Wal-Mart’s Michael Fung: Why Internal Auditors Make Good CFOs

To really know what drives value for a company and understand its business processes, Fung says, there may be no better training ground than internal audit.

Is internal audit more respected in corporations because of Sarbanes-Oxley?

If as a result of Sox internal or outside auditors spend all of their time just auditing for Sox, then it will hurt the profession and the development of people. I think my success, both in internal auditing and my career generally, is trying to really understand what drives the value for the business, whether that’s in sales, in margins, our competitive edge with customers, or how we compete in our markets. So I prefer the operational auditing approach.

What Sarbanes-Oxley does is get you more into processes that drive financial statements. But ultimately as a finance officer, you have to be a business person. That is the key to success, rather than a focus on Sarbanes-Oxley itself.

You never did become a CEO. Is that still in the game plan?

I recognize that I work with some great operating people who have in-depth knowledge about what it takes to run a business. I can support them and be a great CFO and satisfy my desire to help make an impact on the business and drive it to greater profitability. I don’t need to be the CEO just to have the title.

What makes for a successful CFO?

First, you have to have relationships with your business partners in which you’re trying to add value to the business. Second, it is useful to understand the business drivers.

Retail on the surface doesn’t appear to be a very complicated business. But you need insights into, or the ability to learn, what it take to increase your basket of customers; how to change the margin mix of anything; what it takes to operate a $150 million store with 500 associates; how to make sure associates are appropriately motivated and taken care of; how to find the goods to display and merchandise in the store; and the competitive advantages of Wal-Mart in our supply chain.

I got that from internal audit. Is internal audit good development for a CFO? Absolutely yes. Is it a good career path for people coming out of school? Absolutely yes. And certainly it has been helpful in my career, because my last name is not Walton.

I came in late, but I have a chance to be the finance officer for the largest operating division within the company, and make an impact. I’m just happy to have that opportunity.

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