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Charting the Journey of a First-Time CFO: An Interview with Jarna Gaglaani, CFO of UDrive

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

November 28, 2023

5

What is your background, your education, and how have you reached this stage in your career? Tell us about yourself.

I come from Bangalore, India. It is  supposed to be the tech hub of the country.

Growing up, I didn't have anyone to look up to. 

As I was growing up, I realized that I needed  to do something extraordinary. I wanted to be a working woman, which is not normal in our culture and country.  I wanted  to create an impact.

While Chartered Accountancy was not exactly a childhood passion for me, it would give me a shot at achieving all this and more. I could also have gone for an MBA but for the expense. So I chose to pursue the former.  

To become a CA in India, you have to crack one of the toughest exams in the country. There's a pass percentage of around 2%. That was a huge challenge, but I love challenges. I took it up along with my graduation and became a CA by the time I was 22. 

I also  got a lucky break with Coca-Cola in Bangalore where I got to work in the regional finance office as a financial analyst.  I really started my career with understanding the numbers, right? As a financial analyst you create the numbers, try to interpret data,  and then see the impact it has on the business. And that's how I just got onto this path.

From there I moved to a tech company where I supported the team with the functional improvements and enhancements in accounting software or ERP. 

Thereafter, I moved to core FP&A.

I moved to Dubai and got into proper financial accounting, projections, budgeting and managing cash flows, typically what every finance manager does. 

I also consulted independently  for a while to support companies with implementations.

Finally, I landed at UDrive. I began my journey here as an accountant. I set  up the department like a finance manager, accounts manager, and have pretty much done that  in the last five years, where every year I did something completely different. This has helped me learn new things.

That has been my journey in a nutshell.

Can you tell us about the biggest challenge you have faced as a first-time CFO?

One thing that most of the corporate world suffers from and I guess I did too, is the lack of  a mentor, coach, guide, or someone who has done it before you. 

This has been my biggest struggle because while you can do everything that you know and you've learned, you do not get to learn new things. This means you have to experiment by yourself, make some mistakes, and use them to learn.

I’ve noticed that it’s easier to find peers who will guide you in professions and departments other than Finance. In tech, for example,   there are many people in a department and each can handhold  one other; they learn. But most companies  have just one chartered accountant. The others are mostly junior accountants. So, the companies that I worked with didn't have many people that  I could look up to.

As a first time CFO, my biggest challenge was getting my hands dirty to learn and improve  everything by myself. 

You spoke a lot about the chartered accountants' course. Can you tell us more about it and how it helped you in your current role as CFO?

CAs are certified accountants in India, similar to certified public accountants (CPAs) in the USA. The only difference in India is that  they've made the standards pretty high now.

Throughout my four years of the course, there were at least  16 different aspects of the business commercial world that I was exposed to. From commercial law and cost accounting, to management accounting,reporting, and   technology as well.

The thing about this course is that it gave me exposure to many areas. Now a few people from here may pick up auditing and they just work on the audit side of it. Few other people may just take accounting and they get into a FP&A role. 

But most of all, chartered accountants become managers by default. You learn about taxes, indirect taxes, and direct taxes. And you then specialize in whichever area you want to.

Every business has these key functions, whether you talk about people management, accounting, taxation, compliance, or costing and management accounting. And of course, large corporates may have different people doing different things, but in a startup, it's very important that you are aware of more than one role, and I think that's where it has helped me a lot because I could really understand when I see some data or I see some statistics, I can strategically make a decision based on the numbers.

As a CFO, you are expected to handle more than just finance functions and financial matters. You also need to have a good understanding of other operational areas such as HR, legal, marketing, compliance, and sales. How do you balance and navigate these different areas effectively as a CFO?

You do not learn everything overnight, right?

I started with the accounting function, but over a period of time the need arose that I had to do more of a financial analyst role or a business analyst role. So, I gradually grew into that role. And thereafter my role required legal expertise so I took that up as well. 

