How European Finance Leaders Are Preparing for a Post-Pandemic World

As businesses across Europe take the first tentative steps toward normality following the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, attention is now turning to how to prepare for the future. Finance leaders from Workday customer companies discuss resilience, digital transformation, and some of the lessons learned.

While no one truly knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end, according to Deloitte’s “European CFO Survey: Spring 2021,” a new wave of optimism and a renewed willingness to invest prevails across Europe, with many companies “turning the page on COVID and focusing on the post-pandemic reality.”

During a turbulent 18 months, finance leaders throughout Europe have faced myriad challenges that have altered the way their organisations operate. Louis de Miscault, CFO and performance director of ÏDKIDS, a France-based community for kids and parents, said restoring confidence and improving visibility of finance metrics are among the top challenges.

“We’ve had a year of shops closing and even the country shutting down. We’ve seen cash flow become increasingly important. The challenge for the financial director is to build up a picture of cash over the long term and give reassurances to our stakeholders, shareholders, partners, and employees. Managing working capital and making that data available to those who need it is so important,” said de Miscault in an interview for the report.

“I think the time has come to stop waiting for digital transformation to happen to us."

Louis de Miscault Chief Financial Officer and Performance Director ÏDKIDS

Matthew McManus, group head of finance at Ireland-based software company Kainos, highlighted the need to manage change and protect the culture of the organisation as major priorities as we emerge from the pandemic.

“The major thing is navigating a changing environment, and that means protecting our strategic objectives to attract, develop, and retain the best talent available,” said McManus. ”It’s about protecting our organisational culture and ensuring our new hires, graduates, senior, and entry-level staff can hit the ground running.” 

For other businesses, such as Germany-based neobank N26, the pandemic meant a shift in the pace of digital acceleration both from a customer and an employee perspective. “In 2019, we were coming off the back of a period of hypergrowth, with 1,500 employees and 7 million customers in 25 markets,” said Arno Schleussner, N26 director, finance. “The lockdown may have ground other sectors to a halt, but it was the opposite for us. We saw an explosion in demand for online banking, especially on mobile devices, and not just early adopter customers. The big challenge for us was to accelerate our innovation once again and update our product range to meet the huge demand we were seeing.”

Pressing Accelerate on Finance Transformation

If finance transformation had been put on the back burner prior to the pandemic, then finance leaders have now pushed it to the top of their lists. In a report from KPMG, Patrick Fenton, leader of the Global Finance Center of Excellence with KPMG International, detailed the significance of digital transformation for today’s finance function, particularly in reducing costs.

“Cost is a big driver in our post-COVID-19 world. And businesses save on costs when things are done more efficiently," Fenton said. “With the data at your fingertips, you can make faster, more economic decisions. By definition, you are then also building in more resilience.”

This school of thought was backed by Kainos’ McManus in the Deloitte report. He believes that organisations with a head start on digital transformation have coped better during the pandemic and cited examples of his own company’s finance acceleration. 

“The businesses who hadn’t started on their digital journey will have struggled to navigate the last 18 months, especially the early weeks when things were particularly volatile. We’ve been working on finance transformation for a few years now, so we were able to deliver for our customers and employees remotely without interruption,” he said. “We were able to use Workday Financial Management and Workday Adaptive Planning seamlessly, especially during that uncertain phase. I think many companies had a big shock when the lights went out if they hadn’t invested in digital before.”

Atlas Professionals is a Netherlands-based provider of recruitment and HR services, with a focus on the energy and marine sectors. When COVID-19 hit, the company was in the middle of its Workday deployment and had a tough decision to make—pause or carry on with the deployment. André Secrest, group controller at Atlas Professionals, explained the decision to accelerate the transformation project.

“Now, collaboration means spending 80% of our time looking at the reasons behind the results rather than getting the inputs right.”

André Secrest Group Controller Atlas Professionals

“We faced two headwinds—a huge rise in oil prices and the COVID outbreak, both of which impacted our business. Despite this, we went ahead with the deployment of Workday for two reasons. First, our old finance system could not provide the information we required and that the business needed. The second was that we wanted to have some form of financial reporting in place to support us during the pandemic. I’m delighted that we made that decision,” Secrest said.

Schluessner, from N26, explained the importance of accelerating finance transformation—not just within the function itself, but across the entire company.

“We decided that, as a finance function, we want to spearhead the entire transformation of the company, and that extends to processes, technology, and the way we work collectively. That is the most telling impact finance transformation has had on our business in the last year,” he said.

Collaboration Is Key for the Future CFO

“Today, the role of the CFO is really to be the partner to the CEO and the business," said Aneel Bhusri, co-founder, co-CEO, and chairman at Workday, at a recent Fortune CFO Collaborative event. Despite this increased need for partnership, finance has traditionally struggled to achieve effective collaboration with the C-suite. Why has this been the case?

Atlas Professionals’ Secrest explained his company’s approach. “We have five finance hubs and, with our legacy finance system, each used to have their own slightly different way of working. Collaboration actually meant calling one another up and asking what the data really meant. That wasted a lot of time. So now, collaboration means spending 80% of our time looking at the reasons behind the results rather than getting the inputs right,” he said.

At Kainos, McManus, the group head of finance, had a similar sentiment. He discussed the shift from finance as a transaction steward into a much more progressive partner with the ability to deliver data to those who need it.

“I think we’re starting to see more of a focus on reporting and business partnership and less on process completion as that becomes more automated,” he said. “It’s about delivering insights and data to the parts of the business that are growing and ensuring you are collaborating and communicating effectively.”

Lessons and Learnings From the Finance Function

There is no clear definition of what “normal” will look like. However, many finance leaders have led from the front during the pandemic, playing pivotal roles in guiding their organisations through the storm. What are the key things that businesses can take away from both the pandemic and how they approach the future?

“We decided that, as a finance function, we want to spearhead the entire transformation of the company, and that extends to processes, technology, and the way we work collectively.”

Arno Schleussner Director, Finance N26

Paul Voisin, global transformation leader at France-based Veolia, a water management, waste management, and energy services company, points to the importance of recruiting those with passion and expertise in finance transformation. If businesses are to make the most of their finance system, they must find the right people to guide the business.

“You need people who are truly passionate and who understand SaaS deeply. We must understand all that these systems can do, because the potential is endless. Also, you must match the framework and processes with the data to build up a complete picture. Above all, you need to make this a long-term commitment and not something you throw money at and leave in the corner,” said Voisin at a Workday Elevate event.

De Miscault, of ÏDKIDS, was clear in his advice to other CFOs: The time is now. 

“I think the time has come to stop waiting for digital transformation to happen to us. More than ever, CFOs are here to provide a service to the rest of the business. We are in a position to transform how they think about data and how they use it; also how they automate important processes to be even faster and more efficient,” he said. “I like to think of the CFO as a co-pilot to other business leaders, helping them to slow down when there is a risk ahead and to speed up when the road is clear.”

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