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Visa’s CFO started as an engineer but ended up in finance—and he has great advice for anyone looking to make a change

December 26, 2021, 2:30 PM UTC

Vasant Prabhu’s career path:

CFO, Vice Chair at Visa (present)
CFO at NBCUniversal
CFO, Vice Chair at Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc.
CFO, EVP and President of E-commerce at Safeway, Inc.
President of the Information and Media Group at The McGraw-Hill Companies
SVP of Finance and CFO at PepsiCo International
VP, Strategic Planning at Frito-Lay International (PepsiCo)
Partner, Media and Consumer Companies at Booz Allen Hamilton
Associate at Booz Allen Hamilton

Visa CFO Vasant Prabhu
Visa CFO Vasant Prabhu
Courtesy of Visa

“If you had told me when I was 21 that I would spend more than half my career being a CFO, I would have said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m an engineer and I love marketing and media,” Vasant Prabhu, vice chair and CFO at Visa Inc., told me. “I tell people—build your skills, build your relationships, build your reputation. But stay flexible in terms of what you’re willing to do because you never know what your next opportunity is going to be.”

Prabhu, a C-suite executive at a global credit card and payments powerhouse, may have started out as an engineer, but his curiosity for business changed his path from science to finance with a few twists and turns along the way. For the past 21 years, he’s had CFO roles at public companies. “I guess I just have been the sort of person where you throw me into the water and I’ll figure out how to swim,” he said. “I’ve never been fearful.” Like when his love of travel took him to Giza in Egypt in 1982. Prabhu wasn’t afraid of an impromptu climb to the top of a pyramid, he told me. 

Four factors to consider in your job search 

“I was six months in the U.S. and had never lived outside India,” Prabhu explained. “I didn’t know anything about business.” He was pursuing an M.B.A. at the University of Chicago when Paul Branstad, a senior partner at the management consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, hired him as a summer intern. Chrysler, led by CEO Lee Iacocca at the time, was his client during the internship. “I was shocked that someone would actually pay me to go and learn how businesses worked,” he said. But the “most profound thing was that someone would bet on me.” That has been a theme throughout his career. “If someone wants to take a chance on you, at first you might say, why me?” Prabhu said. “That’s what I did many times.” But, he advised: “just take it.”

Prabhu was eventually hired as an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton. Consulting was “a fabulous place to start a career” because he learned how various businesses operated, including company culture, he said. Prabhu rose up the ranks to become a partner serving media and consumer companies. He enjoyed his job, but wanted to play a major role in creating value at an organization rather than advising companies how to do so. “I decided, okay, it’s time to leave,” he said. “And I was very deliberate about which company I went to work for.” 

Prabhu said he began considering four factors in a job search:

-Choosing an industry or business you’re passionate about 

-Making sure the company has a reputation for having good talent 

-Working with a group of people you trust and respect

-Figuring out how you can make an impact 

“You’ll be very successful,” he asserted. “You’ll get the promotions, you’ll make the money, and not only that, you’ll just be happier.”

His checklist led him to PepsiCo. In the early 1990s, “Pepsi had a reputation for being this incredibly well-run company with some really smart people in very interesting businesses,” Prabhu said. In the 1980s Steve Jobs recruited John Sculley, who was VP and president of PepsiCo, to become CEO at Apple, Inc, he noted. In 1992, Prabhu was hired as VP of strategic planning for Frito-Lay International. “It proved to be the best decision I ever made,” he said. “Everything I know today about being a CFO I learned Pepsi.” 

He was at the company for about a year when then CEO Roger Enrico, and Fred Reynolds, Prabhu’s boss, asked him to take on the roll SVP of finance and CFO for Pepsi Cola International. He was 31 years old at the time. At first, Prabhu thought, why me? He still had much to learn about finance. But the execs thought he could do the job, Prabhu said. 

“At Pepsi, we don’t think of CFOs as ‘financial people,’” he recalled the execs said to him. “We want good businesspeople; we want people who can be operationally focused. You’ll be fine.” 

Much is currently being discussed about the evolution and broadening the CFO role. But PepsiCo was ahead of its time in its philosophy for a finance chief, he said. “A lot of other companies have caught up with them, and now do define CFO jobs that way,” Prabhu said. 

He became a chief for the first time. “I realized this is a great job because it’s very broad in scope,” he said. “You can get involved in anything you want to and have a lot of impact.” It’s a position that creates value for the whole company and allows you to work in a wide range of industries, Prabhu said. 

Leading at the onset of the dot.com boom

After a few years at PepsiCo, Harold Whittlesey “Terry” McGraw III, then CEO of McGraw-Hill Companies, approached Prabhu about taking on the role of president of the information and media group, he said. McGraw-Hill was one of his clients while working at Booz Allen. The position included overseeing TV stations, B2B trade publications, and the flagship magazine BusinessWeek. (Bloomberg L.P. bought the magazine in 2009 and renamed it Bloomberg BusinessWeek.)

The job met his four criteria. “My first passion has always been the media business,” he said. Prabhu knew McGraw-Hill’s culture and team well from his consulting days, he explained. McGraw was someone whom he liked and respected. And Prabhu saw a way to make an impact. “It was 1998, just as the internet was taking off,” he said. “I saw this incredible opportunity that existed to digitize these [print] businesses.” Although, “it was very hard to leave Pepsi, I felt this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Prabhu said. “Terry bet on me. I’d never run a business before, let alone businesses like these that were quite substantial.”

