Meet the CFO of TBWA: Ralph Khoury FCPA

Omnicom Media Group and TBWA\RAAD CFO Ralph Khoury FCPA: "There are no shortcuts."

CFO Ralph Khoury FCPA is based in Dubai, where he runs the ruler over the numbers and strategies for the Middle East media and advertising operations of Omnicom Media Group and TBWA\RAAD.

Fact file

Joined Omnicom Inc in August 2008 as the CFO of TBWA\RAAD Middle East, which was later expanded to the role of CFO of Omnicom Media Group for the Middle East and North Africa.
Formerly the worldwide CFO of a division of Alcatel-Lucent in Paris; prior to that held CFO and board positions for Alcatel joint ventures in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Current team: 100.

My role: reviews and relationships

I provide financial and operational leadership, whether it is navigating business risks, or offering strategic input and financial advice to senior executives. The Middle East market remains turbulent, but it has significant potential and the importance of Dubai, and its role as an economic hub for the region, puts the onus on CFOs to get it right.

Whether it is reviewing and deciding on the company’s latest financial outlook, determining the right pricing approach for an important new business pitch, or determining the right client collections strategy, the role requires a wide range of finance leadership skills. 

Patience is also important here because business deals happen at their own pace. Therefore, one of the keys to being effective is to build the right relationships with client CFOs in order to get things done.

On the professional development front, as chair of CPA Australia’s United Arab Emirates members’ branch, which hosts networking and educational events, I get to interact with other finance leaders in the region. We bring in speakers to discuss a range of topics, from VAT (value added tax) to bitcoin, and in that way we provide opportunities for professional development in the region.

Game changers: global view

Two decisions have helped shape my career. First, in 1989 I decided to enrol part-time to do my bachelor of economics at Macquarie University in Sydney, while simultaneously starting work as a trainee accountant. This gave me an amazing foundation for my career, shaping my work ethic and giving me “real” work experience in foundation finance roles such as payables, receivables, treasury and payroll. Exposure to these basic roles has allowed me to share finance function advice and experiences with staff performing these core functions in my team today.

Second, I have been willing to fast-track my career through international mobility. In 1997, I led an accounting system implementation for an Alcatel subsidiary in Indonesia. Two years later, I took on the role of CFO for that subsidiary, making me, at the age of 27, the youngest CFO in the Alcatel group. This catapulted my career forward, leading to stints in Malaysia, Paris and, more recently, Dubai. Such experience across different markets and continents has been invaluable, personally and professionally.

CFO challenge: crisis management

CFOs must be armed with the basic business principles that allow us to respond to volatile markets and, in some cases, once-in-alifetime events.

When I first arrived in Indonesia in the late 1990s in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis, my company, Alcatel, had huge, unsecured financial exposure to a range of clients. My role was to manage that exposure by restructuring terms with those clients, managing costs and preparing the market for growth. Within three years the business went on to secure triple-digit growth and strong profitability.

I moved to Malaysia in 2003, where I was the managing director and CFO of Alcatel operations at a time when business restructuring became even more important due to the outbreak that year of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), a viral respiratory illness that hit Asia and its economies hard.

In 2006, I moved to the headquarters of Alcatel-Lucent in Paris at a time when the telecommunications industry was commoditising due to strong competition from Chinese telecom manufacturers. My focus was to help shift production and software development from Europe to Asia. Securing that cost advantage was the only way to compete. Then, in 2008, I joined TBWA\RAAD Middle East just before the global financial crisis hit.

As a CFO, my aim is to limit the impact of such events, be it through revising our business model, managing client credit risk on our balance sheet, or providing financial rigour around investment decisions. In each case, building sound business strategies using key financial inputs and basic business principles was the key – just as it has been during my entire career.

Lessons learned and best advice

Align yourself with a mentor or mentors
“I had mentors at a very early age and I have adopted many of their principles. One close personal mentor of mine passed away last year and my last message to him was ‘you made a real impact on my life, my principles and values, and I can never forget that’.”

Take on professional challenges
“If someone comes to you with a challenge, don’t reject it unless you are 100 per cent sure it is not for you.”

Be honest
“Eleven years ago, when I was interviewed by executives for the CFO role at TBWA\RAAD, I was quizzed about what I knew about advertising. I responded honestly. I said: ‘Nothing.’ It was the reality. I knew nothing about advertising, but I knew that my application of sound finance leadership principles and rigorous business fundamentals would be sufficient strengths to overcome any absence of industry knowledge.”

Appreciate that nothing replaces hard work
“There are no short cuts. I often tell my children about how I worked part-time at Cut-Price Deli between leaving school and starting university. Then, I worked as a trainee accountant while completing my economics degree at night. It gave me a real head start.”

Read next: Loretta Seamer FCPA, CFO of Sidra Medicine, combines a passion for healthcare and finance

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June 2019
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