Why finance is more than numbers

Charles Yang FCPA, CFO  Bausch & Lomb China. Photo by: Jasper James

Taking a deep dive into the numbers is a not-so-secret passion for Bausch & Lomb's Charles Yang FCPA, and he finds real joy in sharing the stories that those numbers tell.

By Rachael McKinney

Fact File

Joined: Bausch & Lomb China in October 2010
Based: Shanghai, China
Qualifications: FCPA; MBA, Fudan University, China; Bachelor of International Economy, Fudan University, China
Formerly: Finance director Greater China, APV; finance controller, TNT Express Worldwide China; finance strategy manager, Yum! Brands (China); CFO, KPMG Consulting (China); finance controller, Henkel Surface Technologies; senior auditor, PwC
Bausch & Lomb China: is a subsidiary of Bausch & Lomb Inc., one of the world’s largest suppliers of eye-health products
Finance team: 35 staff
Annual sales: about US$300 million

1. Role: "Communication is the most important part"

I oversee all the normal finance functions including accounting, treasury and tax, management reporting, strategic planning, forecasting as well as due diligence for mergers and acquisitions. I’m a board member for all the business units of Bausch & Lomb in China, and I look after the joint ventures (JVs) with local partners.

Bausch & Lomb China has several JVs with state-owned companies and we are primarily responsible for the management of those JVs. The relationships bring challenges since Bausch & Lomb has a more international culture than the local state-owned partners. A decade of business growth has made those challenges easier to manage.

At the heart of my role is communication. Much of my day is spent responding to emails and being briefed by business partners. I can be involved in discussions about credit control one day and pricing adjustments the next, plus any follow-up on projects I’m managing directly. 

I often schedule a working lunch with my team to touch base on projects, check progress, and help deal with any issues. I end each day with a quick call to the controllers at the different sites to give a head office update, and get a site update. It’s the best way to discuss issues and share good practice on resolving them. 

2. Challenge: "Integrity, even under pressure"

My first role after graduating was with PwC. After two years I was promoted to senior audit and given the leadership of a small team. My manager had a reputation for being ruthlessly efficient, never missing a deadline and being strict with staff; many of us felt he was a bit harsh. 

During peak season, we were assigned to an urgent project to review the historical records of a client. We were given five days to finish, but on site it soon became clear it wasn’t going to be enough. The records were messy and many key documents were missing or misfiled.  

Despite working a couple of 14-hour days, we were still only a fraction of the way through. The team was starting to get distressed about the likely reaction of our manager, as well as the impact on year-end performance reviews.

Professional Development: Thinking like a CFO: Making financial decisions – learn how a CFO perspective is applied to many of the activities and financial decisions you make on a daily basis.

In desperation, the team started discussing whether they could omit some steps to save time, and just sign off the work on paper. I was already stressed because I knew my manager hated staff talking about job difficulties, but uppermost in my mind was that as CPAs we were expected to be honest, trustworthy and have integrity.

That night I couldn’t sleep and at midnight I emailed my manager telling him the truth. I admitted our difficulties, told him the project was a higher risk than we had first assessed, and recommended a new audit procedure.

To my surprise, I received a call from him the next morning thanking me for letting him know. He agreed with my assessment and promised to find more resources and to communicate with the client. It was the first time in my career I had said “No, we can’t do that”, but it taught me that even when you’re under pressure, you should tell the truth.

3. Game-changer: "Now you're a businessman"

When I took the role of finance strategy manager with Yum! restaurants [which include KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell], it opened a world beyond accounting. I was appointed to the margin improvement committee, and expected to come up with projects to improve profitability. I soon found myself working with restaurant managers, logistics and HR.

Like many fast-food chains, Yum! employed a lot of university students. As well as saving on employment costs, it was a way of influencing the next generation. The problem was the high staff turnover, since students tended to quit at exam time or to go travelling.

I discovered that high turnover meant our student recruitment policy was costing us more, not less, than permanent staff. I took my findings to marketing and HR, and they changed the recruitment mix, saving the company millions.

4. Passion: "Numbers tell a story"

I’m passionate about understanding the stories behind the numbers. On my first day at Henkel, my manager found me sitting at my desk analysing the financials. He sent me out into the business to talk to people, telling me that when I came back and looked at the financials, they would then mean something to me.

Now I want to know a business well enough to deep-dive into the numbers and dig out those stories. I tell my team their value is not in following the accounting rules; it’s translating the data into improvement opportunities for the business.

Lessons learned and best advice

Prioritise and focus 

Having time to get everything done means managing time and resources effectively. Understand your stakeholders’ expectations, then separate the must-haves from the nice-to-haves and prioritise. Don’t run more than three projects or initiatives at a time, otherwise you’ll lose focus.

Get the basics right 

Being an effective business partner should be the goal of every finance professional, but before you can talk about strategy you need to understand the fundamentals. Be patient, learn about the general ledger, internal controls, and how a business prepares its financial reports. Only when you really understand the numbers can you be a good business partner.

Embrace change

Always be ready to embrace change. Be willing to learn and be adaptive, whether it’s a new accounting policy, a different business model or changing technology. At the end of every day, I reflect on how open I’ve been to new experiences and to new ideas from my team.

Learn to communicate

Learn to communicate in the language of the people who count on you to make decisions. A lot of accountants are experts with debits and credits, but when you’re dealing with non-accountants, you need to use a language they understand.

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October 2021
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