Among the learnings that Dev Ahuja has gleaned from his three-decade-long, globe-hopping finance career, perhaps none has delivered a more enduring instruction than that which followed his very first hop.
By his own account, after Ahuja had reached the summit of Novartis’s finance executive ranks in India, the drug giant invited him to occupy an office at its Basel, Switzerland, headquarters. Here, Ahuja was promised, he would be able to apply his flourishing financial acumen on a more global scale.
“I thought that I knew what it took—I came with a lot of confidence rather than in a mode of humbleness and wanting to learn,” comments Ahuja, who let us know that his first years at headquarters did not always go as planned.
Ahuja reports: “The Swiss don’t mince words.”Read More
Confronted with his shortcomings, Ahuja set out to get things back on track—beginning with a hefty dose of self-scrutiny.
“I had done a miserable job because I really had not made the effort to build relationships and take the time and make the effort to understand the cultural nuances,” remarks Ahuja, whose track change paid off with a Swiss stint in the roles of group controller and head of Basel’s finance operations that stretched to 5 years.
Still, Ahuja’s Swiss experiences would prove to grow even more valuable in the years ahead, as he would come to occupy the CFO offices of Novartis Korea (3 years) and Novartis Japan (2 years).
“Novartis was very active when it came to developing people across geographies, but my case—where I would end up living in five different countries—was not very normal,” observes Ahuja, whose fifth nation became the U.S. after the drugmaker’s $46 billion acquisition of Alcon opened the door to a number of opportunities for him.
Announced in 2010, the Alcon deal was to present post-merger integration challenges that in part led Novartis to relocate Ahuja from Korea to Japan, where the Alcon integration tasks were more pressing.
“We accomplished a lot in Japan in a short period of time, and it seems that Alcon U.S.—which was twice the size of Alcon Japan—was in need of some of what we had learned,” recalls Ahuja, who tells us that at the time, a son had recently relocated to the U.S. for studies.
With little delay, it seems, Ahuja was headed to Fort Worth, Texas, to serve as CFO North America for the drug giant’s Alcon division—a business that years later would nab business headlines when Novartis opted to spin it off.
According to Ahuja, he has been able to apply his Swiss “lessons” at each career move, including his change when he departed from Novartis in 2016 to accept the CFO position at aluminum products giant Novelis.
It seems that regardless of whether a move has involved geographies or industries, Ahuja has been able to apply the benefits of his time in Switzerland.
Says Ahuja: “When you fail, you must make up your mind to take every lesson from that failure and act on it.” –Jack Sweeney
“A CFO’s success is driven by much more than functional expertise. You must be able to influence outcomes and take input from stakeholders, learn quickly from failures and triumphs, and exercise good judgment. Above all, focus on people—a strong talent pipeline is a core factor driving long-term success.” –Dev Ahuja, CFO, Novelis
Made Possible By
CFOTL: Tell us about Novelis …. what does this company do, and what are its offerings today?
Ahuja: Novelis is a leader when it comes to sustainability in the aluminum industry. Basically, we are a downstream aluminum company that makes flat rolled aluminum products, or thin sheets of aluminum. We convert big blocks and slabs of aluminum into sheets that can be used to make aluminum cans or automotive bodies—for example, the Ford F-150 pickup. We have a big share in that as a platform, and as a matter of fact, to some extent, we make automotive bodies for almost every OEM that you can think of anywhere in the world.Read More
We are also into building and construction—things like the external facades of buildings. We do so many other products—truck trailers, for example, are made from our aluminum. We are into aerospace—for instance, aircraft wings come from a material that we make. So, we are into a diverse set of end applications.
But the thing that is very, very compelling about us—and one of the key reasons why I thought that this would be a great space in which to be—is that we are a sustainability leader. Sixty-one percent of the inputs that we use are recycled, which means that we are really trying to do good for the planet. We are really recycling aluminum. This is what really makes us a company of the future.
In the pharmaceutical space, I was very proud of what I was doing. I never thought that I would leave Novartis, but for some reason a guy from a search company who knew me came to me with this Novelis opportunity. I asked, “Well, what will I be able to contribute in an industry about which I know nothing?” He replied, “No, no, no—they want somebody who can bring an external perspective”—which I could do.
This has turned out to be a fascinating move because this company—even before I joined—was making big strides. During the 7 years that I’ve been here, though, we have continued to make even greater ones. We have doubled our EBITDA and grown our revenues by something like 70 percent. We have made a major acquisition, plus done organic things to really reformat our portfolio. This has been a wonderful experience.
Novelis | www.novelis.com | Atlanta, GA