Karen Cheng CPA delivers real change at Starbucks Singapore

Karen Cheng CPA, finance director of Starbucks in Singapore. Photo: Rebecca Toh.

Karen Cheng CPA, finance director of Starbucks in Singapore, is passionate about using her finance skills to deliver change, particularly on sustainability outcomes expected by the brand's customers.

At a glance

  • Joined Starbucks almost 15 years ago, and took on the role of finance director in March 2015.
  • Has deep experience in the retail food and beverage industry, beginning with Yum! Brands in 1999.
  • Completed a bachelor of commerce at the University of Western Australia.
  • Finance team: 15.

My role: delivering change

I love numbers and finance, but what I find really satisfying is the ability my role gives me to deliver real change through our annual operating plan and longer-term strategic plans.

I work with cross-functional teams, and sitting down with the operations and marketing teams and the CEO gives me a really intimate perspective on the numbers and the growth drivers in the business.

I don’t get that perspective second or third hand; I am there every day and see what is going on through that contact with other teams – and from my own team, which spans finance, accounting, treasury and loss prevention.

We have grown a lot during my time in the business.

When I started, we had 32 stores in Singapore, and now we have 150 stores. A lot of what I do is around managing that growth, finding process improvements through scale, and investing in technology at our support centre in Singapore.

I also regularly help out in the business and work alongside our baristas in the stores, and of course I enjoy being a Starbucks customer when I buy my coffee.

This gives me a great understanding of what our customers want, and I have the privilege of taking that knowledge, building it into our strategic plans and making sure the changes we need to enact are all factored in and funded.

Game changers: on a mission

I know people in finance roles change jobs quite often, so it’s rare for me to have been in the same role for such a long time.

What has kept me here is a realisation I had a few months into my time at Starbucks – where I saw that its community-oriented culture was real, and that it was serious about driving the right outcomes for its people and customers.

At Starbucks, we are constantly challenging ourselves to stay true to our mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time – while growing the business.

I realised Starbucks was an organisation that would enable me to drive some of my personal objectives around being part of the change for more social responsibility, and I think that is why I stayed and why I am still here.

My challenges: consumers are changing

Online shopping is changing consumer behaviour, and this is impacting us through a decline in shopping mall traffic.

To respond, we need to be innovative in refreshing our brand and introducing new products, such as our mobile app and its recently launched Mobile Order & Pay feature, which allows customers to order their favourite drink, beat the queue and pick up their order at the store with ease.

We need to deeply understand our customers’ needs and evolving preferences, so we can change with them and meet them where they’re at.

In my role, the challenge is to be in total command of the numbers while understanding how that relates to what is happening in the store, and how finance can add value to the innovation and changes we need to make.

Our customers have increased their expectations of what they want from us. It is important for them to engage with brands that do the right thing.

Our challenge is to meet those expectations and make sure they are properly resourced. That is where I come in with my team to make sure we have the budget to support change.

As a leader, the challenge for me is to reconcile our organisational commitment to social responsibility with the hard numbers that come with being finance director.

Due to regulations introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic, Starbucks Singapore stores were closed on 6 April, but can still operate for takeaway services and delivery.

Starbucks is considered an essential service as a food and beverage provider.

CPA Library resource: The traits of today’s CFO: a handbook for excelling in an evolving role. Read now.

Lessons learned and best advice

1. Walk in the shoes of customers and partner - employees.
A finance leader needs to understand what internal and external stakeholders are saying and what they expect. This is a fundamental part of responding to evolving customer changes and ensuring the organisation is effectively aligned.

2. Link the organisation to its objectives.
Partners have goals and there are broader company-wide objectives, and these need to be linked. This requires clarity with all planning and how that cascades down to 150 stores, plus at the support centre level.

3. Keep it simple.
Everyone should be incentivised to be in alignment with the same financial goals. Keep it simple in meetings and in bigger gatherings. Finance is also about communicating goals that everyone can strive towards.

4. Run the analysis.
This should happen at all levels. Finance needs to create insights that can deliver opportunities, and to do that, ongoing analysis is critical. We need to do that if we are to earn our right to sit at the table when it comes to making strategic decisions about the business.

December/January 2022
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