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Inside the Mind of Eon Dental’s CFO: Mastering Strategic Healthcare Finance

Interviewed by

Leen Shami

April 25, 2023

5
Tell us about yourself - your background, education, and career journey.

I majored in accounting and finance. I got into the healthcare industry very early in my career, and I was fortunate to join Hikma  Pharmaceuticals, where I worked firsthand with the CFO and the executive chairman. 

At Hikma,  I got to work on some very exciting projects at a very early stage in my career, including the rollout of the budgeting and planning functions, their IPO, and M&A projects.

After I spent about six years over there, I naturally picked up the healthcare label and stayed within that space. I ended up working at a private equity fund in Dubai that was focusing on healthcare, among other things. 

I also worked at Sandoz, which is the generic arm of Novartis. 

After that, I joined Smith and Nephew, which is one of the world's largest medical device companies. 

I had a small entrepreneurial stint, which unfortunately didn't go too well. It was a new concept that I launched right before the onset of Covid, which wasn't very helpful.

But then that's really how I found myself joining Eon. In March 2021, I came to know about a medical device company that's based out of Jordan that's searching for a CFO- - and I joined in April 2021. 

What happens in the other departments eventually finds its way into the finance function.
Can you tell us more about your entrepreneurial journey?

The entrepreneurial journey was obviously very difficult but equally exciting. I tried to introduce a new concept to the market; similar to GPOs which are group purchasing organizations, they're quite prevalent in the US in the healthcare space. But we also have some of them over here (MENA)  in public hospitals.

So with GPOs, even though hospitals may be competing on the front-end for patients and doctors, there's a lot of room to collaborate on the back-end, generally in terms of bulk buying, and particularly for commoditized products.

So I tried to set up something similar to that over here in the UAE. I got some large hospital groups signed up, which was very good. But I think the market wasn’t ready for a new business model, and when Covid came into play, the task became more difficult. 

At that point,  I decided to take a pause, especially when a more exciting opportunity came. 

Which of these moments marked a turning point in your career, and why was it so important?

I'd start off with Hikma.

One, looking back, no company gave me the same kind of experience where I was working alongside the CFO and the executive chairman.

Two, the nature of the projects themselves. When you're based out of Jordan, only a handful of companies give you that kind of exposure, especially on that scale and that kind of global remit.

With no formal handover process, the biggest challenge was taking a look under the hood to understand the company's status quo

Later on, the opportunity that I got at Smith and Nephew was also quite exciting. It was a good turning point, and it was transformational because I got immediate C-suite exposure at a FTSE 100 company, and I also got the benefit of assembling and managing large teams and projects in complex projects across multiple jurisdictions. 

My experience at Smith and Nephew was also pivotal because they gave me the opportunity to take on a senior commercial role. I was looking after the P&L for the region over here (GCC, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan) and got out of the traditional comfort zone that I had in financial and investment management - getting into the commercial part of the business by going into the field, and engaging more with the doctors, customers, regulators, and sales reps, giving me better insights into how the data and transactions that I previously used to manage actually comes into being.

 I think these two stand out most in terms of my career.

In your role as a first-time CFO, what has been the biggest challenge so far? 

With no formal handover process, the biggest challenge was taking a look under the hood to understand the company's status quo. Eon had rapidly outgrown its infrastructure - the physical infrastructure and the soft infrastructure like its processes and accounting systems.

A lot of the physical and operational matters needed to catch up with Eon's growth. The challenges that we had with that were further compounded with the onset of Covid.

It was also difficult for me to understand the status quo of the company, which was probably one of the most important things to get your head around when you first join that kind of position.

I spent a lot of time doing operational deep dives, not just within the finance function but across many other departments, because what happens in the other departments eventually finds its way into the finance function.

So these were the biggest challenges so far.

And what is your greatest accomplishment?

It's probably too early in the journey to look back and talk about the greatest accomplishment per se.

But I can definitely say we've had some very pleasant wins.

I need to enable them by ensuring they have the financial resources to do their work and to have effective controls in place to protect the company.
Your career has involved creating budgets, financial plans, mergers and acquisitions, and financial strategies for major companies across MENA. How does that experience differ from your current role?

In terms of the planning, transactional, and strategic kind of work I currently do at Eon, it's pretty much the same. The only difference is there's less red tape and more freedom to operate. 

With Smith and Nephew or Hikma or even at Sandoz, we were bigger organizations, and the process would run through different layers, whether cascading upwards or downwards.

