A Fortune 500 CFO’s “roadmap” to the top finance spot

Suky Upadhyay shares the advice he followed to become Zimmer Biomet’s CFO.
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Suky Upadhyay

· 5 min read

Heading up supply chain at a Fortune 500 global company is no easy task. Geopolitical tensions, climate-related natural disasters, inflationary pressure, unfavorable foreign exchange rates, and a host of other factors make the role a challenging one. Combine that head-of-supply-chain role with a CFO’s, and the pressure amplifies.

But Suky Upadhyay is up to the task.

Upadhyay is CFO and EVP, finance, operations, and supply chain of global operations at Zimmer Biomet, a leading manufacturer of orthopedic implants. The company employs around 17,000 people, and had revenues of $6.94 billion last year.

In August 2023, when COO Ivan Tornos stepped into the CEO role, Upadhyay took over some of his functions. He now leads supply chain and operations, as well as heading finance. He spoke with CFO Brew about how he’s prepared himself for the new role and his path to becoming CFO at a Fortune 500 company.

Upadhyay’s “roadmap” to CFO. The son of Indian immigrants, Upadhyay learned the “virtues and values of education, hard work, [and] grit,” from his parents, as well as the attitude that “you’re never too big to do anything.” He worked a motley collection of jobs to pay his way through school, including delivering mail, scooping ice cream, and retrieving lost balls at a golf course.

Upadhyay studied finance and accounting, and worked as an accountant for a time. Though having a CPA is no longer a requirement for the CFO role, accounting experience can still be “invaluable,” Upadhyay said. “Your primary directive is as a financial steward of the company and its governance,” he said, so it’s vital you know “what good looks like” from a controls and reporting perspective. A CFO who understands the world of financial accounting, reporting, and controls, he said, “is an added benefit, because not only do you understand how to protect the company, but you also understand how to grow the company.”

Upadhyay was “fortunate,” he said, in that he knew he aspired to become a public company CFO from early on. “When you have a North Star, you can start to build out a roadmap” to follow, he said. “I had a vision and I stuck to it.”

He also followed advice from Bob Darretta, CFO of Johnson and Johnson, who told him, “Don’t aspire to be a great finance person. Aspire to be a great general manager with a [specialty] in finance.” Upadhyay took this to mean he should learn everything he could about the healthcare industry. “Whether it was supporting supply chain, operations, R&D, commercialization, business development” or another area, he learned about it. “I was trying to fill the toolkit, if you will, of what a CFO would need to know to be successful in their role,” he said.

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Ready to tackle supply chain. Upadhyay acknowledges that his new operations and supply chain role is daunting. “If they offered me this job three years ago, I would have said, ‘No, it’s not the right thing for the company,’” he said. But he’s built up his team since then, and he said he believes his experience helming finance during the pandemic has prepared him for the job.

He vividly remembers the day in 2020 when the US Surgeon General recommended that hospitals pause elective procedures (“On March 13. That was a Saturday.”). “Well, 80% of our business is elective procedures,” he said. “I’ve got 30 plants in production. I’ve got a million patients a year. Think about the ecosystem around all these people who are going to be disrupted by this.”

Upadhyay and other leaders discussed scenarios ranging from the pandemic being over in a week to potentially filing for bankruptcy. “We had to plan for everything in between that spectrum,” he said. “Crisis management became incredibly important.”

Though the pandemic came with a lot of challenges and uncertainty, he did learn a great deal from the experience. “You learn how to lead through uncertainty,” he said. “You learn how to navigate a very tenuous financial situation, not only for your company—but even the entire banking system.” You also learn “how to rally people around you in periods of uncertainty and ambiguity when they’re not even sure about their own physical safety or financial security,” he said.

His plans for Zimmer Biomet’s supply chain are ambitious. “We’re going to drastically simplify how we do things,” he said, mentioning plans to shrink the portfolio of products the company offers, to streamline its plant network, and to automate and digitize more of its processes.

And Upadhyay has confidence that taking his new role will give his team opportunities for growth. He delegated “major strategy rollups and cost-saving initiatives” to his team, saying, “‘You’re going to have to run this…I’m here whenever you need me, but this is yours to deliver.’”

“I think it’s a great catalyst for them to get to that next level of development and learning,” he said.

News built for finance pros

CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.