Be involved with change says Johanna Platt CPA, the CFO of Vanguard Investments

Johanna Platt CPA, CFO Vanguard Investments Australia.

As CFO of Vanguard Investments Australia, Johanna Platt CPA is pursuing her love of numbers and problem-solving.

Fact file

Joined: July 2017
Based: Melbourne, Australia
Qualifications: CPA; MBA, University of Melbourne; Bachelor of Engineering Honours, Chemical, University of Sydney
Formerly: CFO, Iron Mountain Australia and New Zealand; financial planning and financial controller roles, Kraft Foods and Cadbury Schweppes; commercial roles, Mayne Nickless and FedEx
Finance team: 180
Assets under management: A$130 billion

The role: "set the right tone"

In this role, I lead the finance team for Vanguard Australia. Our business is focused on two key areas: sales and distribution of local managed funds and exchange-traded funds, and the investment management hub, which spans our offices in Melbourne, London, and Malvern, Pennsylvania. 

I get a buzz from communicating with our Melbourne investment operations crew, because on a day-to-day basis they are dealing with investment activities throughout Asia. We have a follow-the-sun model, which means our team hands over their activities to the United Kingdom crew for the start of their day, and, in the morning, we’re working with the US crew as they’re finishing their day. We have the opportunity to work with colleagues all over the world every day, which is exciting. 

I love analysis, problem-solving and conceptual thinking. Originally, I was an engineer and this discipline provides a great foundation for process flows and modelling. I was fortunate early in my career to be given some entry-level business analysis roles in which I could apply those analytical skills while starting to learn about aspects of accounting. Over time, I built a commercial and analytical risk career and studied [for] my MBA and later my CPA, to round out my accounting qualifications and move into broader CFO roles. 

I’ve been with Vanguard for [just over] one year, so I’m still learning about the industry. Winding the clock forward, though, Vanguard has a great tradition of providing a rotational culture for careers, so we have many examples of leaders and crew moving between functions. Looking ahead and seeing the potential for a diverse and long-term career within the same company is rare, and it’s a great benefit of working at Vanguard. 

Heading the finance function is a tremendous privilege. I take seriously the responsibilities I have around setting the right tone, around culture stewardship and commercial support – and I’m always reflecting on how to balance all those different aspects. 

Game changers: "breadth of experience"

In the final year of my engineering degree, we had to do work experience and I got a role with an LPG distribution company. I remember thinking that I’d be walking around in a hard hat inspecting gas tanks. As it turned out, I had to analyse their national shipping and distribution operations and the work really awakened my interest in business analysis. That set the path for me – it was the moment that showed me how I could apply my engineering knowledge to financial analysis and accounting. 

The other career-changing experience came later in my career at information management company Iron Mountain, where I had my first experience of being a CFO leading the business on the ground, with remote leadership from corporate headquarters. 

I had a terrific leader based in London who would pick up the phone and call me with a new challenge every three months – whether it was to handle an M&A transaction in India or China, or to restructure part of the business. Being given that breadth of experience and trust from a highly respected leader built out my experience and judgement. 

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Challenge: "the learning curve"

Learning a new industry while taking on a leadership role is currently my big test. I see this as a positive challenge and Vanguard deserves credit for its culture of looking at people’s capabilities from a leadership perspective and then believing those skills can be transferred and applied into other parts of its business. 

There’s a great depth of leaders in the business who’ve been supportive and taken the time to orientate me, which is a terrific example of how transferable finance skills are across industries. Now, the only challenge is learning the new language of acronyms in this industry! 

More broadly, financial services are going through lots of change and that presents a test to us all. However, Vanguard’s mutual structure makes us unique and we have a clear mission that aligns our investors and our owners. 

We have a philosophy of doing the best for the investor – and that’s something we regularly discuss and monitor closely. 

It’s all about building scale to provide low costs, so investors keep more of the returns. 

Lessons learned and best advice

Be involved in change
Every organisation faces some form of change agenda to ensure they're competitive and sustainable. I recommend that finance professionals get involved in change programs – it's a tremendous learning opportunity and you can see the intersection where planning and execution meet, and where order and chaos meet.

Have a high-performance mindset
We all want to deliver perfect outcomes, especially in finance where attention to detail is important. While that's admirable, it can put pressure on people and stop them from getting started or cause them to procrastinate. I like the idea of high-performance mindset where we experiment, learn, innovate and iterate ideas, and involve others as we form solutions. It's a kinder way to build your career and learn.

Embrace team collaboration
Finance is made up of technical areas of specialisation and is often deliberately segregated. That means we can form technical knowledge silos. Finance professionals who can understand the broader picture in terms of process, systems, outcomes and controls are often very effective.

Listen to the podcast: Future financial performance management. Recorded in front of a live audience at CPA Congress.

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September 2018
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