We all know the traditional C-suite route for finance professionals: the education, the professional certifications, the standard roles (e.g. a stint with one of the Big Four, followed by controller experience, with maybe a dash of treasury).
But that straight climb up the career ladder isn’t for everyone.
It certainly wasn’t for Paritosh Gupta, CFO of Toronto-based integrated home health care provider Felix Health. In a recent interview with Float CEO Rob Khazzam on the Retained Learnings podcast, Gupta shared the unconventional CFO path he’s taken and the important lessons he’s learned as a finance leader.
Lessons from Lehman Brothers
Unlike most CFOs in Canada today, Gupta doesn’t hold a CPA designation. In fact, he’d never even aspired to a finance position, much less that of CFO. “I didn’t want to get into finance at all,” he said. “I come from a family that runs steel manufacturing factories, so I’ve always loved physical operations.”
But a finance internship from his B-school changed all that. “I was fascinated by how you could transform money into more money. So when I got an offer from Lehman Brothers, I decided to take it even though finance had been pretty much not what I’d wanted at all.”
Gupta was only 25 when he started working as a senior analyst at Lehman Brothers in 2007. It was a tense time at the investment bank, with senior team members checking Lehman stock prices on Bloomberg every night—and a surreal experience for Gupta when the company finally went under the following year. “No one expected it,” he said. “The talk was, Bank of America would step in. So when I got to the office that morning, everyone was shell shocked.”
Despite the downsides of that experience, Gupta learned an invaluable lesson. “I used to keep Excel spreadsheets tracking my net worth over a period of years,” he said. “I still love doing this. But back then, I thought of the process as a linear thing. So, you know, I could say, this is how much I’ll make each year, how much I’ll save, how much I’ll invest. But that year, it didn’t pan out that way. And I realized, life is way more non-linear than my Excel sheet.”
From doing deals to CFO
After Lehman Brothers, Gupta and a few friends founded a startup in the tech space. When that didn’t work out, he found himself in a VP role at Masan Group, buying and building businesses in Vietnam. “I went there against the advice of literally every person I spoke with,” he said. “But it ended up transforming my life.”
Looking back, it transformed my career. But at the time, I just did not want to be CFO.Paritosh Gupta
He helped the company acquire the Nui Phao mine, and began working with the team tasked with building it. Two years later, the CEO of Masan Group approached him about taking on the mining company’s CFO role. “So suddenly, I’ve gone from being someone doing deals and monitoring, to being the CFO helping to build this mining company from the ground up.”
But being CFO wasn’t really what Gupta wanted. “I was very resistant to taking on the role,” he told Khazzam. “Looking back, it transformed my career. But at the time, I just did not want to be CFO.”
Part of the reason for his resistance? “I thought it was a role for accountants,” he explained. “So the biggest surprise for me was the realization that, while you do need a grounding in finance and accounting fundamentals, ultimately the role itself is a forward looking role.”
As a CFO, you’re not only guiding and making sense of what’s happening, you’re also looking forward to where the business needs to be, and then charting the path to get there. “That’s what really drew me in,” Gupta noted. “Being CFO wasn’t at all what I thought it would be.”
The startup CFO
Another aspect of this CFO role appealed to Gupta: “I had to get into the weeds, get dirt under my fingernails. Handling all the mess that comes with building a business up from scratch. And I absolutely loved it.”
This theme of being a builder is one that runs through the course of Gupta’s CFO career. The bottom line? Building is something Gupta loves, whether it’s building teams, functions, or products. “At a startup, things break all the time, there are always fires to put out, and no one else to handle it but you,” he said. “But it’s all worth it in the end, when you can look back and see the transformation, see what you’ve achieved as a team.”
Working with startups brings unique challenges, however. For example, as a company’s first CFO, you’re frequently working with a rudimentary finance and accounting team. Such teams often have the heart, but not necessarily the experience.
