Corporate View: Pratibha Advani, Tata Communications

Published: Feb 2016
Pratibha Advani

With more than two decades of experience in corporate finance, Pratibha Advani has built a reputation for knowing exactly what is required to take a company forward. Her most recent role, as CFO for a global telecommunications company with Indian roots, is a challenge she relishes and one which allows her to exercise her creative impulses to their fullest extent.

Pratibha Advani

Chief Financial Officer

Tata Communications

Tata Communications is a global business headquartered in Mumbai and Singapore. The $3.2bn listed company owns more than 210,000 kilometres of terrestrial fibre and claims the world’s largest wholly-owned submarine fibre network, formed of more than 500,000 kilometres of subsea fibre. Its vast infrastructure means almost 25% of the world’s internet routes are on Tata Communications’ network, and around 70% of the world’s mobile network operators use its services.

The idea that artistic minds cannot or will not flourish in the commercial world is one perpetuated by the romantic notion that impoverishment somehow unleashes true originality. However, despite many great artists throughout history claiming destitution, the creative muse can and does find its expression in the business environment. And when the vision of imaginative individuals are channelled towards commercial endeavour the results can be exceptional.

As CFO at Tata Communications, Pratibha Advani is responsible for its strategic financial management. She is also a talented artist with a creative style that finds its expression in many different ways, not least through her approach to her responsibilities with this $3.2bn listed high-tech and telecommunications company.

With over two decades of experience ranging from financial strategy, project financing, M&A, risk management, and legal and secretarial, Advani has had plenty of opportunity to develop her creative methodology. But on her own admission, she entered the world of commerce “by pure default”. Although she felt a natural inclination towards artistic expression she recalls that whilst still at school her introduction to business as a study area was taken as a challenge – of which she proved more than capable of rising to. Following her foundational success she gained a Bachelor of Commerce (Honours) degree before engaging with professional accountancy exams. “It was still by default that I became a chartered accountant and then stepped into the world of corporate finance,” she recalls.

Art into business does go

Arguably Advani was moving ever further from her artistic aspirations, but with the progressive development of her creative approach to business she feels this was not the case at all. In fact, as her career advanced, she soon realised that “creativity knows no limits”. Corporate finance provided her with a stimulating exposure to a broad range of commercial issues, at times offering fascinating insights into a variety of businesses and sectors in which the imaginative individual can explore new models and methods as they seek to transform functions and whole organisations.

Driven by the knowledge that imagination can be applied in every function, Advani quickly moved up the ranks to become CFO & VP of Finance at GE – SBI Cards, and later at Barclays Shared Services in India. A similar high-ranking role followed as CFO at NIIT Technologies where she led the global Finance, Secretarial, Compliance, Regulatory, Legal and Investor Relations functions. In May 2015 the call came to join Tata Communications as CFO, “finishing work one night at NIIT Technologies and the next morning taking up the post with Tata Communications”.

CFO: a new meaning

The acronym CFO is well-understood to mean Chief Financial Officer but this is not enough for Advani. She sees the role as having evolved over time into that of the Chief Facilitation Officer. “It requires one to be an effective organisation leader, balancing the responsibilities of stewardship with those of business partnerships,” she explains. In the high-tech communications sector, the challenge is to “act as a catalyst, promoting new ideas, sowing the seeds of innovation and improvisation, and driving productivity and efficiency within the organisation while also pursuing growth within a highly regulated environment”.

In reality, the rules and regulations faced by all those operating in the tightly controlled communications sector are not a source of frustration for Advani, even if she admits they can slow progress sometimes until “realignment to the changes” is effected. “As CFOs we have to make the organisation both commercially and compliance-savvy. Once this foundation has been laid, it is not so difficult,” she reports. Her ultimate objective is to ensure “sustained growth with profit maximisation within these constraints, alongside wealth creation for the stakeholders”. This understanding is cascaded down to all those in her finance team.

