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CFO THOUGHT LEADER
39 minutes | 2 days ago
In Search of a Culture Metric | Workplace Champions
"Talent has become really important, and you have to remain constantly focused on it—today, I spend around 20% of my time on it." - Ross Tennenbaum, CFO, Avalara CFOTL: What are your priorities for the coming year? Tennenbaum: One is building out our finance and accounting talent to take us to a billion dollars’ worth of revenue and beyond. We’re at close to half a billion of revenue, and we’re looking to go well beyond that. You really need the talent that has experienced a larger scale, knows how to achieve it, and can take you there. So, talent has become really important, and you have to remain constantly focused on it—today, I spend around 20% of my time on it. CFOTL: What does the phrase “workforce culture” mean to you? Tennenbaum: Beginning in my investment banking days, I’ve studied many companies and management teams. I’ve seen teams that were really high-functioning, really strong, great cultures. I’ve also seen management teams and executive teams that were not cohesive. There was a lot of distrust and backstabbing. Each of these scenarios could generate great numbers and be performing well, but I would only want to invest my money in the one that has that trust and has a cohesive team—and where this is really being driven forward in a cultural way. I don’t think that Wall Street really has a view of this. There is really no metric internally—and certainly not externally—that gives this view on culture. But I think that investors are increasingly trying to get this view into talent and culture. Drew Vollero, CFO, Allied Universal When Drew Vollero arrived in the CFO office of security and facilities company Allied Universal in 2018, he understood that the primary constraint to Allied’s future growth remained human capital. Like so many other meaty challenges, Vollero had helped to remedy during his finance career– Allied’s new CFO understood finance must play an active role when it came to optimizing the company’s “employee funnel”. Then Covid 19 arrived - overnight elevating Allied’s hiring hurdle to Vollero’s top of mind status. We recently asked Vollero to explain how the company’s hiring priorities may have been altered due to the pandemic. Vollero: I would say that we hire 3,000 people a week. We see a million resumes a year here at Allied Universal. There's 150 million or so people employed in this country. So, you're talking about a meaningful number of resumes that this company sees. Our ability to hire the right people is really important. How do you do this at scale is really our challenge. Our strategy team has adopted a couple of new tools that helped us do that through the field. We now have an artificial intelligence vehicle that we're testing that will help us identify what are the key metrics when it comes to hiring and what are the key personality traits or key answers that applicants can give us that (signal) they will fit well with our culture, as well as indicate that they might be successful employees. We're also using an automated workflow to really help us get through some of our staffing bottlenecks. Our challenge here today is we may get a resume, but we may not be able to call you for six to eight weeks. Managing that workflow better is very important to us and something that we spend a lot of time studying the employment funnel. How do we find 150,000 of the best employees? We hire based on customer needs. Customers continue to need services and some have used less during the pandemic like the retail channel, or some of the local office buildings, but a lot of customers have asked for more hours. State governments have wanted more hours. Hospitals have wanted more hours. As we manage through the pandemic we've really focused on three important pieces. First, and foremost, we focus on our employees. We've instructed all of our employees to follow the CDC and WHO guidelines, social distancing, very important. … We've supplied over 650,000 cloth masks to employees during that time. We've also been very active with virtual events, hiring people, so lot of kind of drive-through hiring events to practice social distancing, and meet the demand for security services and we still have a significant number of open posts and we've been trying to fill those. The customers, we've got 30,000 customers. And these 30,000 customers have 13,000 different ways that they've attacked this situation. Different customers have done it different ways and we’ve tried to be responsive to their every step. From a financial perspective, obviously during the pandemic, we've been focused on really the liquidity of the company. On the financial side, there's a couple of things that we've been trying to do to make sure that the company can continue to do well and to frame the magnitude, our payroll here is a $100 million a week, and we have to make sure that we have the ability to continue to pay the people who are working hard through this.
