Amrish Shah - Chief Financial Officer at Metabolic

Finance & Accountancy
26 February, 2024

Amrish Shah is the Amsterdam-based CFO at Metabolic, a company on a mission to build a sustainable economy by helping organisations and policy makers tackle sustainability challenges by addressing underlying systems and scalability.

Previously, Amrish worked for more than a decade with FMCG multinational Unilever, as well as O’Neill and Staples. He completed interim assignments at organisations including Kao Corporation, Royal Wessanen and Endemol Shine.

What has been the biggest challenge for you since leaving Unilever?

I left in 2008, so 15 years ago. I would say the biggest challenge at that point was just the fear of leaving something that was very comfortable, that I had really grown up with for the first 13 years of my career, and then taking a step into the unknown.

Also, imposter syndrome – are you going to be good enough? It's easy to benchmark yourself against people that you know very well somewhere like Unilever or any organisation, but - when you're outside - you don't know what you’re going to be confronted with.

I think you have to have a lot of resilience and the confidence to just go for it, but you will have doubts… The biggest one was the move to O'Neill, which was the first move I made after Unilever; it was a huge amount of change for me personally and professionally, and I didn't realise it until I looked back a few years later.

After that, one of the big challenges is to just go with the flow, because many of these things are not a controlled process; sometimes opportunities come up and life is not planned. So, it was really about being clear about the career path I wanted to craft and where I wanted to build deep expertise.

I found that in Business Control, around the most strategic Finance side, and I had the opportunity at places like Kao, Endemol Shine, and Staples to do that.

Two other big challenges that were impactful in different ways surround the fit with people. You're so used to a certain type of person at Unilever, in terms of sparring partners, people who are quite creative with good ideas and ambitious, etc. When you go outside, you just don't know what kind of people and culture you are joining. That was one of the things I faced when I was at Staples; it was a very different group of people who worked there, yet you get used to that.

The last thing I would mention is Unilever was very professional. But then, when you go to smaller organisations like O'Neill, Metabolic, and Climate-KIC, these are less resource-rich environments.

You have to get used to the lack of professional structures and that's a challenge. But there's a flip side, because you can contribute to doing something really impactful and helping build that.  So, I think that freedom is the other side of the coin, which is quite energising - it's a challenge to first understand and then embrace that.

You've implemented a lot of change. How have you managed the changes in your career and the diversity in the sectors that you've worked in as a leader?

When I started my career, people thought they were going to change employers maybe two or three times in their career and the idea of staying for quite a while with one employer or one organisation was more normal.

Things have changed so much now; the idea of having these portfolio careers - where you might end up working for ten different organisations, maybe for yourself for part of your career - is a lot more normal and people are a lot more comfortable with that.

I have moved quite a lot. I started my career back in the ‘90s and I've had a lot of exposure in different sectors, but also different types of organisations, not just the size, but different ownership.

I always ask myself three things when I'm making a change: What is the organisation like? Thinking about whether I am going to fit there, and whether I am going to add something culturally. I think that becomes more important with senior roles.

Secondly: What am I curious to learn?

The other thing is the role itself - the last bit of the triangle. Will the role that I'm going into continue to stretch me professionally and will it have an impact on the organisation?

I've managed my moves by looking at those three things every time I've been in the position to choose where to go and that's really important.

But I come back to what I mentioned earlier - sometimes life isn't all planned. Sometimes things come to a natural end. Unilever was a natural end for me after 13 years to say, “I don't think I'm going to get what I'm looking for, the stretch in the role, I need to go out and face the unknown.”

I think Endemol came to a natural end simply because it got sold, and that also means that sometimes what you're doing - especially as an interim - comes to an end.

Metabolic, where I'm now CFO, wasn't something that was planned. It just happened out of an opportunity that came up because of Climate-KIC, where I was working. You have to be in the right place, at the right time, to talk to the right people - then suddenly good things can happen.

I'm sure we’ll talk or touch upon it later, but I went from a permanent phase to the interim phase out of curiosity. So, there are always a few things that drive you to work, but I always come back and ask myself: Is it the right organisation? Is it the right role? And what's in it for me as a person?

How do you retain and develop talent?

What’s important when you talk about talent development is being clear about the job that you've been brought in to do and what that means in terms of growing the talent that you have. It's about framing your goals and the objectives of the thing you're doing.

