Perspectives from ISB

DJ Mathews is a Chartered accountant and Company Secretary with 20 years of professional experience with PepsiCo, Grant Thornton, and Lurgi AG. In the career span of over two decades, Mr Mathews has handled diversified leadership roles in major MNCs in various sectors, with a focus on driving process change efforts, Merger and Integration, strengthening financial controls, improving Financial reporting processes and enhancing business expansion along with compliance and fiscal efficiency.

A PGPMAX Alum from the Class of 2017, Mr Mathews is a Gold Medallist (Scholar of Excellence & Dean’s List) from ISB. He currently serves as Director – Assistant Controller for PepsiCo’s Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) Business and is based out of Cape Town.

We had the opportunity to connect with him recently to talk about his PGPMAX experience, ISB days and other contemporary topics. Here is a summary of the interaction.

Tell us about yourself, your current organisation and role, and your professional journey so far.

I am a Finance professional, Chartered Accountant and Company Secretary. I am an ISB Alum from PGPMAX Co’2017. I work at PepsiCo, the global food & beverage conglomerate with a turnover of over 70 billion dollars a year with presence in almost every country in the world. In terms of my current role, I am the Assistant Controller for PepsiCo’s Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) Business which generates close to annual 2.5 billion dollars in revenue for the company. SSA is one of the largest business unit of PepsiCo outside of US. PepsiCo recently acquired a listed organisation in South Africa called Pioneer Foods and a major part of my role here is to drive the control integration of the acquired company.

From a career journey, it’s 20 years of diverse experience in Finance, Supply chain & Market equipment management and its largely with PepsiCo where I have spent 17 amazing years. I started my career with Grant Thornton in the Audit space and then moved to Lurgi AG for a Project accounting role. Post that; it’s been PepsiCo all the way – worked in 11 different roles in the last 17 years. PepsiCo is one of the best places to work and quite a people-oriented company which lets its people work in a myriad of roles every two years. I was fortunate enough to move into various roles in Finance (Commercial, Operations, Planning, Franchise, Copacking, Controls, Reporting) and got to work even in Supply chain & Market equipment management. That my professional journey so far which has been amazing in terms of learning and growth and I look forward to continuing this amazing run.

What inspired you to join the PGPMAX programme? Why ISB?

Why PGPMAX: Around 2015, I realised there was a need for me to pursue higher studies because the world was changing rapidly with disruption in traditional business models, the start-up culture was on the boom and technology had evolved pretty fast in the last decade. I wanted to stay relevant in the ever-evolving fast-paced world. With my finance background and being at middle level of management, I wanted to learn the skills of business strategy, management & leadership. Hence, I zeroed it down to executive MBA and started looking for courses in top B-Schools around the world.

Why ISB: There were a couple of reasons that led me to pursue PGPMAX from ISB. First of all, ISB is a Top Ranked B-School in India. Not just in terms of rank, but also the faculty the school provides; the school not only has a great faculty on campus but also has professors visiting from all over the world which helps in gaining a global perspective on various contemporary subjects. Secondly, the infrastructure and resources the school ushers are phenomenal along with a fantastic curriculum. The 24 courses one goes through during the programme are a mix of leadership, management, strategy and other highly relevant subjects. The programme is structured in a manner where a working professional can manage by taking 7 days off every five weeks. The admission process is also quite smooth which is more based on your experiences than any past scores. And lastly, the international immersion during the programme where you get to visit Kellogg & Wharton which is fantastic. These reasons led me to choose PGPMAX.

What would you say is the right time to pursue PGPMAX?

Higher Education: We all need to continuously upskill/upgrade ourselves to stay relevant specially in today’s times when we are witnessing major changes across the world. When an individual feels that he is missing the skills that is required to stay competitive in the changing world, that’s the time for higher education.

In terms of PGPMAX: The way the course is designed, and classes are taught, I believe one should have enough experience in their core functional/operating areas. For example, when I came to ISB I had done my core operating roles which were commercial finance & operating finance and was moving towards mid-senior level leadership. I was able to relate to the case studies taught during the course because of my prior experience. That, in my opinion, is the sweet time to pursue PGPMAX. If I must put it into years, I would say at least 10 years of experience is minimal to extract the most out of PGPMAX.

Where do you think you were headed in your career before you took the course? How has the overall ISB experience affected the direction?

I was already working with a global company, but I realised that I had gone slightly off-track with the choice of some of my roles which as a result slowed my growth. I wanted to upgrade my skills to fast track my Career journey. That’s the reason I took the course. When I was pursuing the course in 2017, I was handling the Finance of one of PepsiCo’s bottling franchise operations in India. From there, within few months into the course, I moved into the mainstream of the organisation; I became Internal Controls Head for PepsiCo India. Hence, the course not only helped me to move back into core finance but also to finance leadership position in PepsiCo India.