At Eon, because we are a relatively smaller company and have smaller teams, we can definitely be a lot more agile and nimble in terms of executing that kind of work.

That's on the overlap with the kind of work that I used to do in the past.

Besides the planning/strategic and transactional work that I just described,  I also now need to manage that with a lot of the operational work that still needs to happen.

In the past, I had the luxury of just focusing on the strategic and the planning work, but now I need to oversee a lot of the operational work that happens on a day-to-day basis. I also need to oversee the production of all the data that are associated with, or that's a precursor to, all the planning and transactional work.

So, the kind of work is very similar, but how it happens is definitely a lot more complex.

A CFO today is expected to not only lead finance functions and manage the financial matters at hand but also wear many operational hats: HR, legal, marketing, compliance, and sales. How do you go about leading & navigating those different areas as a CFO?

My role is primarily to enable these functions. I need to enable them by ensuring they have the financial resources to do their work and to have effective controls in place to protect the company.

These are the two major things in terms of how I need to support these functions.

I see it more in terms of enabling these teams.

At the end of the day, I'm very lucky to be working with some of the most talented and motivated individuals in the industry.  The team really comes together like a family. Our CEO and our People and Culture team have done a very good job in not only recruiting the right kind of employees but stakeholders as well. Everyone is fully motivated, everyone takes full ownership, and everyone at the office works like friends coming together with common interests to work on a project. So I feel it's more like working with family and friends as opposed to a formal kind of office environment.

It makes such a big difference because it becomes less about following up and ensuring people are doing what they're supposed to be doing and just giving people the space to do their work.

So, getting the right people, I think, is key, and I'm very lucky to be working with that kind of setup, where my role is more as an enabler.

Wearing multiple hats as a CFO comes hand-in-hand with strategy. Since joining Eon Dental in 2021, have you introduced new strategies to help the business move forward?

We have different brainstorming sessions, different ideas, and we always come up with points where a decision needs to be made, whether it’s for operational matters or strategic matters, and they vary in terms of their importance and their scope.

Sometimes it could be giving solicited feedback about a specific issue, whether negotiating with a major supplier or a customer. Or sometimes, it can be sharing my vision or how I feel about where the business is going to be or where it needs to be in the coming few years to help maximize shareholder value.

So, it's not about introducing a specific strategy, and all of us are running towards it; it's more about thinking out loud on general or more specific issues on hand.

Expense management is a big issue, especially when you are in a high growth kind of setup, like Eon; high growth, high investment.
We've seen more CFOs taking on the CEO role or acting as interim CEOs in recent years. How closely do you work with Qais, the CEO? And how do you ensure that the CEO-CFO relationship is strong?

We definitely have a strong relationship in terms of how we operate - both formally and informally. 

We have formally scheduled executive leadership meetings; it's myself, the COO, and Qais, the CEO. We have scheduled meet-ups where we meet once a week, and we discuss operational matters, strategic matters, and general issues on hand. So we have a placeholder for that.

We also engage many times throughout the day, and the week, through phone calls, face-to-face meetings, and WhatsApp.

Again, I'll go back to the kind of relationship that we have; it's less about a formal kind of relationship and more about like-minded individuals coming together and working for a shared belief. This is how I see it. 

A big challenge facing most CFOs today is expense management. Is that an issue you’ve faced in your career? And what have you done to tackle such an issue?

More specifically, at Eon, yes, of course, it is a challenge.

Expense management is a big issue, especially when you are in a high growth kind of setup, like Eon; high growth, high investment.  How we deal with this is really just a combination of instilling a sense of ownership within the team and having a collective sense of responsibility to make sure that every dollar we spend matters, every dollar we spend counts. And then, we couple that with well-designed controls, policies, procedures, tools, and robust and proactive expense management functions.

We are big on that at Eon. We just need to ensure that we are deploying our resources in the right places at the right times.

The purpose over here is to try to streamline our workflows as much as possible.
I recently read an interview with Zendesk’s CFO, and he states that “Manual operational processes must be eliminated if you want your team to experience frictionless growth.” Have you adopted or introduced any new technologies to reduce manual work for Eon Dental’s finance team since joining?

Yes, of course.

Being a med-tech company, we have the luxury of having tech and product teams that help us automate a lot of the processes that we have. Whether it's invoicing, bookkeeping, data entry, or data management.

So yes, we are big proponents in trying to automate as much as we can, but at the same time, we also recognize that some issues we are not able to automate, and we still need to rely on manual processes.

