Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Tate & Lyle CFO on finding the ingredients sector sweet spot

It was only when he became CFO of Tate & Lyle a year ago that Imran Nawaz realised that the 160-year-old sweeteners and ingredients brand still had a high profile.

Although the business had been transformed from a sugar group to a diversified provider of ingredients and solutions for the food, beverage and industrial market, he recognised the FTSE-350 constituent was still a household name.

From the Tate art galleries to the iconic east London buildings, the brand still occupies a place in the public conscience even though the company had completely sold out of the sugar sector by 2010. “I hadn’t put the dots together until I was in the UK. Then I felt a great responsibility, because of this legacy,” says Nawaz.

What brought him to the top finance role at Tate & Lyle was the recognition that the group’s combination of products that include low and no-calorie sweeteners and a health and wellness portfolio provided huge growth opportunity. “Tate & Lyle is at the centre of the fairway for the health and wellness trend, with lower sugar and added-fibre products,” he says.

But while he relished the opportunity to grow the business, there was also a challenge that Tate & Lyle’s portfolio of products was less visible, so it was difficult for the market to put a precise valuation on the group.

But Nawaz saw a chance to remedy that- capitalising on his background in food and beverages at Kraft and then Mondelez, that mirrored the skill set of CEO Nick Hampton, who had been CFO of PepsiCo Europe. “We both had similar experiences, so we understand each other and we speak the same language of customers looking at our ingredients,” he reveals.

Nawaz says it was meeting Hampton, who had stepped up from  being Tate & Lyle’s CFO, that convinced him that he could make a difference to the group. On a personal level he would be able to take the next step in his career that becoming the group finance leader of a well-known listed company offered.

International perspective

Born to Pakistani parents in Luxembourg in 1973, Nawaz says his family moved around quite a lot because his father was an executive at tyre giant Goodyear. He attended university at LeHigh in Pennsylvania, which was “culturally a bit of a shock as you can imagine” coming from Dubai at the time.

Although he majored in accountancy, he added French literature as a minor, because he “didn’t want to be one dimensional”, he says. “It’s the opposite of accounting. There’s no answers,” says Nawaz whose favourite writer is Marcel Proust.

He joined Deloitte in New York servicing finance firms: investment funds, legal firms, insurance companies, meeting “all kinds of characters you wouldn’t have access to in a normal job” before joining the firm’s Luxembourg office, “another culture shock”.

In Luxembourg a chance meeting led to a move to the corporate audit department of Philip Morris, the tobacco giant that was diversifying into food companies in emerging economies such as Russia, Ukraine, Morocco and Turkey. “They wanted me to do due diligence and help them integrate the food companies into the broader organisation.”

“It meant integrating different cultures, understanding operational challenges, and evaluating what is good and what is bad, in a black and white way,” he says.

“You learned very fast you had to prove your points when you write up a report, when you’re sitting in front of a general manager or a finance director, that you’re going to have a rigorous conversation to justify the writing up and be correct.

“I concentrated on keeping complex things simple. When there’s a problem you need to understand why it is a problem, what the risks are,” he says.

Nawaz soon moved to subsidiary Kraft Foods, working in global supply chain finance in London and then as regional financial controlling manager based in Vienna.

A series of increasingly senior roles followed- finance director, Middle East & Africa, category finance director, Cheese & Grocery Europe and then VP finance Chocolate Europe in 2009. In 2013, he became VP finance Eastern Europe, Middle East, and Africa before being appointed as senior VP finance Europe based in Zurich, the following year.

Because Philip Morris split up Kraft and then Kraft spun off Mondelez, Nawaz says it felt like working in five different companies, “because every time you have a new owner, structure, policy, new ways of working”.

One very high-profile moment came with Kraft’s acquisition of  UK confectionary firm Cadbury, a moment that became a political event that drew daily news coverage in the UK. “There were quite a lot of tense moments in the integration, creating pressure on the team,” says Nawaz. “We had to ignore the noise outside and just focus on creating a great business together,” he says.

Big leap forward

The decision to join Tate & Lyle came about partly from a desire to test himself at the highest level, “There was a nervous excitement because you realise that when you’re the CFO of a public company you are a public figure – the buck stops with you.

“I had already learnt that I did the best jobs when I stepped out of my comfort zone and took risks, taking the jobs no-one else said yes to. I saw here the opportunity to shape the company and at the same time risk being under scrutiny every day- I said I’ve never done it, I need to do it and I’m glad I did it, given you always wonder in the back of your mind if you’ve done the right thing,” says Nawaz.

He sought the advice of his boss Brian Gladden, CFO of Mondelez, who recommended early meetings with sell side analysts covering Tate & Lyle as well as investors. “It allowed me to be open and listen,” says Nawaz. “The one skill you don’t learn when you’re a regional CFO is about investors and sell-side analysts. I was told the one thing I hadn’t done till then was defend or explain and excite people by the company I was working for.”

In this role, Nawaz believes he is in a position where his experience means he can help drive value creation. “I wasn’t just going to walk away from a 20-year experience where I knew everything and had been part of building something huge to come here if I wasn’t convinced,” he says.

Nawaz says urgent changes needed to be made when he arrived a year ago- making it possible to understand and measure potential cost savings on activities and recognising what those actions would need to be- with business partnering playing an important role.

A shared service centre in Poland is where technologies such as AI and RPA are being tested to deliver greater efficiencies in finance. “I want a machine that looks at data, at data trends and really understands what is really happening in the categories in which we are playing in a neutral, independent way,” says Nawaz.

“I want finance individuals to be part of the front-line decision process. When I look at business finance, which is one of my personal passions, I see it as a 50-50 partnership between the CFO and the CEO of the same unit,” says Nawaz. He also believes marketing, a powerful force in the consumer space, and finance must work hand in hand.

Competitive edge

The road ahead for Hampton and Nawaz is going to be about capturing the value from Tate & Lyle’s product portfolio in a way that ensures continued profitability. Last full year results saw pre-tax profit rise 4% to £309m  on sales up 2% to £2.75bn- while the share price has been on an upward trend over the last year. But there is also recognition that business growth needs to be undertaken in a sustainable way.

Referring to the impact of the Fairtrade certifications when he was in the chocolate sector, he says: “What you start to realise is that the brand itself has a responsibility to its stakeholders, as the majority see it as a given that you are sustainable,” says Nawaz. “I think the role of finance is making sure you don’t destroy the brand by being just cost-focused,” he adds.

Nawaz says Tate & Lyle is looking at way of supporting sustainable farming and has engaged an international environment organisation to help understand ethical sourcing. “But at the end of the day you want to be able to demonstrate you can get a return on whatever you are spending,” he says.

Ultimately what brings these elements together is the ability of finance to quantify the revenue and profit growth from taking out sugar or by adding fibre, and ultimately understanding the value of the  organisation’s purpose, says Nawaz. “We were measuring ingredient lines by region rather than by looking at data by customer and category, which is what we have moved to, and now what I am driving for is by activity,” he adds.

Another aspect that Nawaz wants to deliver is the means by which everyone across the group can share the information that finance produces. “It means finance can genuinely help drive a pricing decision. It is better to say there is a standardised table that everybody sees- a democracy that finance creates,” he suggests.

On working with the former CFO who is now CEO, Nawaz  says: “I have my own ways and my own thoughts and principles for finance, so we have very open conversations. I told Nick when I interviewed that I am not going to be a yes man. My job is not to continue what you started. My job is to do what is right, to bring what I know,” he adds.