LIKE A FISH TO WATER
In her private life, Cyndi Pei, 40, is a fun-loving mother of a four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter. As a family, they enjoy beach outings and even karaoke sessions together. “I am quite relaxed outside of work,” she says with a chuckle. But even in her down time, Ms Pei is always ready to spring into a methodical, unwavering problem-solving mode. “If it is something important, such as trying to understand why my daughter is unhappy in school, or an occasion that I can use to help my kids learn the right values, I will persevere and get right to the bottom of things,” she admits.
Such is the approach Ms Pei takes in her career. Thus, even as Group Financial Controller and Senior Vice President for Group Finance at Yeo Hiap Seng, she does not shy away from going down the ranks to talk to people of all levels. “I take an interest in the business. I ask a lot of questions and go right down to the deepest levels to understand something,” shares Ms Pei. “If you go through the finance route alone, you will only know a fraction of what they know, and if you ask somebody too senior, you might not get to the bottom of the problem. So I will go right down to the different levels – but where possible, I always hand the issue back to the departments in charge. It is not about finding fault, but about giving constructive advice.” Going beyond the big picture, she gains a comprehensive understanding of the nitty-gritty details behind the many cogs of the wheel in the giant corporation.
In August this year, Yeo Hiap Seng saw earnings swell in the second quarter, with a 5.6% increase in revenue to S$92.1 million. This is in spite of the many pressures faced by the regional food and beverage (F&B) industry, from weak consumption outlook in the company’s key markets to maintaining competitive selling prices amid foreign currency fluctuations and rising raw material prices.
Her job is undoubtedly a huge undertaking, especially considering that it is only the second in her 19-year career. But Ms Pei dived right into her role and is doing swimmingly well – both for herself and her company.
A HEAD FOR NUMBERS… AND MORE
Daughter of a businessman, Ms Pei always had a passion for numbers. “I was good in maths but accounting, to me, was even more fun and I found the concepts easy to grasp,” shares Ms Pei. “I really like how the numbers can report values and tell stories.” So when choosing her subjects as a junior college student, she picked economics and accounting. She furthered her studies in accountancy at Nanyang Technological University, during which she did an internship with PwC Singapore. Subsequently, she received an invitation to join the company upon graduation and began her 14-year journey with the company. “In my time with PwC, I had the opportunity to experience many areas. As a young manager, I was exposed to business development, account driving, and took care of key accounts for the firm.That gave me an early appreciation of the different challenges a business can face,” recalls Ms Pei. She provided audit and advisory services to clients in industries spanning technology, media and telecommunications; real estate; consumer goods; entertainment; automobile and F&B.
Her job went way beyond analysing data. “At the same time, I was responsible for connecting teams across countries to share and deepen knowledge and replicate success stories,” she elaborates. “I also had the chance to manage an audit unit with more than 200 professionals, and was simultaneously involved with the firm’s talent development and management initiatives.”
The high-flying all-rounder was actually serving Yeo Hiap Seng – and its parent company Far East Organisation – for seven years while in PwC. In 2014, she was invited by the then-Group CEO of Yeo Hiap Seng to join the company. Ms Pei now takes care of the organisation’s entire suite of finance functions, and is supported by over 90 people working out of seven countries. Extending out of the traditional finance spectrum, she is also responsible for Enterprise Risk Management, Sustainability and Real Estate.
What gets her excited when she gets up every morning? “It is about what I set out to achieve during the day,” she answers, simply. “Of course I have long-term goals, but short-term ones – which can be something as simple as coming to a business decision on a certain matter – are what get me going.” As a team leader, Ms Pei shares that looking after the many people whom her work impacts is also important to her. “I am now accountable for so many people working with me, all working hard to generate the data and value to business. Thus, I ask myself. ‘What can I do for them?’ This has become a driving force as well.”
With her positive, energetic disposition, Ms Pei makes her work seem like a walk in the park. Yet in reality, there are hurdles aplenty to cross. “There are various challenges within the F&B industry, which are applicable to almost all other industries, such as maintaining profitability while prices remain competitive and margins are tame,” she says. Referring to Yeo Hiap Seng, she continues, “Now, the company is going into more than 20 countries and each has to be approached in a different mode. In the early stages of growth, our team will have to advise on the various risks spanning tax risk and currency volatility; an operating arrangement with our customers to mitigate the risks is then designed.”
Yet, there can be surprises even with the most detailed homework done. “At times, tax regulations change overnight, and I will have to quickly understand what is the extent or impact of these changes and analyse the different scenarios available to the business. Many things are not within your control,” shares Ms Pei. “If you want to worry about things that you cannot control, you will not be able to sleep at night. My mentality is to prepare for any risk I know in the horizon, and don’t stress about what I cannot prepare for,” she says calmly.
LEARNING, SHARING, IMPROVING
In the course of the interview, Ms Pei shares a few examples of how technological innovations have been adopted by Yeo Hiap Seng to improve business processes. These range from building one of the most advanced canning factories in Asia – which won the organisation the Singapore Productivity Award by the Singapore Business Federation in 2015 – to a material requisition planning system that offers a straight-through and full view that reduces wastage and inefficiency.
While technology can be disruptive, she sees it as offering potential tools that can be harnessed. “There will always be challenges. But when taken positively, every challenge is a chance to make positive changes,” opines Ms Pei. In relation to the field of accountancy, she feels that technology might take over the role of data collection and simple processing. But rather than thinking of it as a threat for the robot to replace the human, she sees it as a chance for accountancy professionals to elevate their skill sets and develop a sophistication that is irreplaceable. Indeed, the value she brings as a trusted business advisor comes not just through her analysis and interpretation of data but also her insights into the business. “The CFO should be very strong in his/her fundamentals, as well as possess a deep knowledge of the business. This will allow you to know how value can be created or lost in every decision,” shares Ms Pei. “The CFO has to build trusted relationships with all the stakeholders in order to challenge decisions, ask difficult questions, and ultimately achieve the best outcomes.”
This constant pursuit of betterment is core to her professional development. “My boss always asks, ‘Can it be only done like this? Is this the only solution?’ This makes me think beyond my decisions and outside of the box.” Her limits stretched by her boss’s push for her to think differently, she now incorporates this self-challenging mechanism to better herself and her team. “It pushes us to the next level,” says Ms Pei, who also professes to enjoying training talents and helping them grow.
From being part of the Young Finance Leaders Network, where she can network and share best practices with her peers, to communicating her valuable experiences with young professionals at the ISCA Career Pathway Talk sessions, Ms Pei’s ISCA membership has provided her with the ideal platforms to develop talents. “Many people have made a mark through the different stages of my career,” says Ms Pei of those whom she has learnt from. “For example, in my early audit days, I had a coach who taught me that I have to get things right at the first attempt, and to always deliver quality. To this day, it is a principle that I teach my team to embrace – do your job well, and take pride in what you do.”