46 minutes | 5 days ago
653: From Real Estate to the Immune System | Chad Cohen, CFO, Adaptive Biotechnologies
Of all of the business discussions that Chad Cohen has had over the years, few are likely as memorable as the 20-second conversation he had with Zillow CEO Spencer Rascoff about midway into his 9-year career stint with the online real estate company. Cohen joined Zillow back in 2006 as corporate controller, a position that he says also had the added distinction of being the company’s first full-time finance role. Over the next 4 years, as Zillow’s back-office finance and accounting team took shape, Cohen’s responsibilities grew, allowing him to step into the role of vice president of finance. “I had been moving up the ladder, and it was right before we made the decision to go public—I remember Spencer coming into my office and saying, ‘You’re going to be CFO,’” says Cohen, who recalls Zillow’s CEO saying little more before exiting. For Cohen, the exchange signaled a 6- to 12-month transition that would enlarge his focus from being largely back-office to being both back- and front-office. “I had built an accounting and finance department, but this was a big step that required coaching from mentors and formal media training and IR experience,” says Cohen, who today views the Zillow IPO as only one of several Zillow milestones during his CFO tenure with the firm. Says Cohen: “I spent 4 years—or 16 earnings calls—as CFO, acquired about 10 companies, and raised somewhere between a half-billion and a billion dollars in capital from the public markets for Zillow Group.” Asked to recall a learning moment from his CFO years, Cohen says that he recalls waking up in a cold sweat during the 20- to 30-day period that immediately followed Zillow’s 2015 acquisition of Trulia. Having carefully crafted a 90- to 120-day postmerger integration plan, Cohen says, he realized that as the number of Trulia employee departures began to quickly escalate, “speed of integration” was going to play a plus-size role in the merger’s success. “Our retention bonuses—albeit very healthy and robust—were being offset by a very frothy employment market in San Francisco and even larger sign-on bonuses that we were having trouble competing with,” recalls Cohen. “I called my controller in a panic and said: ‘Hey, we have to do this faster because I think I see how the scenario is playing out—and it ain’t going to be pretty,’” remarks Cohen, who then instructed his team to “rip up” the 90-to 120-day plan, while accenting his new mandate for speed with the words “We’re going to do this now!” –Jack Sweeney
41 minutes | 9 days ago
652: Exposing Gross Margin’s Hidden Levers | Jeff Nichols, CFO, UJET
In 2016, when Jeff Nichols had been a senior member of Glassdoor’s FP&A team for 2 years, he and other members of the finance team were confronting the nagging truth that the firm’s path to going public wasn’t getting any shorter. The online job recruitment firm’s efforts to grow its profit margins had met only mild success, while its cash burn rate was inching upward. According to Nichols, Glassdoor’s path to going public was further complicated due to the unique characteristics of its business model. Points of comparison between Glassdoor and top recruitment rivals such as LinkedIn and Indeed offered few insights due to the firm’s unique approach, making Glassdoor’s story more challenging for management to tell. To help remove the firm’s storytelling obstacles and address its meager margin growth, Nichols says, the firm’s finance team began asking, “How do we get the business to perform over the long term in a way that would actually make for a compelling story?” To help answer this question, Nichols reports, Glassdoor first had to widen its lens and search for points of comparison with SaaS companies, ad tech firms, and other companies beyond the traditional recruitment realm in order to identify competitive attributes that aligned with those offered by Glassdoor. At the same time, this broader comparison helped to magnify certain weaknesses in Glassdoor’s model. “What we were lacking was retention. Most SaaS companies are focused on net dollar expansion or gross dollar expansion, and we just didn’t have it,” explains Nichols, who says that another challenge that quickly came into view involved small and medium-size businesses. “The way in which we went about SMB sales was just not efficient—it was very labor- and cost-intensive,” comments Nichols, who—having played a central role in helping to broaden the company’s strategic view—was soon helping to put a restructuring in motion. Says Nichols: “We reprioritized. We made some new investments that we had not made before, but at the same time we curtailed some costs and refocused what we were actually doing.” Ultimately, Glassdoor’s path led not to an IPO but to a sale, when in 2018 Recruit Holdings, a large Japanese human resources company, paid $1.2 billion for the company. Having been valued by investors only 2 years previously at around $860 million, Glassdoor had a story that had no doubt become more compelling. Looking back, Nichols’ cites his part in helping the company to widen its lens: “All of this was a directional change for the company. I feel that I brought something to the organization that it really needed, which was an honest, objective look at ‘here’s what’s going on in the business, and here’s how it appears to its peers.’” –Jack Sweeney