Keep learning

In the “all-encompassing” role of the CFO, the need is to keep one eye on “just about everything”. Every transaction in some form or another has a monetary impact so that “like it or not, you do get involved”. From this standpoint, Advani sees her position as both challenging and fulfilling. But it has been a conscious career decision to move across various industries as part of her mission to absorb as much information and knowledge as possible. She has had the “good fortune” to work in manufacturing, hospitality, retail, various financial services, IT and now telecom as she continues to satisfy her quest. The fact that she initially saw both IT and telecoms sectors as “too complex for a creative person like me” but entered both nonetheless is testament to her sustained willingness to take on a challenge and “continuously be high on the learning curve”. But keeping cutting edge businesses ahead of the game is just the kind of creative challenge upon which the artist within her thrives.

Despite her initial misgivings, Advani’s immersion into the world of technology has clearly now extended her appreciation of its value to the decision-making process of corporate financial operations. She recognises that it underpins “nearly every industry and business process today”, improving efficiency and helping more informed, timely and correct judgements. “The integration of systems is critical for the success of any enterprise; if the back end and front end do not communicate and allow seamless movement of data it could be an operational nightmare for any industry player.”

The high-tech challenge

Tata Communications is at the heart of an industry that is unavoidably high on investment but long on payback cycles, notes Advani. “The way that the industry is transforming today brings a strong flavour of IT services, which is currently unregulated, so that within this sector a business must try to balance opposing demands,” she comments. “For Tata Communications there is a need to balance the needs of a ‘bricks and mortar’ company, with all the essential investments in infrastructure we must make, coupled with the ‘start-up’ mentality we adopt as we open up new opportunities around the world.”

The fact that this balancing act takes place against a backdrop of global financial volatility adds to the pressure. “We have to have the ability to raise capital at highly competitive rates and at the same time satisfy the complex regulatory and tax environment across the world [Tata Communications has around 45 subsidiaries globally]. We also have a very diverse range of customers: we really are sleeping with the enemy, working with other telcos and businesses across the wide spectrum of the industry, and this requires us to develop bespoke pricing models – this is a highly price-sensitive industry which also obliges us to continuously find a balance between chasing volumes and maintaining profitability.”

Few companies have been insulated from current financial volatility and Tata Communications is no different. But its global presence as a communications business is “both a challenge and a boon for us”, notes Advani. Market shifts can cause short-term disruption but they also provide opportunities. “If one particular market stops firing we have the fall-back option of focusing on our growth markets,” she explains. As its mature markets had been tapering or remaining steady, it found opportunity in EMEA and APAC. And with a behavioural shift towards data usage putting pressure on its “bread and butter” voice business in terms of volume drop and pricing pressure, it has been able to leverage huge opportunities in data services, especially with the rise of ‘superpower’ tech businesses such as Google, Amazon and Netflix.

This awareness of and response to market changes is something very much in the remit of the CFO as the need arises to optimise resources across all capital investments. In addition to continually balancing investment in innovative ideas with the upkeep and development of essential investments in its fibre network, Advani explains that she also has to take tough decisions on timing when pulling the plug on ideas and investments that are not delivering the right return. The latter, she explains, is one of her biggest challenges but points out that facilitating and enabling growth is critical. Getting this right necessarily involves finance partnering with its business colleagues.

Building relationships

The relationship between the office of the CFO and the rest of the business may have moments of tension but the management of the financial process requires “discipline, governance and rigorous evaluation”, says Advani. She is a strong believer in partnering and collaboration: “It is not individuals that win but teams.” Whilst at times tough decisions are taken which may impact people in other functions, she is adamant that actions are taken in the interests of the organisation and that these must align to the corporate strategy and the vision. “I think if you communicate – and there is no such thing as over-communication – you are transparent, if you can show that there are no hidden agendas, then coming to a consensus is not too difficult.” And by listening to the collective worries of colleagues and accepting their diverse viewpoints, a far more robust organisation is built.

