From CFO to entrepreneur: Why one CFO switched careers to service SMEs

It’s actually just been a bit more than a year, but it seems longer for Joon Teoh. The former Global Finance Controller and Head of Global Finance Shared Services at British American Tobacco resigned to set up her own consultancy, Malaysia-based AGOS Asia, in December 2015.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” says Teoh, who joined the UK multinational as an internal auditor in Malaysia way back in 2000. “I had to be brave and go against the concept of prudence taught to accountants, but with higher risks come the opportunity for higher rewards.”

The monetary rewards have yet to fully materialize, but Teo is unfazed. My training as a finance professional, in people and change management, definitely prepared me for this,” she says. “I’m putting it in practice every day.”

I want to help elevate Asian-based businesses and talent, using my experiences in multinationals to help them to be more effective, and the finance team to become a valued business partner

Teoh spoke to CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani about her career switch, advice for other finance professionals contemplating the same move, and other issues. Edited excerpts:

Why leave a high-paying job to set up on your own?

I wanted and needed a new challenge. I thrive on being in the discomfort zone because I firmly believe that when you are the most uncomfortable, that's when you learn the most. I do get bored rather quickly.

After spending 15-plus years in multinationals, I felt that I have enough under my belt to make a bigger impact outside.

I had been lucky to be exposed to roles such as finance director, controller, internal audit, regional finance, corporate finance, management accounting and, most recently, in helping my previous company set up, implement and bring its Shared Services footprint up the value curve.

There is a strong desire to pursue my own vision and agenda, having delivered the agenda of others for so many years. It's time to define and achieve my very own agenda.

I want to help elevate Asian-based businesses and talent, using my experiences in multinationals to help them to be more effective, and the finance team to become a valued business partner . . . It is very satisfying to see the ‘a-ha’ moments in my clients and the new level they are now operating in.

So are you making as much money today as when you were an employee of a multinational?

No, in the first year, not really. But I’m hopeful. It is wise to have a cash buffer for six months; if possible for one year. You will have something coming in during the first year – the question is how much.

Getting the first job is always the hardest. So far, we have done work for two global Shared Services organizations, one focusing on migration activities and the other on P2P [procure-to-pay] improvement activities.

And my team and I are really happy to be able to make a difference to two SMEs based in Malaysia in transforming their finance processes, strengthening controls, and upskilling their team.

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