48 minutes | 12 days ago
651: Remedying Your Metrics Disconnect | Ross Tennenbaum, CFO, Avalara
Ross Tennenbaum remembers that back in 2018, when he was a managing director at Goldman Sachs, he had conversations with a number of senior executives from Slack Technologies, Inc. At the time, the fast-growing workplace messaging and communication platform was preparing to go public, and the company was making a special effort to educate bankers and analysts alike about the firm’s business. As his questions became more pointed, Tennenbaum says, he noticed that members of Slack’s senior management team would frequently permit other executives stationed along the conversation’s periphery to supply the answers. “At first, I thought that they served sort of a chief-of-staff type of role, but what I realized was that when the executive was pressed with a question, one of the sidekicks would always be turned to for the answer,” explains Tennenbaum, who found his conversations with Slack to be highly informative. Later, Tennenbaum learned that the sidekicks were members of Slack’s business operations team, a cluster of analysts that he describes as being “cousins” to Slack’s finance and FP&A teams. “This team was incredible: They were so dialed in to the business, and they were partnered with Slack’s executives, which allowed the latter to quickly make data-driven decisions,” says Tennenbaum, who today, as CFO of software developer Avalara, is seeking to borrow a page from Slack and populate his own business operations and FP&A functions with teams of analysts on the ready to inform and supply answers to questions. “This is about creating not just budgets but also operational plans that tie strategy and tactics to key metrics so that we can see when things are trending up or trending down and be able to more quickly take action,” adds Tennenbaum, who believes that many businesses struggle due to a disconnect between what he calls “top-level metrics” that are being widely shared and reported by the company and decision-making by “everyday operators” often situated deep inside a company. “How do we make these people feel a sense of ownership of the measure and feel more accountable when it comes to driving outcomes?” asks Tennenbaum, who notes that a disconnect can occur even after a company has made an effort to push a metric deeper into the organization. “What happens is that they don’t do a good job of updating the metrics every month, reviewing them and quickly assessing where they’re on and off track, and course-correcting,” comments Tennenbaum. At Avalara, remedying the metrics disconnect is now a top priority for finance. Says Tennenbaum: “To me, that’s the impactful part of the CFO job.” –Jack Sweeney Subscribe to our Newsletter
43 minutes | 19 days ago
649: Entering the Auction Room | Martin Nolan, CFO, Julien's Auctions
Had Martin Nolan studied engineering instead of accounting, his career path would likely never have entered the worlds of Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon, and Michael Jackson. Still, Irish-born Nolan is quick to point out that it was a Green Card lottery, not his accounting degree, that facilitated his relocation to New York City, where he would meet and ultimately team up with Darren Julien of Julien’s Auctions, the world’s leading entertainment auction house. Before the two men met, Nolan had traveled a remarkable distance from his early days in New York, where in the early 1990s—Green Card in hand—he had landed a job working at the front desk of the New York Hilton. In the years that followed, the determined Irishman had networked his way up into a string of Wall Street jobs, where he found success as a stock broker and investment advisor at such firms as JP Morgan Chase and Merrill Lynch. “Darren was doing a Johnny Cash auction when I met him—he was a marketing guy who needed a finance guy, so I joined him,” explains Nolan, who met Julien in 2004 and the following year signed on with the auction house as CFO. By 2010 Nolan had become an equal partner in the business. “When I resigned from Merrill Lynch in 2005 and told my colleagues that I was joining Julien’s Auctions, there were looks of dismay—they would say: ‘Why auctions? It’s such a different business. It’s so risky …,’” says Nolan, who pointed out to his colleagues that the buying and selling on the floor of the stock exchange was no different than what takes place inside an auction hall. Fifteen years later, he continues to wield a healthy appetite for risk, a prerequisite for any CFO daring enough to enter the ebb-and-flow of the auction business. For Nolan, the risks are best hedged by using a mix of financial best practices and good humor. Says Nolan: “Darren wakes up in the morning and checks Google and asks: ‘Are we in the news?’ I wake up and check the bank accounts and ask: ‘Are we still in business?’” However, there’s one risk that Nolan may fear more than any other: that a finance career hatched by a lottery win could put Wall Street in its rearview and still someday be deemed as ordinary. – Jack Sweeney
45 minutes | 23 days ago