Under his lead, the group started to make the pivot by creating BusinessWeek online, Prabhu said. “We tried to get a whole bunch of the businesses to move to digital,” he said. But it was the early stages of the dot.com boom. For instance, Amazon just went public in 1997, AOL was “still a big player,” and Google and Facebook didn’t yet exist, Prabhu said. “I would say nobody at that time [understood] how devastating the impact of digital media would be on the traditional print media,” he said. “Everyone thought that they needed to add a digital component to their business. But didn’t realize how significant the change would be over time.”

As the leader of the media group, Prabhu shouldered this responsibility to a greater degree than if he were the finance chief. “The big difference between being CFO and being president is there’s a much larger component of people management,” Prabhu said. “The role is more operational. And the hardest part of any leadership role is managing change, which is hard because it’s risky. It’s uncomfortable. And often people are threatened by it.” His role as president made him a better CFO later on, Prabhu said. 

Now with digital experience, Prabhu’s work at Booz Allen Hamilton again resulted in a job offer he couldn’t refuse. “Steve Byrd, the CEO of Safeway, was someone I had met in my consulting days,” Prabhu said. “Steve asked me if I would come and be his CFO as well as help him create an internet business or two. I’d never been the CFO of a public company. And I’d never been in the supermarket business. But Steve took a chance on me.” In 2000, Prabhu began the role of EVP, CFO, and president of e-commerce which checked all of the boxes on his job criteria list. Plus, it offered the added bonus of living in California. 

“We launched Safeway.com, but it turned out it was very early for that,” he said. “Consumers were not really looking to buy groceries online in those days. Right now, they’re much more comfortable doing it, especially through the pandemic. But we did launch something else called Safeway marketing services. It was a way to use the company’s data as a marketing tool for other businesses. That proved to be an idea that had legs. It went on to become Blackhawk Network Holdings, Inc. [a digital payments company].”

Time for travel 

Barry Sternlicht, CEO of Starwood Capital Group, was previously the CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, a company he founded in 1995. In 2004, the hotel industry trailblazer asked Prabhu to join his team as vice chairman and CFO, he said. “Barry was a very fascinating person to me,” Prabhu said. “He was a was a creative, innovative guy. He created the W Hotel brand, for example.” Learning from Sternlicht, combined with Prabhu’s love of travel and an opportunity to work on Starwood’s changing business model, checked all the boxes on the list.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the hotel business,” he said. “There are days when I still miss it. It’s a fun business.” Starwood’s several brands, including Sheraton, Westin, W Hotels, and St. Regis, had operational, real estate, and loyal program dimensions, he said. “The people who work in hotels are very interesting,” Prabhu said. “And I used to meet all these fascinating people who owned hotels all over the world. I loved that.”

Prabhu was responsible for all financial functions, information technology and various corporate functions. He stayed with the company for a decade amid many changes. “I had as many as four CEOs there,” he said. “They say when the CEO changes, the CFO is the first to go because the CFO is often the person CEO likes to pick. I’ve been able to survive those [changes]. I’m on my second CEO at Visa, by the way.” If internal and external stakeholders and the board feels like the finance chief is a valuable member of the team, and the CFO accepts adapting to the new leader’s style, it seems to work out, Prabhu said. And a bit of luck helps as well, he said. 

The road leads to Visa

In 2014, Prabhu returned “back to my first love, which was the media business with a great group of people” as CFO for NBCUniversal headquartered in New York, he said. Charles Scharf, who was the CEO of Visa at the time, was persuasive in recruiting Prabhu for CFO role at the San Francisco-based company, he said. “Charlie was willing to bet on me, even though I’ve never ever worked in a business like this,” he said. “I’ve been in hotels and media. But he was willing to trust me with it.” An added bonus was the job location, Prabhu’s beloved California. “I’m never leaving California again,” he quipped.

“What I found appealing about Visa was there was this incredible iconic brand, global in scope, that had this great history, and was at an interesting trying time in its in its evolution,” he said. “The world around it was changing. And this was opening up some extraordinary opportunities. But at the same time, there were also threats.” Again, the job met all of his criteria, and Prabhu began as finance chief at Visa in February 2015. He compared it to the climate he faced in media in 1998. “The decisions we make today will determine how successful this business is 10 years from now,” he said. “And we’ll determine the shape of the industry.” He continued, “given that I’ve been doing this for a long time, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to use everything I’ve learned.” 

Five years ago, Visa was essentially enabling payments to merchants, Prabhu said. “Today, we can enable any kind of money flow,” he said. “You can send a remittance to someone else in some other country. We enable a lot of startups to scale because of our network.” Visa announced in December the launch of its global crypto advisory practice within its consulting and analytics division. “As a CFO, you play a role in the formulation of the strategy, but it’s always a team effort,” said Prabhu, who became vice chair of the company in May 2019.

Working closely with CEO Alfred F. Kelly Jr. on strategy and ensuring the whole organization is on the same page, is a pivotal part of Prabhu’s job, he explained. That includes ensuring a culture exists for “thoughtful risk taking,” he said. But at the same time, he must create a “culture of accountability that people have to deliver on what they said they were going to deliver,” all while finding the right talent along the way, he said. “I’ve upgraded my team over the years,” he explained. “You have to hire people who will be talent magnets themselves, so that they’ll upgrade their own teams.” 

This story is part of new series called Career Rewind, where we ask executives with interesting career paths to recount how they climbed the corporate ladder. If you have an idea for a fascinating exec to profile, please contact Sheryl.Estrada@fortune.com.