Imran Nawaz is the incoming CFO at Tesco plc (Tesco) and is due to start his new role in late Spring 2021. We have known of Imran for several years and observed his career from a distance. His professional career started at Deloitte in New York, before moving to the corporate world with Philip Morris in Zurich. The consistency across his CV has been the international nature of his career, having joined Kraft Foods Group in Europe where he worked in London; his tenure with the food manufacturer saw him relocate to Vienna, Dubai and then to Zurich in largely commercial finance roles focussing on strategy and growth. He remained with the spun-off Mondelez International in Zurich again moving across several international locations before he landed at Tate & Lyle plc as Group CFO in London.
Following the recent announcement of his appointment as CFO to Tesco, we reached out to Imran to further understand his career trajectory with the view to seeing how this may help other emerging finance leaders, in conjunction with our ‘Route to CFO’ initiative and ‘Emerging Leaders Programme’.
Imran, firstly congratulations on securing the CFO role at Tesco, a great role and one I am sure will prove to be extremely rewarding. You started your career in finance with Deloitte. What advice would you give your younger self?
The role at Tesco is a great opportunity and I am really looking forward to it. I am committed to closing the financial year for Tate & Lyle so there is still some time to go and much to do here.
In terms of advice to my younger self I would tell myself not to be afraid of working on things outside of my comfort zone and to take more risks. It’s something I eventually started to do naturally, however with hindsight, I could have done that earlier.
Is there a role in your career which has been pivotal to your success?
One role which does stand out was quite early on in my career at Kraft Foods. We had completed the purchase of Cadbury and I was appointed the CFO for the combined European chocolate business. It was close to a $5 billion revenue business and was a clear crown jewel of what we had acquired – excellent people as well as massive brands and scale. There was a lot of pressure on us as a new combined team. We had a massive task ahead of us in terms of delivering both revenue and cost synergies, with a very strong eye on market share expansion. We had to make sure we were a fully engaged team so we invested significantly in the people agenda, getting everyone to feel part of the new purpose and vision. It was heavy lifting and certainly taught us the value of collaboration and engaging people behind a common purpose. It was extremely rewarding to be a part of a winning team.
What are some of the challenges you have faced?
The last 10 months with COVID-19 have of course been a huge challenge for all of us. At Tate & Lyle, we have been running our global business whilst working from home since mid-March 2020 with our focus being to emerge stronger at the other side of the pandemic. During this period, we executed two M&A transactions in Asia (one in China and one in Thailand), raised new debt at record low interest rates, delivered production efficiencies and overhead savings, grew our speciality business, protected our dividends and published robust financial results all whilst ensuring the team stayed safe and remained engaged behind our common purpose. My leadership team has thus far delivered on everything we set out to do during this challenging time and I am extremely proud of all my teams in Finance, IT and Corporate Development.
Answering your question more broadly, the biggest challenges in finance are when your values get tested by the situations you face. You may sometimes be asked to do things you don’t agree with. My view has always been you need to stand up for what you believe in, especially when you’re a leader in finance. It keeps things simple.
Who have your professional role models been?
My current boss – Nick Hampton is the CEO at Tate & Lyle. I admire how he sticks to his principles, does what he says and above all leads with integrity. His approach ensured the team continues to make strong strategic progress whilst being engaged behind the company’s purpose of Improving Lives for Generations during this difficult COVID period.
Another would be Brian Gladden, my CFO at Mondelez. He came into the organisation with a huge task at hand. He implemented zero-based budgeting and transformed the global finance operations. He displayed no fear in pushing through his vision of what a great finance organisation was. Despite lots of people being concerned about the scale of change and things potentially breaking, he persisted with a level of tenacity which resulted in making us a better finance organisation and a better Mondelez.
They are both very strong, credible leaders.
Have you had any career mentors, formally or informally?
Yes, more informally than formally. I have always had people around me to get a different perspective from. They have typically been more from the commercial side of the business. It’s always very useful to hear thoughts from outside your function, and to get a different perspective.
You have secured a FTSE 100 role at a relatively young age – was this a goal driving you or a result of you being focussed on the role at hand?
I certainly don’t feel young! I’m pretty driven, I enjoy raising the bar, and believe in always being inquisitive and creative, but at the risk of sounding like a cliché, my career path does feel a bit accidental i.e. you take roles outside your comfort zone, keep learning and developing your skillset, stick to your values and principles, do your best to deliver what you say you will, do right by the people around you and I found that your career takes care of itself.
Imran, a common theme in all of your answers has been the importance you place on authenticity and values. You say your career has, to some extent, been accidental, however to me it appears that your success has been partly due to your authenticity and importance you place on honesty and integrity.
Yes, I am a big believer that for anyone wanting to do well in finance it really is critical to never compromise on your principles. The finance function has evolved dramatically in the past five to ten years yet we will always (rightly) remain responsible for all matters relating to controls and compliance, and the overall safeguarding of the company’s assets. And that starts with possessing integrity as a finance professional. It is also true to say that strong finance leaders are those who are also critical players at the forefront of commercial activities i.e. they more than just challenge, they are forward, creative thinkers, and central in identifying and driving growth opportunities. They need to possess a very strong business understanding, provide and interpret relevant customer trends, possess the capability to leverage contemporary technologies and above all, demonstrate authentic leadership of their people.
What was most appealing about the role at Tesco?
Food is an industry I have spent more than 20 years in. I love working in food at Kraft Foods, Mondelez and now at Tate & Lyle, so there is a natural affinity to a company like Tesco. At Mondelez, Tesco was a key customer so it’s a company I have always admired given its strong heritage, market position and execution capabilities. A new CEO starting a new phase of the Tesco journey also was a strong appeal to me.
You are one of less than a handful of BAME FTSE 100 CFO leaders. There clearly is a real drive and focus on improving D&I in every aspect of corporate life currently, in particular in the boardroom. Do you have any experiences to share with us?
I think I have been lucky in my career from a diversity perspective. Having worked around the world in many global roles, I have always had the benefit of working with a very diverse group of individuals. Following events in the US over the summer, it did make me question whether I have personally done enough to drive more diversity and inclusion. I have come to the conclusion that I have a stronger role to play here and I believe we all need to do more.
Imran, it has been a pleasure speaking with you and I look forward to seeing you land at Tesco’s.
We would like to thank Imran for his time and perspective and wish him every success in his new role. After having engaged in conversation with him Tahira was struck by the level of humility and authenticity he displayed. It was very clear from our discussion he is a strong leader and his success has been a result of not just his obvious technical and commercial acumen, but also his drive, personal values and principles.