648: A Life Sciences Angler Casts a Sturdy Line | Bill Adams, CFO, NervGen Pharma
It’s a familiar sequence: A strong-minded investor musters the will to lead and steps into the CEO office determined to revitalize a struggling technology company and put it back on the growth track. For Bill Adams, this swift turn of events occurred only a year into his first industry stint as a corporate controller—a career chapter, he recalls fondly, that included a devoted CFO mentor. However, the company’s CFO and CEO had exited the firm just prior the investor’s arrival, and Adams found himself stepping into a finance leadership role. Although stressful, the circumstances swung open the door for Adams to not only oversee the finance function but also have the opportunity to play a more strategic role in the business. In short, he would now be in lockstep with the new CEO as they together championed the latter’s strategic vision that would upend the tech company’s growing focus on software revenue and double down on hardware sales. Or so the CEO believed. “The challenge that I faced was that I didn’t agree with him,” explains Adams, whose in-depth knowledge of the business made him quietly question the new CEO’s big bet on hardware. “The company was full-steam-ahead focusing on software and system development, and the hardware part had already become secondary,” adds Adams, who says that his broadened responsibilities within the company allowed him to reach out to different stakeholders and bring back “suggestions” to the CEO. “Being able to talk to customers was extremely enlightening in terms of how to steer the company in the direction that it needed to go,” comments Adams, who says that at the time the company counted Boeing and General Dynamics among its largest customers. According to Adams, the company’s strategy would continue to evolve as it lessened its hardware orientation and came to enjoy newfound success. Even today, as Adams reflects on the circumstances that first advanced him into a CFO role, his sense of apprehension and excitement lingers: “I was not yet 30 years old when I was thrust into the CFO role at a public company, not really knowing where I was going or what I was doing.” –Jack Sweeney
46 minutes | a month ago
647: Accruing Your Global Acumen | Adrian Talbot, CFO, Hotwire
When Adrian Talbot tells us that he parachuted into Thames Television in the early 1990s, the image of the London skyline—once used to brand the popular British broadcasting company —quickly comes to mind. Suddenly, in our mind’s eye, just to the right of St. Paul’s dome, we spy a 20-something-year-old Talbot floating confidently downward. Along with a boatload of first-class metaphors, this is the type of instant imaging that every conversation renders—at least for those of us on the lookout for them. But Talbot’s successful first jump—not unlike those of many future finance leaders—came about with a degree of serendipity. “The lead auditor became sick—I was parachuted in for 2 years, and this gave me an early taste of media,” explains Talbot, who at the time was an auditor for BDO. Several internal auditing roles followed, including one with Hilton International that required a good deal of travel in order to complete audits in different parts of the world. “When you have chased the financial controller for the Caracas Hilton around the airport with a sheet of accruals or when the general manager of the Nairobi Hilton is yelling at you for telling him that he made a mess of a capex project, it is rather character-building,” comments Talbot, who soon jumped back into the media realm with United Business Media, where he would serve as a finance director for the company’s television broadcasting properties before entering the global communications sphere as a finance director for Burson Marsteller. Talbot reports that years later, when he was recruited to be CFO of Hotwire, a fast-growing global communications firm, he found a unique match—not because of his years inside media and communications but because of Hotwire’s global CEO, Barbara Bates. Bates had sold a communications company that she had spent 25 years building to Hotwire in 2016 and gone on to be named Hotwire’s Global CEO. “I was able to help her with my experience around the globe, and she was able to help me with her experience inside the USA,” says Talbot, who today credits Bates with helping him to safely land inside a finance leadership opportunity. - Jack Sweeney
25 minutes | a month ago
Bonus Episode: The Networking Imperative | Robert Bendetti, CFO, Life Cycle Engineering
Bendetti: I'm trying to steal that great quote from Warren Buffet, "I'm trying to be greedy while others are fearful." And I'm trying to grow. And if you're an existing organization with a big overhead, wow, you're retreating. You are worried about how you're going to continue if you're a 501C6, you're not eligible for the PPP loans. They're in a period of retrenchment, these other professional associations. I have no costs. I'm lean by design. I have a job. This is my nights and weekend gig. So everything I do is easy and lean. And so I have no costs. And so I'm trying to grow, I'm trying to be greedy while others are fearful and expand this thing. While I can't meet anywhere physically, so I can grow virtually.