I may not be a lawyer, but I can read a legal document because that's what we learn in our business law, right? 

Over a period of time, I think, a couple of years back, our HR function needed someone to have a strategic mindset. So, I took up that upon myself to oversee the HR function as well. And I think over a period of time you understand what are the key levers of the business; you understand operations is a key, if you tackle that well, then everything else just falls in place. I took that responsibility to understand the challenges that operations were facing. I never really managed operations directly, but I started learning about it. Later, I even learned marketing. 

When I joined U Drive, there were hardly any senior people in the organization. In fact, almost all of the senior people just came on board  in the previous year. At the time, we had no choice but to really be everywhere. That’s why I learned marketing, I learned business development, I learned tech.

Whatever I could, and needed to, I just started picking up. And it's very important for a CFO to have a complete understanding of each function. You cannot, basically be in your silo of financial information and not know what's happening in other departments, because ultimately all of these functions put together push the company ahead.

With UDrive being a car-sharing company,  ​​how do you manage the balance between strategic thinking and the challenges of running a complex business with many logistics involved?

This is one thing I'm proud to share: we do almost around 40,000 rentals in a month. 

I would say it would be much better as we grow over 40,000 rentals in 1 month, but the truth is  we may be just sitting in the office sipping coffee. 

Just imagine any rental car company that has the physical delivery of vehicles, if they had to do 40,000 rentals a month, I think they may be just overstocked. I mean, they would have to have thousands of people doing that, right? But for us, it's all technology.  This is what data automation and all the systems that you build can help you with.

The business is complex. Why is it complex?  Because our product keeps moving all the time. It's not in one place, right? So which customers to target, where to target, we don't know, right? 

But what we do in the course of our business is start a process. We set some basic guidelines and expectations. Then, over a period of time, we assess what the key challenges are, and we develop tools and systems to handle those challenges. 

My CEO, Mr. Nick Watson, is someone who is a strong believer that you can never perfect anything. So you just start and by the time you implement, you accumulate enough learning to perfect it. 

Most of our thinking time goes into finding the right tools or right methods to handle a challenge.

UDRIVE was one of Pluto’s Earliest Customers, and we have been partners since. You made a very strong strategic decision to adopt modern finance tools. What made you do this? How can finance teams be more open to automation?

Again, it comes from the culture that we set in the company, right from day one.

When I joined the company, we didn't even have an ERP. The books of accounts were maintained  in Excel. We didn't have  automated  invoicing, nor automation for card payments.

Of course, it was just the first year of the company’s business, so there were too many things happening. Of course, one is that the volume of transactions we handle is so high that you don't have a choice but to go for automation in whatever form.

The second thing is that adopting technology has helped us focus on the right things in the business. Now, we don’t have to chase 20 people asking them to submit bills and cash transactions every time.

Pluto drastically reduced our issues overnight.  We knew that people would find it very convenient to always have  money on their cards. They could  just go spend,without requesting approvals and permissions repeatedly. Convenience makes a big difference.

Plus the future of payments is digital and paperless.  We cannot sustain if we don't go for modern solutions.

I do understand that a lot of accountants still come from that traditional thinking where they want control in their hand and they don't want to give it away . But, we have to think about the cost associated with it. Is it simply keeping three people occupied doing this tedious, repetitive, grunt work? Or is your objective actually to  accelerate your work? I think that is the reason when Pluto came in… I didn't have to even think for a second.

For us it was a no brainer. I mean, why should my accountant waste hours  just collating information and dumping that into the system when there is already a tool that can do it for you?

What are some of the key tactics you have planned to implement for cost containment in the upcoming years?

Well, we are already a very frugal company. We always operate like a bootstrapped company, although we are funded.

We believe that every penny that you put in has to have a ROI attached to it. I wouldn't call it cost containment, but cost optimization is something that we should all work on all the time. So, every single cost that we incur, we keep.

And I think, again, we take major help from  technology here. We are a tech driven company in every way.

