaced with someone a lot cheaper and more productive (me). 

One thing I'm really good at is adapting to change and learning new things. Most people don't like change so they bitch and moan every time there's a change in system, process, leadership, etc. but I try my best to stay relevant. 

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Nov 28, 2020 - 11:07pm

Wow great detail, thanks so much for sharing! Last one - so I take from your original post that you've been at the same company your whole career? Is that from lack of interest in moving around or is it just really that great there? Lots of people in my circle are moving around every couple of years or so, especially earlier on in their careers. What kept you from jumping ship?

  • Associate 2 in Consulting
Nov 29, 2020 - 5:00pm

It's good that your company promotes. Despite achieving a lot I left my industry role still as an analyst after 3.5yrs (despite being also qualified accountant from big4). atleast the experience allowed me to transition to a consulting role (albeit junior). I'm wondering whether to go back to industry in a similar role back in fp&a/strategic finance but also considering whether becoming a group FC might make more sense as it has a more direct route to FD / CFO imo. What are your thoughts on that?

Nov 29, 2020 - 8:30pm

Contrary to my progression, our FP&A team doesn't really have a promotion culture. I was doing good at my roles but it was my luck that got me where I am. Every time I was ready/eligible for promotion, someone at next level decided to leave so I got a chance to go for it. I used to believe that hard work will get me where I want to go...but as I get older, it's more about the combination of luck and hard work. The higher you get on corporate ladder, the more luck you need to get to the next level.

The general advice I was given by my mentor was to move into a finance role that's closer to the operations/products if I ever want to become a CFO/CEO. It's a hard jump to go from corporate FP&A to business unit CFO (and ultimately region/global CFO). At least that is the culture at my company where the people from BUs don't really see the corporate FP&A people as value-adding. They are the one bringing in the money...and we are the one making their lives miserable with all the questions. So if you've already done some FP&A, public accounting, consulting...it definitely makes sense to go for controller type role to add another dimension to your resume. But there're a lot of variables that you have to consider...and you won't know until you take the job with a company to see what's going on.

  • Associate 2 in Consulting
Nov 30, 2020 - 5:17am

thanks. yeah i truly believed that if I finally worked super hard and busted myself for the company id get promoted but as you said, it depends on people leaving etc and perhaps jumping around departments to an extent. 

what about are your thoughts on Group Treasury vs Group / Divisional Controller type role for eventual CFO progression? my Industry job was a massive listed company (similar to yours in size) but I think the next time I jump id want to go for a 250m - < 1bn revenue PE owned firm aggressively expanding through buy and build (which i think will provide more interesting commercial type project opportunities for someone who is keen but in an otherwise slightly "boring" FC role and scope to perhaps enter a leadership role /integration oversight role in a new acquisiton).   

Dec 3, 2020 - 12:30pm

Thanks for doing this AMA! I tried to find the answer in your previous comments, but couldn't- what industry is your company?

My biggest question is about age- was there anything special you did to get to the director level at 28? or was it a combo of being smart, working hard, and being at the right place at the right time? Do you look old for your age? Any advice on identifying companies/industries that are more likely to promote young? The companies I have worked for (so far) have more of a "pay your dues" mentality, so I expect I'll need to jump again to get my next promo.. and am trying to learn how to find places that aren't afraid to promote young. Thanks!

Dec 3, 2020 - 9:04pm

My company is officially defined as conglomerate but majority of the business (revenue) is in service industry.

It was definitely a combination of things: 
1. I was obsessed with moving up the corporate ladder quickly so I spent a lot of time analyzing the environment, positioning myself, planning my moves, etc. which helped me a lot. For example: timing is so important when it comes to asking for things (money, promotion, new challenges) from the management. I've also made wrong moves but I was able to get myself out of situations quickly. 
2. I was a slacker in college but I didn't take my foot off the gas since I started working. I work smart. I don't make too many mistakes. My performance is consistently high.
3. I had great bosses who gave me opportunities to showcase my ability….and that might be the biggest factor of all. They didn't just take my work and presented it as theirs. Instead, they took me into the board room and let me present…and that opened the doors for me. I was lucky enough to work directly with C-suite. I presented at global meetings with the global CFO, etc.
4. Luck! Life is definitely unfair when it comes to luck. There're other smart and hard-working people at my company…but somehow they ended up bad bosses or weren't given the right opportunities. It's a shame.

Haha I'm Asian and I actually had a baby face for a long time. But I've aged a little since the director role (more stress to get to next level!). My advice is…try to identify the right bosses instead of companies/industries. A good boss will protect /promote you from/to the leadership…and s/he will fight for you to get more opportunities even if it's not on his/her team. I'm an introvert but I've pushed myself to network with people around the company…so I have a list of potentially good bosses and bad bosses. I will avoid the bad ones…even if the opportunity is tempting because they will have no issue throwing you under the bus. 

Yes, people don't like it when the young guy comes in and tries to cut the line. It's worse when you become their boss and they have more years than you. I interviewed for the director role with three other managers who are much older and more experienced… and two of them became my employees. It was challenging at first and there were even threats of lawsuits for unfairness. But you have to remember that you are trying to break the norm so there will be resistant for sure. Start-ups are great places to move up quickly as the company grows but all big companies will have that "pay your dues" mentality unfortunately. So find the right bosses, prove them that you can do the job, and make sure to let them know your expectations. And if you don't see the future, then it's time to jump!

  • Prospect in IB - Gen
Dec 4, 2020 - 1:02pm

I'll be working for a F150 company upon graduation in a finance leadership rotational program. After this stint, how competitive do you think I would be with breaking into a start up company in a finance role? Would an MBA be necessary? Thanks a ton

Dec 18, 2020 - 3:00pm

Your reply has such great insights so thanks very much for that! I am also an Asian introvert and working in finance at a US corporation poses a challenge for me. Could you share how you network with people in your company? How do you reach out and start a conversation? How do you choose who to reach out and how to start a conversation appropriately? I work in a very small group and ofter feel overshadowed by my bosses who interact more with sales leaders, but they don't try much to introduce me to anyone. Appreciate your advice!

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