One of the examples I can give is about making sure you have the right people in the right place. At O'Neill, we were going through a lot of change and there was a big team that I inherited right at the beginning. You have to look at the challenges that we have with the things that the business expects us to do. Do I feel we have the right people in the right seats, and, if not, how do we shuffle that around to ensure that we do?

Sometimes, that also means you have to look externally, as we don't have the talent inside. But that's an opportunity for people internally to learn from those who come externally; it shouldn't be seen as a bad sign if you're bringing people in from the outside.

The other example is always motivating people, certainly in Finance, by creating a very motivating agenda. If you take the example of smaller organisations, like Climate-KIC, these are small teams, and I have people who don't necessarily come from a Finance background. They've just ended up in those positions coming from an administrative perspective; they don't necessarily know a lot about broader Finance.

But creating an agenda allows them to learn about that, exposes them to that, plus demands that they become interested in that as part of their core financial role.

I think retention is important. As a leader, you have the responsibility to stand up for your team. As an example, at Staples, there were a number of people who wanted to reduce the size of the team I was responsible for.

You have a position where you can say whether you believe that is the right thing to do in the long term for the business. If you don't believe in it, then you have to propose a different solution and not just accept things.

You have to fight for it as long as you can, because you're talking about people. People need to have a good experience in that organisation and feel valued.

Over the last few years, we've had the pandemic and a culture change with remote working. How do you motivate your Finance professionals with all those changes coming through?

These changes have been big, and they don't just impact Finance - they impact everybody. Ukraine is something we've been living with for a while - almost two years - and there is also what is happening now in the Middle East. It's just stuff that creates a lot of distress for many people.

To that, I will add climate anxiety, which is something close to my heart, because people increasingly feeling anxious about having a planet that's habitable moving forward.

There is also artificial intelligence (AI). Technology has always been there in different forms, but AI is causing a lot of stress now as to what that means.

Additionally, the examples I have just given are causing a lot of disruption and that can be destabilising.

I have a Ukrainian in my team now at Metabolic. She was living in the Netherlands and she's now in Italy, but she's from Ukraine and her family is in Ukraine. Seeing how that affects her is quite eye-opening, and I think it made me realise how resilient the human soul is - people still get on with things and try to bring their best selves to work every day.

As a leader, it's about creating an environment where people feel okay to be emotional and have an environment where they can voice their frustrations about the things that they are going through, because there is nothing anybody as an individual can do to control some of these big events.

When you're in the pandemic, you can't change as an individual. But it comes into your mind quite deeply. So, it's about really creating an environment where there is empathy and support for people.

COVID was an interesting one, because I have been used to working remotely and managing teams remotely before then. COVID made people assess or reassess their priorities. In general, I think it's been good for people feeling more comfortable about what they're bringing back into work.

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I think still having enough physical time together in an office environment is important for connection, for giving both positive and constructive feedback. Personally, I find those things are much easier when you're in the same physical space as somebody, compared to virtually.

Also, managing wellbeing – which is a very big topic now right – is harder when you're only virtual, so I think you need to have some space where you can come together, sense if somebody's going through something that's challenging; that’s easier to do in person than on Teams.

The other day, there was a report published that stated the percentage of people in the working population that are burned out. In the Netherlands, it is 16%. Firstly, that is an insanely high number. That is difficult to manage, whether virtual or not and under any circumstances.

So, I think remote working in general has been good, but it's changed the way we talk with people about how to set healthy boundaries, how to be vulnerable, and how to reach out.

In the end, I think motivating Finance professionals is still around the impact that they're having - why is the work they're doing important? It doesn't matter so much whether you're doing that in an office environment or if you're sitting at home - you need to always come back to that connection of what you are doing and why it is important.

What risks have you taken throughout your career and how did that help you get to this level?

Sometimes, you don't feel you're taking a risk, because it just seems normal. It's only when you look back and think it’s crazy!

I want to differentiate people who take real risks in their careers and those who haven’t. For example, people working in physical danger, people starting their own businesses, people who work in exposed working conditions, people who flirt with fraud or try to do something at the margins of the law… These are real risks that people can take in their careers.

I haven't done any of that, so I always ask from a risk perspective “what is at stake? What am I really risking here?” And “what if it doesn't work out?”

What's also important for me is to always think about whether it is just me that it impacts professionally or personally. Does it impact other people around me? I think that's a really nuanced one, because normally you can't focus on your career without it bringing in other people who are the closest to you.  

The last thing I always look at is your appetite for risk or the level of change you're willing to accept. That's a very personal thing; for you, it may be a very different calculation of what you’re willing to accept versus for me.