At one startup he joined as the company’s first CFO, Gupta was told a Big Four audit was part of the mandate. But it soon became clear the books were a mess: so much of a mess, the only place they could find the supporting documents they needed for hundreds of thousands of line items was in the email inbox of one of the accounting executives.
“So there I was, working with a very young, inexperienced team, trying to get through our first audit,” he said. “I don’t remember a single work day during that time where we left the office before midnight. But in the end, we got it done.”
Strong bonds and faith in your team
There are two reasons why this particular experience has stayed with Gupta through the years. “When you’re working through this kind of situation with your team, you build bonds that can’t be built during the good times,” he said. “You build strong bonds.” To this day, he’s close to the people on that team, and they still talk about what they went through to build that startup’s finance department so many years ago.
I realized I had to change my mindset and try to understand the upside more. So as a tech CFO, I became much more open to experimentationParitosh Gupta
And then there’s the faith he put in his young team. “I realized I’d come up the same way,” he pointed out. “I didn’t have a clue how to be a CFO, but I became the CFO for a billionaire’s company at the age of 28, because my CEO put his faith in me and backed me. So I got to learn on the job. And sure, I made mistakes, but I learned, and I executed. I executed well. And I realized I’d done the same with my team. I put my faith in them. I backed them. And they delivered.”
From mining to tech
One key aspect of Gupta’s CFO career has been his shift from mining to tech. “Mining is a business where your upside is pretty much capped, because there’s only so much you can dig out of the ground,” he explained. “So the focus there is on the downside, so things don’t go bust.”
As a result, he came into the tech industry with a very risk averse CFO mindset. “I had to shift that mindset toward understanding what happens if things do go right. How to see the upside and balance that against the downside risks.”
He illustrated this with a story from his days at Zoomcar, India’s version of Zipcar. At the time, the company charged customers a deposit for the short-term rentals of its cars, to cover any potential damages. The product team pushed to remove this deposit in order to boost demand and eliminate friction on the front end.
“I was absolutely opposed to the idea,” Gupta said. “I said, it’s a really, really bad idea and we’re going to lose a lot of money on it. But the initiative got implemented anyway. And when we looked at the data a few weeks later, customers were still returning cars in good condition and paying for any damages.” While some customers didn’t pay up, those losses were more than covered by the increased revenue the company saw from additional bookings.
“That was a critical point for me,” he said. “I realized I had to change my mindset and try to understand the upside more. And I also realized that these were initiatives that were reversible. We could always shut them down if our losses went up. So as a tech CFO, I became much more open to experimentation.”
The benefit of c-suite experience
While at Zoomcar, Gupta transitioned from CFO to COO. During that time, he found the analytical grounding and financial understanding he had as a CFO helped him focus on the right things to prioritize as COO. “I could tell the team, if we focus on this, this could be the impact.”
My COO experiences made me a more well-rounded professional by giving me a better perspective on the other pieces of business, like product, marketing, and the customerParitosh Gupta
Since then, he’s come full circle back to a CFO role at Felix Health. “My COO experiences made me a more well-rounded professional by giving me a better perspective on the other pieces of business, like product, marketing, and the customer,” he said. “So now when I have my CFO hat on, I have a better appreciation of the on-ground impact of cost cuts, for example.”
The ultimate outcome of his experiences across these two C-suite roles? “Being a CFO made me a better COO, and being a COO made me a much better CFO.”
Advice for those with CFO dreams
For finance professionals looking to one day step into a CFO role, Gupta advised, “A CFO is a business leadership role. So build a well-rounded view of the business you’re in, and learn how to communicate it to others. Spend as much time on the ground as you can, so you really understand the pulse of the business.”
As he pointed out, it’s a given that as a finance professional, you already have the right grounding in finance and accounting fundamentals. What you need to develop is the ability to explain what your business does, and a real appreciation for how it runs. And the best way to do this? Step out of your comfort zone and get involved in other aspects of the business.