Being called into the CFO role during a global pandemic
Starting a new role in a company is always challenging. Taking a promotion to become CFO when your industry has seen its revenues collapse overnight adds another level of stress. This was the situation facing Alfonso Piccirillo when he became the man in charge of the finances of MSC Cruises in January 2021.
Having racked up revenues in excess of $27bn in 2019, the cruise industry was one of the earliest affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. From 15 to 16 15-16 March, 2020, MSC Cruises was obliged to halt all 17 of its vessels.
“We were confronted with the vision of no revenue, no cash. We needed to manage a big company and we couldn’t see when the business would come back,” said Piccirillo, a veteran of the family-owned firm who worked his way up from business controller to become CFO of the world’s third-largest cruise liner operator.
The crisis forced the company to quickly shift perspective. Planning horizons were cut to a maximum of one to three months from three to five years. As a finance leader, Piccirillo had to get used to not being in control. “We learned we needed to be quick and appreciate that the context could change dramatically,” he said. “This required a great level of flexibility within the team and also with other stakeholders.”
Unlike publicly listed rivals Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruises, MSC Cruises belongs to a strong and financially solid group, who helped the cruise division to navigate throughout the crisis.
Despite the challenging situation, Piccirillo relished the crisis as a chance to take a critical look at the way the company operated. “I think I learned more in the last couple of years than the rest of my career,” he recalled.
The shutdown gave his team the chance to rethink the way they worked, optimizing everything from how they contracted with third party suppliers to how they assessed risk. In Piccirillo’s opinion, the finance function is “much more than understanding the business through numbers” but a role that allows him to partner with top management to enable the strategic vision.
While the macroeconomic outlook for the sector remains cloudy with margins not expected to exceed pre-pandemic levels before 2024, Piccirillo believes the industry is resilient and expects 2023 will lay the foundations for new growth.
Navigating a career in the shipping industry
In some ways, Piccirillo’s career has mirrored the journey of his employer. After graduating from Italy’s SDA Bocconi with a master’s in management and accounting control, he joined MSC Cruises as a business controller in Naples. In 2007, he moved to the company’s headquarters in Geneva just as the cruise liner entered its first expansion phase.
“I joined as a young professional in a young company that was growing extremely quickly. That gave me an incredible opportunity to grow professionally at a fast pace,” he said.
Working for a family-owned business also frees him from the constraints of the quarterly reporting cycle, allowing him to focus on supporting the long-term strategic vision of the company. On the downside, building a career in just one firm can narrow your perspective.
In 2018, approaching a potential turning point in his career and itching to get out of his comfort zone, Piccirillo chose to embark on an EMBA: “I felt the need to enrich myself and see things through the lens of others.”
The program not only allowed him to gain a new experience without having to leave a company that had shown him so much loyalty, but also helped him to understand that there is no perfect recipe for personal and professional success. “You need to have a purpose and prepare yourself to follow it, but you also must be ready to read the context, understand the situation you are in and adjust from there.”
Before starting his career in shipping, Piccirillo very nearly stayed on in academia to complete a PhD, and curiosity has remained a hallmark of his leadership. During the EMBA, he was inspired by a number of faculty members who chose to go into academia and teaching after working in business and corporate roles. If he weren’t a CFO, he could see himself gaining fulfilment as an executive coach.
The EMBA’s leadership module also made him aware of how he operates as a leader. For a man who has built his career in the shipping industry, perhaps it is more than just coincidence that Piccirillo is a “lighthouse” – a person who thrives on guiding others and being perceived as reliable. “Being a trustworthy person and someone, who others can refer to, is the most rewarding aspect of my professional and personal life.”