Marco Torrente has spent half of his career improving and integrating finance teams across the travel sector. He shares his approach to transformation and the unique challenges of the sector.
Transformation is part of the day job for Marco Torrente. As CFO of WebBeds Europe, he is involved in the onboarding of acquisitions, aligning systems and processes so that everyone is on the same page. It’s been a feature of his work since he moved into the travel sector from SC Johnson in 2010.
“Over the past five years, it’s been a really fast-growing sector,” he explains. “As a result, the executive team has a lot to contribute. I also like travelling, which was a nice addition.”
WebBeds has been growing quickly through acquisition over the past three years, across several territories. Marco cut his teeth on acquisition integrations in previous roles at Tui Travel and Sabre Travel Network to the point where it has become somewhat second nature. He explains that you need to understand the company’s tech situation – do your “IT due diligence” – before the acquisition takes place.
“If you buy a company for €100m and then you need to spend €50m to fix its systems, it’s obviously not very worthwhile. As a first step, you need to check the IT platforms that are in place and make sure that you can integrate them within the systems that you use. If you’re acquiring a company which is more or less the same kind of business as yours, they’re doing the same activity as you; it’s much easier to find a way to plug and play. If you’re acquiring a business in a completely different sector, you need to really look at how to adapt to your system to this new business.”
Integrating the software is only part of the story – integrating and upskilling the team is the bigger challenge. In addition to the usual effort required in winning over hearts and minds, there are cultural considerations to factor in.
“You need to first understand the people that you’re dealing with; as individuals, their culture and how they’re working. You cannot come in and force a new system upon them. It’s very much a step-by-step process and an ongoing discussion. You must make sure people are really buying into the system.”
To do this effectively, you need to identify the issues that are really hampering the team and focus on finding solutions through the system you want to implement, Marco explains. The only way you can do this is by spending time with the new team, really listening to their concerns, and getting a feel for the team culture, which can vary wildly. “There are marked cultural differences between Europe, the Middle East, India or China,” he says. “You need to have a really involved approach with the business, because you need them on board with you.”
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Strong systems and processes are essential in travel to manage the effects of the many unpredictable elements that can impact the work – from terrorist attacks to natural disasters. The finance function needs to be agile and flexible in order to respond quickly to any incidents that might impact sales. COVID is an extreme example of this.
“You need systems that can react quite quickly. That goes for the finance system, but also the booking and upfront systems, particularly if we’re talking about a large number of cancellations. The system needs to be able to cope with it and the data needs to flow into the accounting works efficiently so we can monitor all of this activity. The people and systems need to be really agile.”
Outside of an affinity for scenario planning, Marco believes that everyone on the finance team should have knowledge of wider commercial business goals; even accounts payable and receivable should take on an element of finance business partnering, he says.
“For example, look at this period where we see that cash is low. You can imagine the importance of accounts receivable at the moment. So your accounts receivable people need to be a part of the commercial actions that you take.”
Marco and his team are now looking at increasing the use of blockchain. When it comes to transformation, he recommends that CFOs take a gradual approach to bringing in new ideas, making small but valuable changes as proof of concept.
“We should not be afraid of investing in new systems or digitisation. It can bring a lot of benefit from both a finance and commercial perspective. You are able to integrate with your customers and suppliers much more efficiently, while the finance team focuses more on added value commercial activities. You should move from working half the time on operational transactions, to spending that time on insights and analysis.”