Dirk Kahl from Lidl on COVID-19 and the Future of the CFO Function

Dirk Kahl is the new International Board Director and Group Accounting Officer of Schwarz Dienstleistungen – the parent company of Lidl, Kaufland, Schwarz Produktion and PreZero. Having spent the past seven years as the CFO of Lidl GB, he was also one of the winners listed in our 2021 Finance Monthly CFO Awards.

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 UK Board of Directors in 2014. In his role as CFO, Dirk was responsible for the Financial and Administrative operation of Lidl in Great Britain. He’s held other retail CFO roles before and serves on the Board of Kingston University, London, as the Chairman of the Audit and Risk Committee.

Prior to joining Lidl, Dirk has worked for KPMG out of Frankfurt, Shanghai and Singapore as a Qualified Chartered Accountant for almost ten years. We caught up with him below to talk about COVID-19, big data and machine learning’s impact on the CFO function and his goals in his new role.

What has been keeping you busy over the past 12 months? How have you helped Lidl GB navigate the COVID-19 crisis?

COVID-19 played a major role last year. Keeping colleagues and customers safe whilst ensuring we could fulfil our vital role in feeding the nation came with many challenges. Optimising cash flows and raising funds from Investors and our shareholders was the basis for ensuring the business could not only afford the expensive COVID-19 measures but also continue with our ambitious expansion programme. We increased salaries and paid extra bonuses to our front-line colleagues who have risked their health and lives for our customers. We paid back more than £100 million in business rates relief to help the local communities with their funding and we financially supported our suppliers in need.

We must, however, not forget Brexit with its ongoing uncertainties about the new regulations and their application, which has tied many resources.

Despite all this, my focus was on delivering for our customers, enhancing the in-store experience at the check-out and delivering and continuously improving our app-based loyalty programme, Lidl Plus.

As we slowly begin to return to normality, what’s your advice to CFOs navigating the post-COVID-19 world? How are you preparing for this?

It is important to recognise that we will see a new normal rather than normality. COVID-19 has changed the way people consume, spend their time and how people work. How we approach it, embracing the new normal, tackling its challenges but also seizing its opportunities, will define future success more than just trying to get back to normal.

It will be important to carefully observe and efficiently engage with customers and colleagues to understand their needs and then support the board to adapt the organisation to those behavioural changes as swiftly as possible.

A full review of all our processes has helped to identify even more efficiencies. I am proud to say that my organisation is stronger and more robust than ever before.

Lidl, CFO, CFO function, COVID-19, finance director

What are some of the main lessons the pandemic has taught you?

Most organisations have not had a global pandemic on their risk register. In an ever-changing more globalised world, companies will be challenged by events they have not been able to foresee nor have their management teams been able to train for. The food retail sector was able to operate throughout the pandemic, thanks to our heroic frontline colleagues. However, many businesses would not have survived without the support of the government and the support of their communities. Organisations should take away two main lessons:

Do the right things even if nobody is watching. If your organisation is unable to prove that it contributes positively to society and conducts its business in an ethical and sustainable way, society might not be willing to support you during the next crisis. It is important to communicate with government bodies and the communities you serve and to acknowledge the important role these stakeholders play for your organisation.

Second, as one can’t prepare for everything, the way we responded to the pandemic was based on the experience and the training of our senior leadership team in crisis management. The generic response methodology has worked very well, and it is the duty of the CFO to ensure that the processes and the people are fit for a robust response to any crisis an organisation could go through. Our investment in crisis management training has paid dividends.

How will the proliferation of big data and machine learning impact the role of the CFO in the coming years?

A great CFO should be able to cut through today’s noise of data and provide relevant and timely insights for colleagues and enable them to excel at their jobs. Finance teams have always helped top management to focus on making fast and good decisions based on clear and true information. With more data than ever being available and coming from different sources, from both inside and outside the organisation, the CFO and their teams will have to work harder to remain the single source of truth and the go-to business partner.

Machine learning and big data might make it appear to be easier for the end-user to create their own reports, but it will need data experts to understand the quality and reliability of such information. The CFO will have to ensure that big data is used for the right use cases and in the best quality.

What are your key goals for the next 12 months?

Now that I’ve stepped down from the Executive Board of Lidl Great Britain and have joined the board of our international head office, taking on the global responsibility for accounting and financial reporting for the Schwarz Group, I am excited to be working alongside an international team of outstanding experts for Europe’s biggest retailer which also operates substantial food production and significant recycling activities across Europe, the US and Asia. I will continue to play my part to support the GB business, by chairing the Audit Committee of Lidl GB. This will allow me to remain closely connected to Lidl GB, an outstandingly ambitious organisation that is so close to my heart.

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