Julien Veyrac of Saint-Gobain on Cross-Cultural Finance Leadership
Julien Veyrac is the Global Controller for Saint Gobain’s Adfors group. Before moving back to his hometown of Paris in 2018, Julien spent 17 years of his finance career in the U.S., working for both French and American companies — from manufacturing & media giants, to boutique food & beverage brands. We caught up with him to hear his insights on how the finance function changes based on geography, industry, and size of your organization. And of course, some ways that modern finance leaders can future-proof their skills and their teams.
You’ve worked for some huge corporations like Saint-Gobain and Thomson Reuters, and you’ve also led finance teams at small companies in the food & beverage space. What are the main differences, and what was the adjustment like going from big to small?
There’s definitely an adjustment going from Fortune 500 to smaller companies. At large corps, there’s a specialist for everything — a tax department, internal control department, a treasury…
When you arrive in a small company as finance director, you are all of those departments at once. Therefore, you need to quickly find tools that allow you to be productive, so you can really manage your time and not drop any of those balls.
I think every finance director should work for a small company, in order to get perspective on the different facets of the finance department, and to find ways to be lean in terms of productivity.
Another advantage of smaller firms is they often have better tools because productivity is a must. Versus at large corporations where productivity is a “nice to have”, not a must-have.
Plus, adoption of new tools in large corporations is also more difficult, as you have to go through more red tape.
You’ve worked in a variety of industries — how does the finance role change depending on the product you’re working with?
When your product is a service (like Thomson Reuters), your focus is more on the top line because margins are so much bigger, whereas in manufacturing where your attention is not only on revenue but manufacturing costs. There, points of margin are hard to obtain, so cost management is even more critical.
In food & beverage, the big difference is how to manage new product launches. To stay relevant in that sector, the pipeline always have to be filled with exciting products to present. It can open new doors with distributors, so new product is key. For finance teams, that means forecasting revenue of new products, and managing the promotional budget with different retailers.
There’s also the aspect of working with players like Amazon. They can represent a huge part of your revenue, but if not well-managed these vendors can actually be quite costly for a company. For instance, the way they process chargebacks to the seller, requires a ton of admin work and can be a headache for the finance team.
After spending 17 years in the U.S., did that American finance experience transfer seamlessly to France, or were there new learning curves to scale?
Living abroad taught me that there’s no one right way to do things, you have to respect that people work differently. And as long as we’re all rowing in the same direction, we’re good.
In terms of the finance role, the major difference between France and the U.S. is the IFRS accounting standard here, and the GAAP standard in the U.S.. While those two systems are now converging, there’s still some differences to adjust to.
Also, the tax and social laws are very different and specific to the country where you’re doing business. As a CFO you really need to stay on top of them, at least on a general level, to understand their key tenets.
Let’s talk about your current role as Global Controller at Saint-Gobain Adfors. What does your finance team look like and how has it evolved over time?
Currently, we are 4 people based in Paris; with 1 finance manager in each manufacturing sites globally (12 total), with a dotted line to the finance function of our group.
The finance support function has evolved greatly as we are now much more “business partners” than accountants. For example, my team is composed of people with backgrounds other than finance — marketing, supply chain, or audit.
These days, it’s actually better to have generalists who can be problem-solvers and think big picture, rather than having specialists who are narrowly focused on certain tasks.
What are your favorite finance tools at work? What are THE tools all CFO’s should have?
For me, Bill.com is one of the best AP management tools. We used this at smaller companies I worked for, and I wish we used it at Saint Gobain. Even the in-house built tools can’t beat the agility of these off-the-shelf SaaS tools.
According to you, what are the skills of a modern CFO?
I think the days of the stern finance director are over. While the CFO still maintains fiduciary rule over the company, having soft skills is just as critical. You need to be able to keep talent on your team, to work across the organization with people from different backgrounds, and to learn their motives as a way to inspire people to the right action.
Problem Solving is a crucial skill; finance has become so process-oriented, and you have to be able to adapt quickly to make things fit into the process, or find creative solutions.
Lastly, having the business partner mindset; meaning you need to be willing to work cross-functionally to reach the greater business goals. It’s not about staying in your finance bubble.
What are the biggest trends shaping the future of finance?
Digitalization is the #1 trend, and cloud-based everything. Having strong data management and BI tools is key, so information is accessible anytime, anywhere, and presented in a way that gives quick, insightful info to the finance team.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a finance leader and what did you learn from it?
Definitely working at smaller companies, learning the culture of cash. Working with limited resources (bank loans), you sometimes have to fund both the working capital (inventory) and the operations (payroll).
I learned the importance of having great financing partners, and a revolving line of credit. And to very strictly manage the working capital by holding vendors and clients accountable. A well-managed AR team becomes key.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a finance leader?
One conversation can save you 20 emails. Go talk to people! It’s a great way to build rapport as well.
Why did you join the CFO Connect community?
To discuss with fellow finance leaders the latest trends, and hear how they’re working through challenges. All while building a network in a city like Paris where there’s so much innovation and growth happening — it’s really exciting to meet finance peers from startups to multinationals, and find common ground.
What’s valuable about CFO Connect?
I really like the mix of the people component & the tools component. And I love that it’s global! You can see what topics CFOs are working through around the world.
CFO Connect is global community of finance leaders. We host regular meetups in London, Paris, Berlin and other cities across Europe. Join us!