I'll give you a simple example. 

Let's say we are spending some amount on rebalancing the vehicles, right? The vehicles are not where they should be, and we are just moving them. Over a period of time we have data collected. We review and analyze this data, then we find out what is the best way that we could build our own predictive way of ensuring that the vehicle is where the customer is.

We work on those kinds of data driven decisions which help reduce our costs. 

How critical is data analysis for decision-making processes within the organization, and what types of data do you focus on as a CFO? How do you go about identifying and prioritizing the different types of data that are relevant to the car-sharing industry?

Most of our work is all about data, and it is not limited to financial data alone. We also work with operational data and marketing data such as customer acquisition, the cost of customer acquisition, retention, churn rate etc.

We use the data for  operational decision making, devising strategies on the basis of it.

That's one of the key things that CFOs have to understand; their role is to help the business navigate using the data that they have. 

CFOs basically have that understanding of building a story out of the data, right?

So, we get the data, we learn what it means, we get the insights, and we see how it'll influence decision making.

Over the years, the role of the CFO has undergone a significant transformation, becoming increasingly strategic and less focused on traditional finance functions. Could you share some insights into how you have personally witnessed this evolution of the CFO role? How has your own approach to the CFO role changed over time to adapt to these changes?

The CFO role is always strategic in nature because one of the key things that a CFO has to ensure is to focus on how they can increase the return on shareholders’ equity. 

I would say that part of traditional finance will always remain with the CFO, but the evolving role of  a CFO is now majorly as   a finance business partner. Be the eye on the operations side and focus on how to increase the value of the business and how to ensure that you are able to evolve the business over a period of time. Whether it is about diversification, whether it is about going deeper  into operations or adding more verticals to the business. Whatever it is, I think, the CFO's role is always strategic in nature.

In our case, I was handling everything. When I became a CFO, my focus had to be much more on the business level, which is why we hired a finance manager and he takes care of the compliance, the finance, and the audit. He turns out the numbers, and then I read the numbers and see how we can help influence the decision making.

In your opinion, what are the most important skills for a CFO to possess in order to excel in a strategic role?

I think the  first and foremost skill would be to understand the key lever of the business in and out.

If a CFO doesn't understand what the key impact areas of the business are, then it's very difficult to support decision making. So, understand the business, what impacts the business, what impacts the revenue, what impacts your cost, what impacts your growth, your scale trajectory, everything.

The second one is about learning how to manage resources. Again, one of the biggest assets every company has is  human capital, right? 

It's very important for CFOs to understand how to maximize the return from this capital. Every penny that you invest in human resources should generate multiples of it for the company. That's how you drive efficiency. If the business was all about tools and systems, it would've been easier, but I think business is all about how  human capital is deployed to get the results. 

And thirdly, is to be open to new tools, technologies, new ideas, new thought processes.  If you don't learn technologies, if you are still dependent on old formats like Excel, and you are dependent on the old way of doing things, then I think you'll be wasting away your time doing the same work instead of adding value.

You have worked in several industries so far, including F&B and consulting. What role do you think subject matter expertise plays in the role of a CFO for the industry? And how have you acquired industry-specific SME knowledge quickly? 

We are not number crunchers anymore. That's how it was in the past, but today's systems can  do that for you. You don't have to crunch numbers and tally balance sheets. That's not your job anymore.

The role of a CFO today is to interpret the numbers and be able to give insights, valuable insights,  to the business. That is not possible if you are not a subject matter expert.

Of course, there are other things like compliance, where compliance requires your subject matter expertise. Not everyone can do that. 

Similarly, auditing. These are the things where you definitely need to have subject matter expertise.

But most importantly, I would say it’s about data, it’s about your numbers, what they talk about, and how you can disintegrate that number to a level where people can understand what it relates to. 

As far as your second question is concerned: If you understand from a business point of view, then the industry may keep changing, but the key levers don't change. Or even if they change, it's easy to pick them up because you know this is what impacts the business.

