An Interview with the CFO of Lidl GB – Dirk Kahl

We speak with Dirk Kahl - the Chief Financial Officer of Lidl Great Britain. Currently based at their Head Office in Wimbledon, Dirk joined the Lidl Group as Global Finance and Accounting Director in 2008 and was subsequently appointed as Board Executive for Finance, Accounting and Tax for the German operation before joining the Lidl GB Board of Directors in 2014. In his current role, Dirk is responsible for the Financial and Administrative operation of Lidl GB, which has over 25,000 employees in Great Britain. He is currently a non-executive Member of the Board and the Chair of the Audit and Risk Committee of Kingston University in London. We caught up with him to hear about his role as Lidl GB’s CFO, as well as his tips for fledging CFOs.

What brought you to Lidl?

I started my professional career as a KPMG auditor in Frankfurt and after qualifying as a German Certified Public Accountant (Wirtschaftsprüfer), I was seconded to Singapore as Head of the German Desk. After another secondment to Mainland China, I returned to the Frankfurt office to work on some of KPMG’s largest German listed clients. When a French retailer offered me the position of CFO for their German operations, I left the accounting profession for good. In 2008, Lidl was looking for a German qualified accountant with retail experience and prior exposure to Asia – there weren’t too many of us – so they reached out. We had an initial conversation and I was very impressed by my hiring managers and their humble, professional spirit, along with the business’ success of course. I was convinced that they were getting a lot of things right and that I had found an environment in which I could learn a great deal. They also offered excellent international development opportunities. So, I didn’t hesitate and joined as Group Finance and Accounting Director, later becoming Finance, Accounting and Tax Director of the German business. About six years ago the opportunity arose to join the Board in Wimbledon as CFO for Lidl GB. Great Britain is not only the second biggest Lidl market outside of Germany but also one of our fastest-growing countries, so it was a great opportunity!

What has been your biggest achievement as Lidl GB’s CFO so far?

It’s wonderful to be part of a growing business that has had a significant and positive impact on British households. Not only have we made high-quality food accessible at affordable prices, but through our significant investments into the economy, we have also been able to create jobs and new opportunities for people and communities. Since I joined the Board, Lidl GB has almost doubled in size. It has been an exciting journey helping the business grow from an SME into the company it is today.

I am also extremely proud of the team that I have developed. You can only work on industry-leading projects when you have the best in the industry working alongside you! For instance, together we have transformed the Controlling department into a modern Business Partner structure and established Business Intelligence and Analytics. We have also taken Legal in- house and set up a well-regarded Legal and Compliance team.

What’s your piece of advice for someone that’s looking to become a CFO one day? What is the one thing you wish you knew when you started?

The traditional career path usually starts with an accounting qualification, which in my opinion is still vital. Today many Board Members are very financially literate. It is therefore important that the CFO clearly stands out as the finance expert in the room. Beyond this, today’s CFO also needs commercial experience and technological understanding. Widening your experience outside of an accounting firm gives a unique opportunity to develop even stronger communication and leadership skills and to broaden your strategic perspective. So, don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone.

CFOs need to be able to build and develop world-class teams that combine in-depth specialist knowledge with a strong understanding of the respective business. They should be able to communicate effectively with a variety of stakeholders on both detailed and abstract levels. But most importantly they need to be able to look beyond the risks, identify revenue opportunities and drive the agenda around innovation.

If I had to give only one piece of advice, however, it would be to find a good mentor.

In today’s environment, CFOs tend to go beyond the spreadsheets and are a partner in the business. How do you manage your responsibilities effectively?

Company Directors are faced with an ever-increasing amount of data from multiple sources. It is the role of the CFO to cut through the noise and present relevant and timely information to enable top management to make the best decisions. Only by becoming the organisations’ data champions will CFOs gain the trust of management as the single source of truth. The key to achieving this is to have a world-class team behind you. This includes having Finance and Business Intelligence teams that are technologically savvy and can support their finance business partners who are fully immersed in the business’ daily operations.

It’s important to remember that success doesn’t start with the CFO – it starts with getting the right team working together. I’m incredibly fortunate to say I have a brilliant team made up of almost 300 strong individuals integrated across the business, without whom I could not do my job.

What’s leadership to you?

At Lidl, we are one team with one vision, and we understand that our success is down to every single one of our 25,000 colleagues. From our store colleagues to our Board of Directors, we are all working in the same direction and it is inspiring to be a part of this.

I have had the privilege to lead people in different parts of the world, in both corporate and military environments.

I believe that leadership can’t be universal and should be flexible, targeted and individualised to be effective. It should not be about position or title, but rather action and example. As a leader, you are measured on the strength of your team and their development. It is vital that a leader displays a clear and concise vision whilst upholding integrity, and genuinely being interested in developing each individual member of the team. Leadership is about communicating – well and a lot.

So, what can we expect to see next from Lidl?

Since joining Lidl GB in 2014, the business has not stopped growing. This pace of growth shows no signs of slowing and the scale of our ambition has only increased.

We are continuing to open a new store almost every week and recently committed to an expansion investment of £1.3bn across 2021 and 2022. Despite times of economic uncertainty, we are continuing to push forward to help ensure that as many communities as possible have access to a Lidl store, whilst continuing to create more jobs along the way.

In addition to opening new stores and warehouses, we are also due to move into our brand new Head Office next year, located near Kingston. We’ve outgrown our existing office and currently occupy multiple spaces around Wimbledon, so the move will help to bring all our Head Office teams together, enabling us to work as effectively as possible to support the rest of the business.

We have several innovation projects on the go which are of course still confidential, but that are constantly driving the business forward. We continue to encourage ideas and innovation from right across the company, with reward mechanisms in place for new projects that end up being implemented through our Idea Management Programme.

Anyone wanting to join our team should keep a close eye on our careers site for new opportunities.

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