Since then, I have moved to a role in our sector – PepsiCo’s Head office for Asia, Middle East & Africa. I was Responsible for Financial (US GAAP) reporting for AMESA (Africa, Middle East, South Africa) and APAC (Australia New Zealand, China, Asia Pacific) Sector valued at $6 Billion. Then in 2020, I moved into my current role of Assistant Controller wherein I am responsible for all control matters coming from existing SSA PepsiCo business and newly acquired entities.

So, in a nutshell, PGPMAX brought me back to core finance and leadership position in India; then helped me move into AMESA & APAC sector and finally to international business management. I don’t think my career trajectory would have been the same had I not pursued the course.

Tell us about your ISB days, specifically about the course and the faculty. What ISB memories do you connect with most profoundly?

PGPMAX is a perfect blend of a course that helps professionals grow into leaders. To say this course is “rigorous” will be an understatement. While it requires you to go to campus for just one week after five weeks, but you are fully engaged in the course for the entirety of the programme. You need to read subject material; go to campus; attend classes; give exams, come back & complete your assignments; and much more. The programme requires your undivided attention. I have high regard for the way PGPMAX is taught. So, my fond memories are around the way I learned during the course.

From a faculty perspective, ISB has world-class professors with top-notch credentials and teaching methods. It was a great experience to learn from professors who bring such a wealth of knowledge to the class. Class diversity was another great factor that induced great value to the learning experience. We had batchmates from a myriad of industries and brands including Coca-Cola, Microsoft, IBM, KFC, Google etc. The classroom and peer interactions are where you learn the most and that enriches your overall ISB experience. The international immersion was another highlight during our time.

My profound memory is of the first term which sets the tone for the programme and was figurative “baptism by fire”. The course starts with such rigour and has the most difficult subject at the start itself. I guess it was deliberate to make us understand that the course isn’t a cakewalk and gives a flavour of what is to come. The tight deadline assignments, examinations, late-night group study sessions – all of it added to the academic rigour and take you back to college times. However, the support system (Classmates, Professors, family) helps you sail through it.

What is your philosophy of a good leader? What nuances of leadership did you pick up during the programme worth applying in your professional life?

Leadership is an innate quality in every individual and one can be a leader in any position. You do not have to be on top of the corporate ladder to be a leader. You can be a leader in your own space, driving the agenda, managing your responsibilities, and navigating tough situations.

To become a good leader, it is highly important to demonstrate authenticity. That is where one can start commanding respect. One should remain true to their personality and should emphasise their own character. Follow your heart and people will start following you.

At PGPMAX, I picked up on the leadership aspect called “eating the frog” – Focussing on the most important/difficult part of any project and doing that first. I apply that principle in my daily job and finish the most important/difficult part first which ensures the rest of the project journey is easy, as that gives both momentum and a sense of accomplishment. That is something, among many other learnings, I picked during my time at ISB.

What are the new challenges business leaders face in the wake of the current global pandemic? How has business leadership evolved in these unprecedented times?

We are living in a world which is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The pandemic has only accelerated the disruption that has been mounting for quite a few years. Our interactions/engagements are getting more and more virtual. I believe, keeping the most important asset of an organisation which is the “People” engaged in these new environments is something leaders are mulling and working upon. These challenges have been met beautifully by most of the leaders so far.

Apart from that, managing interpersonal interactions, striking a balance between work & personal life and developing a new hybrid model of working will be the new challenges in the coming times.

How significant is PGPMAX during the pandemic? Should one pursue an executive education programme such as PGPMAX in these times?

The changing world and staying relevant in these times were the main reasons for me to pursue PGPMAX. That remains true even during the current pandemic and any other uncertainty that is to come. In fact, pandemics should be a trigger point for professionals to upskill themselves to ensure that they / businesses stay relevant in these uncertain times. Programme like PGPMAX helps professionals apply their learnings to implement unconventional ideas/business models for these uncertain times.

What does it mean to you to be part of the ISB Alumni community? The value you have derived and how has it benefited you?

The best part of ISB Alumni is the help you can get at any time on the professional & personal front. For every problem that ISB alum has, there is an ISB Alum in the community with the solution and is eager to help. I believe the larger support comes from your cohort with whom you have interacted the most. They are truly “friends for life” and continue to encourage, guide and support you at all points of your career.

What is it that keeps you buoyed and relevant? What do you cherish doing in your spare time? 

From the relevance and buoyance perspective, I truly believe in the philosophy that our former CEO Indra Nooyi “All leaders need to be life-long students”. One should always learn in every situation, environment and setting. I guess curiosity is something that keeps me buoyed and relevant.

On the personal front, I like to spend time with my family in my spare time. I also spend time reading, mostly management books. I recently finished reading “Make Your Bed” by William H. McRaven which is a fantastic read.

If you must encapsulate ISB experience in just one line, what would that be?

Though it is difficult to summarise in one sentence, I guess it would be “Perfect Investment in Self”. I must state PGPMAX is the best investment I have made into myself and in Pepsi style; I can say “Yehi hai right choice baby.”

-DJ Mathews, Class of 2017, Director – Finance, PepsiCo

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