58 minutes | a month ago
646: Making Finance a Workforce Whetstone | Michelle McComb, CFO, Bluecore
Just as Michelle McComb was imagining that she would shortly be joining another Silicon Valley start-up as a finance leader, the CFO of Lucent Technologies helped to upend her plans. Back in the early 2000s, McComb’s first CFO tour of duty was coming to an end with the successful sale of her company to a larger, publicly held software firm. However, within a matter of months, the buyer was itself acquired by the giant telecommunications player, and Lucent’s CFO offered up a question to McComb: “What would it take to keep you?” The coveted query is one that career builders long to hear but don’t always answer in rational ways. “I packed my bags and moved to England, where I became CFO of one of Lucent’s major divisions,” she explains, leaving little doubt that her answer had landed well. “I received tremendous international exposure as I traveled extensively and got to deal with finance people with very diverse backgrounds,” says McComb, who worked abroad 5 years before returning to the U.S., where, over time, she has occupied the CFO office for a string of technology companies. The latest is Bluecore, a marketing technology firm that she joined in May of 2020. Of course, in light of the pandemic, it’s safe to say that Bluecore will likely be a career chapter unlike any that have preceded it, and, not unlike her CFO peers, McComb finds herself now being drawn to the mix of financial and cultural levers that influence Bluecore’s workforce. “I think that the people strategy—especially as we come through environments like COVID—is going to be extremely important to ensuring how we retain and hire the right talent, especially when it comes to remote. What does the new office environment look like?,” comments McComb, who begins voicing a series of questions: “What is our compensation philosophy today? Are we competitive? Are we a merit-based company?” It’s just such questions that in the wake of pandemic make McComb—perhaps more than some other CFOs—better prepared to land on the right answer. –Jack Sweeney CFOTL: What are your priorities as a finance leader as we go forward? McComb: I think it's super important that you have a solid foundation. So for me, I got to make sure that that foundation of my GL's accurate. I can close the books in a timely way. And make certain I have got audited financial statements. Those are super important. But as a finance leader, you're not going to get credit for them. So make them happen, get them done, and then it's important to move on to other things. And so for me, looking over the next 12 months, especially in light of COVID, I think it's paying attention to the capital strategy. So around cash management investment, what do we need to look at? ... Should we look at acquiring a company or other companies? What do we want to do with our investments in our cash strategy? So that's one side. I'm going to add to that because I think a lot of times CFOs do tend to look at capital as cash. I'm one of those CFOs who look at people as a huge asset. I also look after the people function at Bluecore and I think the people strategy, especially coming through environments like COVID, is going to be extremely important of ensuring to retain, hire the right talent, and especially of looking at remote. What is the new office environment look like? And then the last thing that I would say that I'm looking at is all around the other keyword that I mentioned to you earlier, around data. I think data is going to be absolutely essential in helping the company transform strategically. The decisions it's going to make, the avenues it's going to take supporting its customers. So it's really double clicking down on the data side of things. And the analytics because it's not just about data. What is the data telling us? What changes do we need to make? What's the story being told? And I think it's just going to become increasingly important to help get the company to the next spot in its journey.