If I look back at what I have done and how I've managed that throughout my career, there are not many things I would say were very risky. That is because there was always some kind of safety net in the event that a particular decision didn’t work out well.

One risk was when I went from permanent to interim, because people say if you're one, you can't do the other. It's the same if you move from a commercial organisation to one that is not commercial or not fully commercial. Most of my life has been spent working in fully commercial organisations, except for the role that I'm in now and the one prior.

Sometimes, people say, if you've been in that space for a long time, you're not ruthless enough to make tough decisions, which is what you need in commercial organisations. That is not true, but it's a perspective and a belief people can have. So, that compounds the risk when you move sectors.

The biggest risk I took was probably at O'Neill, because I didn't realise then how much change I had taken on and how much could have gone wrong.  

The other risk was probably the Climate-KIC role, where I was Group Controller. That wasn't developmentally stretching for me - but this comes back to the point that every role doesn't always need to be a promotion. Life isn't always a straight line; sometimes you do a zigzag, you go sideways, etc. But you're always thinking about what you’re learning from it and the impact it has on the organisation.

In the future, the biggest risk I probably could take is if I decided to change and move out of Finance and do something else. So far, I haven't been forced to do that or had to face doing that, but that could feel quite risky.

Let's talk about how you've managed risk and governance in these interim roles that you've worked in.

People think risk and governance is a boring topic, but I love it, because it's important for the role of Finance.

The first time I had real exposure to this was at O'Neill, because I was responsible for the entire risk and control framework. In the end, it comes down to change again. Most organisations don't really appreciate risk, governance, or control for different reasons; they don't like risk, because the moment people start to address risk, they think it's a constraint on opportunity.

What I have tried to always do in my roles is say there are two sides of the same coin. You want to start by thinking about risk to avoid doing stupid things, because - if you do stupid things - you won't be able to take opportunities.

Whereas, if you take smart risks, you'll know you are in a better position to be able to take opportunities, as well. That's a big mindset change for many people who are responsible for selling things and making things.

The moment you mention the word control, everybody goes, “I think it is time to clock off.” People miss the point about control, but it's up to us in Finance to reframe it. Control is something positive; we pay attention to the things that can help us and prevent things from breaking that could hurt us.

Again, this is about the storytelling; building the narrative about how control can help people achieve their objectives and their targets in a better and smarter way than if you were to totally ignore it - I think that's really important.

For example, at Staples, we were bolder with pricing, trying to not be afraid of increases. That’s quite scary, as you don't know what the customers are going to do, and you always worry.

You have to put some controls in place. Some customers might walk away - there's not a lot you can do, as you can't control their behaviour. We can - at least be satisfied that we have done all the things we wanted to do, but you've got to monitor and control that.

Governance is more interesting and different, because it’s about decision making, transparency, and the culture you want to create. It’s about having some oversight that is helpful in making sure we stay on the right course.

But governance is very tricky for many organisations, because there are some politics involved. Also, for smaller organisations, it's something they tend not to think about, because they’re very busy hustling.

At the same time, people mistake governance as control, and it isn't. When you’re in smaller organisations and they're experimenting with different forms of organisation, any form of governance which is oversight can be seen as a form of control, but it's not. It's about transparency and giving people the clarity of where they need to go.

How do you manage business partnering and performance management within that?

Coming back to the previous question, I think everything around risk, control and governance is related to one thing: performance.

It's about trying to get the organisation to perform in a way that meets its objectives. Business partnering really gets to the heart of how we, as Finance, help the organisation to perform.

In the end, we are providing a service, and that service is based on information. We're trying to influence people to make the right decisions. Those decisions are going to lead to a financial outcome in the future, so they're either going to create an asset in the future, which will be the good thing, or they'll create a liability.

Ultimately, everything we do or don't do has an impact financially, one way or the other.

Performance management can be uncomfortable. I have been in situations where I’m partnering with senior leaders and you see how uncomfortable trying to become more performance-oriented is, because it's confrontational; it forces you to admit sometimes that maybe you've done the wrong thing.

We're all human beings and there's one thing we don't like. It's not actually failing itself, it's the thought of failing that makes us nervous. I think that's why it's a story of change and how we do it.

That's why finding good business partners in Finance is not that easy, because there's a different set of skills that they all need to have. For example, if you're dealing with data and information, you need to have good data management skills. You also need to be passionate about things that seem boring. You need to be able to construct good analytical models, have a clear logical way of thinking, and be able to structure that.

