An Interview with Shanaka Wijesuriya – General Manager Finance, Quick Service Restaurant Holdings

An Interview with Shanaka Wijesuriya – General Manager Finance, Quick Service Restaurant Holdings

March 7, 2016 by Raghav Mehta

Quick Service Restaurant Holdings (QSRH) was formed in 2007, and brings together three big chicken brands – Red Rooster, Chicken Treat and Oporto. QSRH is wholly Australian owned and has 600 stores operating across Australia and New Zealand, employing over 18,000 staff.

With over 80% of QSRH restaurants now under franchise, and plans for aggressive future growth, a strong financial position is critical to the organisation’s success. I recently spoke with Shanaka Wijesuriya, General Manager Finance about his role and where he sees the future of the finance professional heading. He shared his thoughts on how his international experience helped him build perspective, and the importance of effective strategy and strong teams when it comes to success.

What have been the top two things in your career that has helped you gain your current position?

Moving overseas to take on my first international role at Mars – it was a step up for my career, and a huge change in terms of language and culture. This move enabled me to learn more about the wider world of business.

There are differences between cultures but people everywhere strive for excellence and want the same thing.You hear common misconceptions about different countries, but when you look at the people there are many commonalities.

This first international role opened up an opportunity for another international move, and that move also taught me much.

What has been your greatest challenge?

Taking on a big role when I went to the US. It was a big strategy and marketing planning role, and in my first year I struggled to make an impact due to the size of the task and not effectively addressing the organisational complexities. From all of this I learned to be careful, to see the big picture and not to take on big things just because they sound sexy. That was at the age of 33 – it was good to have the tougher experiences early on.

What are the important things you need to do to contribute to the business from a strategic point of view?

The business is Private Equity – so specifically it’s around cash flow, cash flow and cash flow. But it’s also about risk management. What’s the 2-3 year plan? The shareholders care about the exit and the heads of finance have to be aware of that.

On top of that you also have to run the business, and not sacrifice long term value for short term gain. I have to have a “traditional” hat on and need to be thinking about cash flow and risk because we are geared up heavily. You don’t have a treasury function like in a big organisation helping you here. Here, we focus on where the business is heading and how we can drive value. In summary, we think about risk management and a path to exit for shareholder value creation.

How do you balance the operations part of your role with the strategic?

I’m always balancing things – sometimes you can’t avoid longer hours. You need to get the right people on board, getting all the skills you need in a team. Also grooming a good second-in-charge so that you can have a sounding board. It’s always a juggling act.

How do you identify talent?

Somebody that always goes above and beyond. I have a lot of people coming to me saying “I want more” – I say to them, show me how you can do the job quicker and better. Over time I also look at the learning agility which is sometimes indicated by academic ability, for the people that want to learn more and have a thirst for knowledge.

Confidence, interpersonal and organisation skills too – can they stand up to the senior leadership team? As time goes on that becomes even more critical.

When you meet people in an interview, what do you value?

How fast they can make a connection. I like to throw a left field question in and see how they handle it. I like people that give short concise answers and don’t ramble. It’s also important for people to show curiosity.

How would you describe the culture of your team? Do you do any specific things to nurture that?

It’s a very young team, they like to learn. The culture is fun and they hang out after work together. They are ambitious and need coaching. They take feedback well.

They are ambitious but not necessarily patient for the traditional track that Finance offers. This is not uncommon with Gen Y. As a business, we now have to think about how to get the best out of the team that works for all.

I’ve done a Personal 360 with the team and I also coach my high performers. We do quite a bit in that space and I have regular one on one time with them.

What tips can you give other people in the finance industry on how to build a successful team?

Setting a shared vision, and making sure the buy in is there. Lots of people start work without the team being aligned on visions. Really be careful about who you hire – don’t hire too fast, you do not want to make a mistake.

Act on your low performers straight away, and nurture your high performers. You always have to look to upskill yourself too – think how you are going to add value in the future.

Do you see any significant emerging trends in the finance function?

One that is obvious is that almost all lower level transactional roles are going to continue getting outsourced – or getting done cheaper or better. Another major trend is that a finance person has to know about marketing/sales levers to add value – true business partnering rather than the traditional recorders of numbers.

Another one is the mobile working force – how do you take advantage of that? Our systems are all in the cloud, but you have to have limits and framework. Flexibility with responsibility.

People should try to understand how data mining and related insights works too. Most top leaders in the future will be more numerate from necessity, e.g., CMOs will have to have an analytical data view as well, if they don’t already. The analyst will still do the work, but you’ll have to be able to interpret the numbers. Finance in a true sense has to marry up different streams.

How do you think the career of a finance professional will change over the coming years?

Finance will always be an excellent grounding for other careers, for example sales or marketing. Finance will be a better gateway to different careers.

Always build relationships outside of finance – it’s good for you because you have to understand your numbers and this is how you can add value. Don’t just do it from a transactional point of view.

Don’t be one dimensional…

For the finance professionals of today and tomorrow, Shanaka sees having a broader skill set as the big key to success. As processes become automated and outsourced, it’s critical to bring more than just a strong grounding in numbers to your role. To get ahead, you’ll need to build your knowledge, skills and relationships in other areas, and bring real value to the business.

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