Armed with a good head for numbers, a passion for the art of business, a pedigree education and exposure to two cultures to boot, one could say Suhai Ji had a leg up when he entered the corporate finance world. Suhai has been using his advantages well, already clocking in some nine years as a CFO in various businesses.
Adapt and adopt
Suhai’s corporate success began with quality education that provided him with a good network and a foot through the door of the banking world. “A lot of CFOs and Wall Street bankers are from Columbia,” he notes.
“In China, branding is important and people tend to stereotype, so if you have a MBA from Columbia University, there is an immediate assumption you are good in finance and that affords you some respect,” says Suhai.
His east-west upbringing has resulting in him bridging the two cultures at the workplace. “Because I was educated in the US, I tend to be more straightforward, but that can be a double-edged sword in China, where people are more discrete,” he admits.
“I have to adjust my style depending on what the team members are like. It requires me to be more sensitive to the different types of audience that I speak to.”
"I’m results-driven, and don’t need to know what my team is doing every day or hour"
Understanding that changing an existing culture is harder than him adjusting to it, he is flexible in his management style as a leader - “I adapt and adopt”.
One of the management styles he has picked up from the West, he says, is appreciated by most. “I’m results-driven, and don’t need to know what my team is doing every day or hour. I’m more focused on the work that they deliver. The locals are receptive to that style – they prefer that than to be asked what they are doing all the time.”
"Many different backgrounds can lead to a successful career as a CFO. I came from banking, others from audit or internal finance, and some even from law"
More than numbers
After stints as a management consultant and vice president in a bank, he went on to hold the top finance job in several companies as Chief Financial Officer for nine years. Of those, he counts the two IPOs he led as his proudest moments.
“At their heights, both companies had market capitalisation of more than US$1 billion,” he says.
It was not without battles, however, as Suhai related how, in one case, the media published allegations the company was involved in unethical business. “We were going against a lot of headwind, and that was the toughest time in my career. However, we got through it and managed to go public successfully,” he reveals.
Even after the company went public, it was dealt another blow as share prices took a tumble after a “Enron-type case” embattled a China public-listed company, causing general market confidence to nosedive. “It was a very challenging time. But we had to keep the communications line open with investors and deliver results,” he says.
Suhai counts his life and work experiences as lessons along the way, one of which taught him that being an effective CFO is not just about having a good head for numbers, but having a keen ability to communicate and be transparent. And in a public company where the CFO is expected to be the link to investors, that becomes an even more critical skill.
Key to being a successful CFO is to work with a “compatible” CEO. The ideal relationship of both executives is a “partnership”, with the CEO and CFO possessing complementary skill sets and backgrounds, says Suhai. “Trust and confidence must always be shared between the two that hold the company’s most important roles,” he notes.
“Many different backgrounds can lead to a successful career as a CFO. I came from banking, others from audit or internal finance, and some even from law. There is really no set career path towards a CFO role. One must just stay humble and hungry to learn new things,” advises Suhai.