42 minutes | a month ago
SPECIAL EPISODE: Workplace Champions featuring CFOs Michelle McComb, Brian Whalen & Markus Harder
More keenly aware of the competitive price of employee burnout and workforce attrition — many midsize companies are today busy rethinking how they attract, hire and inspire employees. The Workplace Champions Podcast explores the innovative workforce practices of talent-minded business leaders tasked with opening a new chapter of growth for their midsize organizations.
48 minutes | a month ago
644: Thwarting COVID By Rethinking Opportunities | Mike Brower, CFO, Office Evolution
Back in the late 1980s, Mike Brower’s list of audit clients included a roster of oil and gas companies as well a local university and a number of different state and local government entities. It was the type of client list that any accountant based in and around Cheyenne, Wyoming, might covet, a fact made all the more undeniable by having Taco John’s International top the list. A restaurant franchisor with over 450 restaurants nationwide, Taco John’s first began serving local Cheyenne customers in the 1960s, before expanding rapidly across the Plains and upper Midwest as it outfitted franchisees in small towns rather than big city locations. “They just popped up everywhere, and I sort of had an insider’s view,” says Brower, who joined the Taco John’s finance team in 1990 after having given notice to the Cheyenne office of McGladrey & Pullen. For the next 6 years, Brower’s responsibilities intersected with every aspect of Taco John’s accounting and reporting function, eventually landing him in the controller’s office, where he oversaw the company’s financial statements as well as those of the 30 company-owned restaurants. However, as time passed, Brower began evaluating other local opportunities and came upon an advertisement in the Sunday newspaper seeking CFO candidates. “It was a blind ad, but you have to remember that this is Wyoming and everyone in the local business community sort of knows everyone, so I called the guys up and said ‘Hey, I’d be perfect for you,’” explains Brower, who notes that the ad was placed by a fast-growing insurance company owned by two local businessmen who had in fact underwritten policies for Taco John’s. “I told them that I’d love to talk with them about the job, but they were like, ‘Well, we don’t want to lose the Taco John’s account,’ so I said, ‘Look, Barry isn’t going to take the account away just because you took his controller,’” said Brower, while mentioning his former boss who at the time was Taco John’s CFO. Brower got the job and became CFO of the insurance brokerage, which in short order began talks to acquire two Midwest insurance brokers. The insurance firm’s appetite for M&A deal-making gave Brower a new set of experiences that injected some excitement into his first CFO role that even today he looks back upon and savors. –Jack Sweeney
30 minutes | a month ago
643: The Rise of People-Centric Finance | Katie Rooney, CFO, Alight Solutions
Back in 2015, Katie Rooney was only 7 months into her first industry CFO role at Aon when her boss asked her to exit the office. “He came into my office on November 1 and said, ‘I’m retiring, and I want you to take on my role. I’m leaving in 8 weeks,’” recalls Rooney, who says that the news triggered a mix of surprise and fear, which she recalls outwardly expressing with the words “Oh, my God!” Her boss quickly sought to ease her concerns. “He said: ‘You know what? It will be the best thing for you. If I stick around, you will never get the credit from the team,” explains Rooney, who subsequently swapped her CFO business unit responsibilities for her boss’s broader, divisional-level CFO portfolio. Looking back, Rooney confides that she expected to someday to fill her boss’s shoes, but perhaps in 2017 or 2018—and certainly not in 2015. For her, though, the timing would turn out to be most fortuitous. In early 2017, 13 months after she had officially taken on her boss’s role, Aon announced plans to sell its employee benefits outsourcing business to private equity firm Blackstone Group as part of a “carve out” strategy that eventually rebranded the stand-alone business as Alight Solutions. “We called ourselves a $2.3 billion startup,” remembers Rooney, who says that she now realizes how her boss’s decision to step aside in late 2015 ensured her inclusion in the early round of discussions that ultimately led to a deal with Blackstone and her subsequent appointment as CFO of Alight Solutions. “We kind of had this moment when we said, ‘The capital structure and some of the margin components just don’t fit with the larger business,’ so we started thinking about carving the business out,” responds Rooney, when asked to recall the moment of insight that may have helped to hatch Alight Solutions. –Jack Sweeney Rooney: As I think