If it's a current rental business, then these are the key drivers of this business. If it's FMCG, then these are the key drivers of the business. So it's not difficult to understand if you understand the business well. 

The first few months in U Drive, I could understand what the key things were that we needed to play around with to ensure that our revenue per car increases. Or what the key things were that we needed to do to see that our gross margins start improving. These are the things that you begin to understand when you understand the business. 

One thing I want to circle back to is our topic about technology. With the rapid development of technologies like AI and the increasing digitization of businesses, CFOs must ensure their companies are adaptable to change. Success will be achieved by organizations that use technology effectively and promote internal alignment by breaking down silos. Have you introduced any new technologies that have helped UDrive’s finance team increase efficiency?

Automation was the first thing that I implemented. 

Of course, I do not understand coding, so I cannot do it myself, but having the right people around you who can do it for you, and you being the key driver, helps.

I started with automating  invoices and charging the cards. Data analytics is another thing. 

So, we onboarded data scientists who can really put things together in a manner that you can make decisions. 

And we already use AI for our data-driven decisions on operations.

There are several technologies, not necessarily that I have spearheaded everything, but at least I have been one of the first users of it for sure, if I'm not driving it myself. 

And you mentioned earlier that when you joined there was no ERP system.

I had to put that in place.

We could not do 40,000 rentals if we were still manually generating invoices.

You have to do it because you cannot ever let business get restricted. The growth cannot get restricted because you are not up to speed with technology. You always need to prepare well in advance.

UDrive is now live in Saudi Arabia. Congratulations! A lot of CFOs in MENA need to handle multi-jurisdiction finances. This is very different from the USA. How have your skills evolved to handle such tough challenges?

You may not be fully knowledgeable about a lot of things you doYou mess up, you make some mistakes, you learn from it, and you correct it. 

I think this is what my experience is about, even when it comes to finances for Saudi, so far we are managing most of it from the UAE.

Of course, as we grow, we will have them based in Saudi. We just concluded the first audit of Saudi, so we can say that we are good to go. The compliances are very different. And the sad part is not everything is documented easily.

One of the things that I learned from this entire exercise is that it's always good to have a consultant in that market who's a subject matter expert. 

What are some of the biggest pain points that you face today as a CFO, and how are you currently solving them? 

One of the biggest pain points is having all functions working in silos.

There is no common source of truth. 

We keep facing this challenge every now and then. It's not just us. I think every company faces this issue because most of the time, finance teams go with their thought process, their mindset, their logic, their numbers, and that's completely different from how the business works.

Aligning both of these and ensuring that they work as complements  to each other is one of the biggest challenges or hurdles to cross, and when you start working together, it all starts making sense. But I think having a single source of truth and having the compiled data was my biggest challenge.

Another challenge would be adopting the technology without having a hundred percent understanding of it. You want to do a lot of things, but  it takes a lot of time and it costs you a lot. Without understanding the benefits and how you're going to maximize your value on this, you are not able to motivate or engage resources to deliver it to you.This is where I think you suffer a lot because you don't know how to encapsulate what you want in technological language. Functionally, you know, this is what you want and you know it's going to have a lot of advantages, but you don't know how to communicate with the stakeholders for them to understand how important it is.

‍What advice would you give finance professionals in today’s modern age? 

First, I think all finance professionals have to wear the hat of a business partner. 

As I said, we are not number crunchers alone. We are not here only to just compile data and share it with people.

That's not the role of a finance person anymore. 

They have to be in a position to understand the business and see how they can correlate the numbers with business performance and influence decision-making. 

This is something that you need to do with each function head, because until they don't understand what they are doing, and how it is impacting in the p&l. 

The second thing I would say is, be ready to learn and adapt to changes.

I still see a lot of people who are comfortable with the old ways of doing things and don't want to try doing something new or different. Make an attempt, take that risk. You'll fail. That's fine. We'll make a mistake, we'll learn from it and we'll correct it.

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