Finally, when you are at the table, you need strong facilitation skills to bring people towards a decision. In some cases, also conflict management.

These are very different skill sets and finding them in a single person is not that easy.

What’s the most memorable moment from your career and why?

There’s been a few. One of the most memorable moments was when we got into the process of selling the frozen food business in Unilever.

It was about a year-and-a-half from beginning to end - April 2005 to November 2006 - when we finally completed the deal. There were many different phases, but that whole thing was memorable for me, because you have to work very hard.

You’re doing two jobs. One is your operational role as a Finance Director for the business, because business goes on. But, on the other hand, you are supporting the entire process, which is a lot of work.

But that gives energy back, because you are exposed to things you may never be before in your life. You're dealing with vendors, due diligence, lawyers, investment bankers, trying to create the information memorandum and the business case.

You get involved with completion accounts, doing the P&L on disposal, you’re responsible for working capital settlement… You get involved in many different work streams and you are the point person in many of those. That gives amazing energy, but it’s a lot of hard work.

In the end, it was a successful disposal; we sold it for a good price, which led to a big profit for Unilever. That was the cherry on top, away from just the process.

The second memorable bit was I got the call one day after my first boy was born.

I was at home just relaxing a bit, waiting for the midwife to come in and help us with how we should deal with the baby at home. I got a call saying, “The decision has been taken, enjoy the next few days, but next week it's full on, we have to start preparing stuff.” That made it a little bit more memorable.

What's your favourite quote?

I have a list of a lot of quotes. When we were talking about motivating Finance people there were two, I thought were quite appropriate. The first is by Joseph Conrad. He wrote Apocalypse Now and said: “I don't like work, no man does, but I like what is in the work - the chance to find yourself.

The second is by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a famous American poet, essayist, philosopher and social reformer. He said, “the reward of a thing well done is to have done it”.

When you really get immersed in challenging yourself, you take pride in the quality of what you're doing and the impact you're delivering.

We've talked about change a lot and that's something I am very passionate about in my roles. There are a couple of things around change that are quite relevant for us to bear in mind. There's a guy, James Baldwin, a well-known American writer and civil rights activist, and he said: “Not everything that you face can be changed, but nothing can be changed until you face it.

I think that's important when we talk about Finance and its role in supporting any kind of transformation or material change.

The last one around change is from Tolstoy, the famous Russian author. He’s a bit cynical here, but what he says feels very relevant to the space I am in now, because we deal with organisations formulating their approach climate change. He said: Everyone thinks about changing the world, but no one thinks about changing himself.

That really made me stop when I read that for the first time, because he’s asking, what are you prepared to do to change yourself, to help other people change also? This quote really made me think.

Lastly, we touched upon how our professional journey can mirror that of life itself – in that despite all the planning and positioning, it is - more often than not - unpredictable. Things happen. So, I really like a quote by Dale Carnegie, a famous American writer and lecturer focused on self-improvement who said, “success is getting what you want, happiness is wanting what you get”. Something that can help a lot with maintaining perspective and sanity!

As a business, we support Operation Smile, a charity that helps children with cleft lip and palate. So, what was the last thing that made you smile?

There's a lot of funny things that make me smile. I think we don't use humour enough at work, because sometimes we take ourselves too seriously and we shouldn't - unless you're a firefighter.

In general, what we do matters, but we should sometimes also be able to laugh at ourselves, because we are human beings and we do stupid things.

We have two retreats in Metabolic: a big Spring retreat around March, focussed on strategy coming together and aligning our plans.

Then a Summer retreat, which is more social, and takes place around the end of August when the new school year starts.

I went for my first one a few months ago. It's three days of camping out and, apart from the Dutch weather, it’s good. The last evening is always a big fancy dress party, and you have to dress up. I had a prisoner outfit, a wig, and a necklace and stuff. I was just hanging around, and people were quite impressed, because it was quite ‘in your face’.

I had a gold necklace with the word “freak” on it, and somebody said, “I finally understand what the abbreviation CFO stands for: Chief Freak Officer.” That made me double up with laughter, thinking somebody really gets the kind of stresses of the job. I'm literally freaking out every minute!  

We had a lot of laughs about that, and we spread the word and the gospel of the Chief Freak Officer. So, that made me smile.

Thank you to Amrish for speaking to Michael Bentil, Senior Consultant in our Finance & Accountancy recruitment team in the Netherlands.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment