When Technology Meets Finance: An Interview with CFO, Rabobank Asia Niels Boudeling

Finance leaders are aware of the tremendous impact of technological advancements and of the need to improve their business strategies to keep their competitive advantage. In our conversation with Niels Boudeling, CFO at Rabobank Asia, we explored the changing landscape of the finance industry and the impact of digitisation to the roles of CFOs. We also talked about his career journey as well as his pieces of advice for people who aspire to become successful CFOs in the future.


Presently, you are the Chief Financial Officer at Rabobank Asia. Before joining Rabobank Asia, what are the roles you fulfilled in the early stages of your career? 

I started my career as an auditor in Rotterdam, The Netherlands and since then I have always worked in financial roles. Compared to current careers in Finance, I know that my career is more traditional with an increasing level of responsibility over time, leading to a variety of management, senior finance and CFO roles in The Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, U.K. and now in Hong Kong.


In today’s business climate, the role of CFO is fundamentally changing. At Rabobank Asia, what are the duties/responsibilities you primarily deal with? How has your role changed over the years?

“Due to the more challenging competitive landscape, my role in initiating strategic decision-making has become more important.”

Indeed, today’s business climate is much more challenging than when I started in Hong Kong in 2014. I believe I just experienced the tail end of the golden years for banks in Hong Kong. We are now dealing with a changing competitive environment. This change has also affected my role as CFO. For example, the discussions about business performance have become more intense, managing expectations versus reality. Due to the  more challenging competitive landscape, my role in initiating strategic decision-making has become more important. What type of bank do we want to be? How are we going to make a difference for our Clients? Cost awareness and cost reduction have become even more important than before. At the same time, my task to promote long-term value creation, by stimulating the business to find new opportunities to grow the top line, has not changed.


Could you tell us the present demands of the finance functions that you prioritise and your approach to be effective in it?

I currently prioritise the creation of a truly efficient data flow in our Hong Kong hub. Eventually, this development will be introduced to all of our locations in Asia.  It starts upstream (at the input stage) with a strong emphasis on data quality. Rather than manual adjustments during the reporting process we focus on first-time-right data input. This requires acceptance by colleagues in commercial, operational and risk departments of their role in getting data right and their understanding of the consequences of data errors. An interesting transition!

Straight-through-processing of data, from front office to mid office to back office systems, and ultimately, into a Single Point of Truth (SPOT) is the second important development I am spending a lot of time on. The SPOT contains hundreds of data fields, or attributes as we call them, and contains risk data, customer data and, of course, financial data.

At the downstream end of the data flow, a large variety of reports is currently being automated. We do this by using advanced mapping tables which connect the SPOT with the reporting applications.

The combination of these three steps should enable my team to free up time from low value add activities, like error correction, and use this time for high value add activities such as scenario planning, forecasting and the identification of business opportunities. A clear example that technology is making our jobs in Finance much more exciting!


What are the internal and external challenges you closely monitor to assure the attainment of your financial objectives?

CFOs are nowadays facing a high number of challenges and must have the courage to take unpopular standpoints. Internal conflicts that come to mind are decisions about outsourcing versus automation of activities. Or, should the firm engage in new activities or new products? The right position in every decision within the triangle of risk, returnand efficiency should be meaningfully discussed by the decision-makers. In my view, the CFO has an important role in that discussion.

External challenges lie in the ever-evolving regulatory landscape. With solvency and liquidity requirements increasing, the costs associated with carrying liquid assets are increasing too. This needs fine tuning through the use of optimisation models and continuous maintenance. New regulation on access to current accounts and payments (PSD2) may bring new competitors. And new accounting standards, such as IFRS 9, affect the bottom line.

These new regulations put pressure on our returns and operating model. They also make data availability more important: regulators are considering to get constant access to near real-time data, signalling a shift in monitoring from a more traditional principle-based approach to a rule-based approach.

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About the Interviewee

Niels Boudeling is CFO Asia for Rabobank, a large cooperative bank with its roots in The Netherlands. Responsible for finance, control and taxation in Hong Kong, Singapore, Mumbai, Shanghai and Jakarta Niels is constantly searching for the right balance between commercial opportunities, risks and efficiency.

Before joining Rabobank, Niels worked at Cartier, MontBlanc, FootLocker and Paxar in the UK, Switzerland and Germany in variety of CFO and Senior Finance Managers roles. He started his career in 1981 as an Auditor for KPMG in the Netherlands.

Niels holds a Master of Science in Accountancy from Nyenrode University, an executive Master in Finance and Control from Maastricht University, an MBA from RSM/Erasmus University and is a Registered Controller.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.