As a firm believer in the importance of human relationships in business, Advani advocates respect for others. The development of the so-called soft skills – including empathy and sensitivity, communication and presentation skills – are thus a “prerequisite” for every professional. “More so for finance people,” she adds. “Given the nature of our role, we are required to take tough decisions and implement them. I think that if an idea or decision can be socialised, that is the first step to opening the minds of people to something new.” She continues: “We cannot just be number-crunchers; we should also be able to communicate the logic behind those numbers. Today’s finance professionals are not like old-fashioned bean counters – we have a much more proactive role to play as business partners in drafting and implementing business strategy.”

The proactive role extends to managing external stakeholders and investors, and unless the right soft skills are in place, maintenance of such relationships can be difficult. “I am a believer in the measurement of RoE – Return on Equity – in business,” says Advani. “But when it comes to people, you have to modify RoE to read ‘Return on Ego’ – and that means respecting the voice of another individual.”

Bank catch-up

This is a two-way street of course. One of the external partners for the finance function is the banking community. Some of the criticism levelled at it in recent time is not unfounded, says Advani. The global economy has and still is paying heavily for mistakes made, but even though there are more compliance and governance layers, increased focus on risk, the stripping out of non-core businesses and so on, she feels that bank/corporate relationships generally continue to be supportive. “At Tata Communications we do enjoy a very supportive relationship with our global banking partners but in talking to my counterparts across a wide spectrum of industries, the sentiment is that banks behaved in a somewhat knee-jerk fashion, suddenly starving long-gestation capital intensive projects from funding. This puts those businesses in a Catch-22 situation.” Both banks and corporates need to work closely to secure funding for these stalled projects; this will be the biggest catalyst for reviving growth, at least in India, she feels. “A very myopic, distressed-asset focused view from banks will not be able to untangle these complex webs.”

Banks need new ideas but their level of creativity is in catch-up mode right now, notes Advani who suggests that most innovations are actually coming from new non-bank market entrants (in Europe the PSD2 regulation has paved the way for many new payments service providers). Whilst the tightening of the regulatory environment means banks are constrained in being able to deliver more innovative and imaginative products she stops short of offering her sympathy but feels many have become so risk-averse that infrastructure projects requiring finance are not being supported. “They have to find a balance between turning on the tap and being conservative.”

Don’t worry, be happy

Although at an earlier point in her career Advani did find aspects of the job that concerned her, she recalls the day when her CEO questioned the value of worrying and losing sleep. “That was the day I realised that there will always be issues and challenges and that we have to learn to deal with them.” It worked for her. “Nothing keeps me awake at night now,” she states. In fact, she sees challenge as a force for good, arguing that if there were no challenges there would be no creativity. “Risk remains an integral part of conducting any business; we need to be aware of it and work on our mitigation plans but at the same time be aware that we cannot be in control of each and every situation – the world is dynamic and we have to play along.”

This forms part of her advice for anyone plotting a career trajectory that takes a path through the world of corporate finance. That journey, insists Advani, must be underpinned by self-belief and by a sense of ownership of what you do. In achieving this state of mind, she believes the individual will never feel “that they are just doing a job”.

Of course, for someone with a balanced approach to her career, Advani places a strong emphasis on what she calls “me time”. She loves to paint and write poetry and is a self-proclaimed “fitness freak”. If the world of finance had not been offered up as challenge at the start of her career, perchance, inspired by her love of colour and artistic design, she feels she might have achieved great things as a textile designer. Even today she makes time for her local community of artisans and weavers, attending exhibitions around Delhi and curating her unique collection of fabrics. But just maybe, with the inspiration, curiosity and imagination she brings to bear on her work as CFO, Advani is already weaving her skills as an artist into a calling that is perhaps not so different after all.

Women in Treasury Asia Forum

Thursday 14th April 2016
The South Beach, Singapore

We are delighted that Pratibha Advani is one of our four industry panellists at our Women in Treasury Asia Forum in Singapore. To find out more about participating in this key industry event, please contact Lisa Bigley, Global Head of Events

All our content is free, just register below

As we move to a new and improved digital platform all users need to create a new account. This is very simple and should only take a moment.

Already have an account? Sign In

Already a member? Sign In

This website uses cookies and asks for your personal data to enhance your browsing experience. We are committed to protecting your privacy and ensuring your data is handled in compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).