“My mum was a teacher and administrator and my dad was an engineer and an executive, so he would speak about management capabilities and my interest in analytics is a blend of their DNA,” says La Fontaine.
“I studied a Bachelor of Business, majoring in accounting at RMIT and, when I started my accounting career, I realised that there were many facets to an accounting role – you could pursue business management, finance, shared services, audit, and tax. Finance is in a unique position in that it takes a holistic view of an organisation and contributes beyond just providing the numbers. It could be a change agent and not just within one department. It could really set the change agenda for a company. This solidified the notion that the career I’d chosen was exciting.”
After university, La Fontaine spent a year working at Shell, where she’d spent time as an undergraduate. But it was a job at Hewlett Packard (HP), the multinational IT company with an 80-year history of innovation, that would see La Fontaine combine her accounting nous with a growing passion for the power of technology – while cementing her professional path.
At HP, where La Fontaine undertook a series of roles – including CFO South Pacific and Business Controller, Print and PC Systems for the Asia Pacific Region – she had to navigate the ripples caused by the global financial crisis. But she was also on the frontline of the way in which new technologies were disrupting businesses and creating opportunities for digital transformation that were growing stronger by the day.
“When I graduated I realised that I wanted to try something [related to] newer technology and had read great things about HP in all my management accounting books – so when I was given the opportunity to work with them, I jumped in,” she says.
“Some of the biggest challenges at HP involved helping businesses navigate digital transformation – and turning them into profitable entities. [For example], in the early noughties, we had a leasing business that was struggling as it was coming out of the GFC. I worked together with the executives, built rigour around the pricing, including reviewing the quality of the customers we were signing up, and helped develop a clear vision for the business that the team understood and supported. The process was challenging, but it was rewarding to see it become sustainable and a jewel in HP’s crown.”
In a sense, La Fontaine’s career in finance has run parallel to the technological developments that are shaping the industry. She says that the rise of big data as well as tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analytics are transforming the role of the accountant and accelerating the speed and accuracy of the decisions that finance professionals have always made.
“Accounting has become more strategic – it was once focused on the financials, around bookkeeping and auditing and now we are focusing on predictive analytics and influencing,” she says. “We’re not working in a reactive mode – we’re proactive and working in real-time to make faster decisions and help steer the business.
“It also enables us to synthesise large amounts of data quickly so we can better identify patterns and anomalies. Once, we would act on hunches about the paths we would follow and now that the data is available, we have much better predictability about the path we should go down.”
La Fontaine puts these theories to the test every day at UiPath, a form of technology that allows companies to automate repetitive tasks using RPA and glean data-driven insights via AI. For La Fontaine, the power of automation stems from the way it lets companies solve customer problems. She says that it can also help organisations scale to meet the demands of an increasingly globalised world.
“Robotics process automation allows organisations to dramatically transform their operating models – it transforms customer experience and even employee experience and enables the business to gain a competitive edge in the marketplace,” says La Fontaine, who will present on this topic at CPA Congress 2019 in October this year.
“We are seeing massive changes in industries such as legal, finance, manufacturing and banking, where you’ve got to deal with manual processes and high volumes of data. Different countries have different drivers demanding transformation. In Japan, we look at cost-efficiencies driven by an ageing population, but South Asian countries, which are [traditionally] low-cost environments, are benefitting from digital technologies that help them to scale up to meet the demands of international competition.”
For La Fontaine, digital transformation is ultimately about unlocking value across an organisation. Importantly, it sets the stage for meaningful work.
“One of the most unique aspects of my role is that I talk to CFOs about having an automation-first mindset – it helps transform their business intelligence,” says La Fontaine. Having undertaken subjects in corporate governance and tax as part of the CPA Program, this knowledge has had a formative impact on her career.
“Simply, any transformation starts and ends with people. Some of the struggles that organisations face are around engaging people in their transformation effort. Education and helping the team understand and contribute to the change will assist in dispelling fears. In the future, the workforce will change – it will most likely include people working alongside software robots. The exciting news is that, instead of reconciling disparate systems, data entry, pulling together and massaging information – all very repetitive and tedious tasks – people will move towards work that is more creative and strategic.”
Learn to lead the way with technology, embrace change and discover the skills shaping the future of finance and accounting. Don’t miss CPA Congress 2019. Book today.
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