But again, to the extent possible, we do try to automate as much as possible, whether it's relying on our in-house teams or utilizing third-party tools.

The purpose over here is to try to streamline our workflows as much as possible.

In today's rapidly evolving and unpredictable world, finance teams face the daunting task of adapting to emerging threats. The emergence of groundbreaking technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and unprecedented access to data present exciting new avenues for executing finance strategies. However, these advancements also give rise to fresh vulnerabilities, including cybersecurity threats and the potential for limited visibility into corporate data. What are your views on these developments and their impact on finance departments?

Despite the challenges that come with it, I'm a big proponent of automation, artificial intelligence, and utilizing data to the fullest extent possible. The important part is having the intent of working towards that and having the right systems and the right setups in place to protect that data so that you're able to sprint then towards the automation, the AI, and the different work streams that we're talking about.

For Eon, that challenge is compounded because not only do we have our own data that we need to protect, but we also deal with sensitive patient data. So, we need to be extra careful with our own data and patient data. 

A lot of our customers are global, so they have very high expectations in terms of how we manage data privacy. Even within the regional markets, the bar is continuously raised. Saudi and the UAE are introducing laws that are specific to data privacy, and we always need to comply with those.

Not only is it a challenge for us to protect our own data, but also to ensure that our customer's data and patient data is also adequately protected.

So definitely, it comes with its challenges, but I think, net-net, it is something that streamlines our operations. 

A CFO shouldn't be focusing on just bookkeeping, journal entry, and keeping track of data. It's looking at the data, coming up with meaningful insights, and using that to give advice, whether it's to the CEO, the COO, or the different units of the business.
We’ve seen a lot of articles coming out about how AI could be replacing certain jobs, a few of which fall into the finance function. Do you think AI could potentially replace these jobs?

I think there will always be a necessity for a human element to it, but to the extent possible, I'm all for automation. Especially when we talk about repetitive tasks that, in a sense, have less value add compared to analyzing the data. I'd much rather put the energy and resources towards analyzing and managing the data as opposed to entering the data. 

I don't see us getting to a stage where everything is completely automated. We deal with multiple parties and multiple systems, so there's always going to be a requirement for human intervention in terms of data, but I think the idea is to try to minimize that to the fullest extent possible and try to put the resources behind analyzing the data and coming out with meaningful insights on what the data is telling us to come up with proper recommendations.

This is becoming a more common theme in the last decade, so how do you see the CFO role shifting from a traditional finance function role towards more of a strategic role?

One is a precursor to the other.

I don't think you can be an effective advisor/CFO without having a proper and robust data set, whether it's from within the company or from outside the company. So the first thing is to get that part right, get it in place, and make it as efficient as possible.

But beyond that, a CFO shouldn't be focusing on just bookkeeping, journal entry, and keeping track of data. It's looking at the data, coming up with meaningful insights, and using that to give advice, whether it's to the CEO, the COO, or the different units of the business. It's trying to maximize the value of the company using the data that is generated from the traditional finance function.

If I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to embrace technology to the fullest extent possible.
Our current global economic climate is characterized by rising interest rates and inflation. Do you have any tips for framing your outlook against a backdrop of rising interest rates and inflation around the world?

I can share from the perspective of someone within a high-growth startup.

My advice would be to make every dollar that you spend count.

Funding or access to funding is becoming more scarce, and it's becoming a lot more expensive.

So just make sure that every dollar that you spend counts, plan conservatively, and try to execute aggressively. Especially in this climate where funding is becoming more difficult, try to be as conservative as possible, but obviously, you still need to execute your plans.

Having said that, for us, I think 2023 will be a little bit of a pivotal year. We have some exciting projects in our pipeline, and hopefully, they will materialize towards the end of this year. 

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

I would say it's probably going to be a reiteration of most of the things we discussed, particularly around automation.

I think my advice to them would be to embrace it. Some people might be a little bit averse to it, but I think that people should embrace it; it adds a lot of value, it streamlines a lot of the workflows and enables those finance professionals to allocate more of their time towards more value-add kind of work streams that will definitely benefit the company.

If I were to give one piece of advice, it would be to embrace technology to the fullest extent possible.

Finance is like the central nervous system. Everything that happens within a company always comes back to the finance team; the good and the bad. Having these kinds of tools will enable the finance team to become a lot more effective in servicing the different elements of the organization or the different departments of the organization.

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