about the next 12 months, we have to execute on the strategy we've now brought together. We are at this incredible place in time where our business is uniquely positioned to help solve the needs of our clients and their employees. We can help drive down the total cost of the workforce. We can try to drive and improve health outcomes. And as we think about the financial stresses created by the pandemic, thinking about overall financial wellbeing, there's so much opportunity here, and we've pulled the strategy together, and as I mentioned, I think we've built the right KPIs around it. We're now working on building out a detailed operating plan that will hold us accountable day over day around executing against this, because its about driving more value. We're taking an outcome based approach. We're leading with technology and really looking at everything, but we now have to hold ourselves accountable day over day to execute against that. And I think finance plays an incredibly important role there as we think about how we develop the operating plan to get all of our leaders, all of our businesses, aligned around what's required to drive that forward. So that's really where we're focused here over the next couple of months.
31 minutes | a month ago
642: The Virtues of Top Line Growth | Sachin Patel, CFO, Apixio
It’s not uncommon for career-building executives inside the finance realm to obtain an MBA in order to pivot their careers in a new direction. Such was the case for Sachin Patel, who after finding some early success as a systems engineer at IBM Corp. began to study the path before him more closely. “One of the things that you don’t very often get to do as an engineer is to articulate what you did by using the written word or even verbally. Just having this not be a feature of the job was something that began to be evident to me,” says Patel, who as the years passed found the laconic nature of engineering to be in direct conflict with his growing desire to play a more active role in shaping and influencing business strategy. “I looked at two areas—investment banking and strategy consulting—and began pursuing both, which probably wasn’t the best approach from a time management standpoint,” explains Patel, who says that ultimately the numbers—or, as he describes it, “the common wiring between engineering and finance”—drew him toward the world of finance. With an MBA in hand, Patel joined Citigroup and set about developing the relationships and industry insights required to succeed in the investment banking realm, until one day—roughly 4 years after his carefully executed career pivot—he received a call from a friend and business school classmate with a job opportunity. In short order, Patel was accepting a director of finance role with Vantage Oncology, a network of cancer centers and supporting physicians that was quickly expanding across the country. Over the next 4 years, Patel would build and lead Vantage’s FP&A team as he advanced from controller to the CFO office, where in 2016 he ultimately helped to sell the company to McKesson Corporation for $1.2 billion. Looking back, Patel credits his years at Vantage for providing him with consecutive opportunities to prove himself as he climbed steadily upward. Still, he makes clear that his success there was not always obvious. In fact, even before he accepted the position, he needed to confront a potential obstacle that surprisingly had little to do with strategy or Vantage’s financial footing. “An interesting wrinkle was that I reported to the business school classmate who recruited me,” explains Patel, who at first mentions his classmate to highlight the added rewards of having returned to business school but is compelled to emphasize the added complexity of such a relationship. “It was good that we had the baseline of a friendship, but sometimes this can lead to a little more ruffling,” he says, before giving kudos to his classmate as well as to Vantage’s management team for creating an environment where the two friends could both succeed. –Jack Sweeney Patel: We developed an in-house pricing tool for each of our solutions that we offer. And so based on our experience out of what the different components of the expense were, whether it's human time from the operations team, over to cloud expense that I mentioned, anything else that all gets folded into there, I should say, and then we can set the pricing based on that. And this tool allows them to check each of their contracts, or as they're negotiating they can check those margins using that tool. Ultimately, that goes to our chief growth officer who oversees that, and then if we need to make any additional decisions around that, we meet as a group. But it's become part of the practice, and I think they were actually looking for that being that we are developing new solutions. You're not entirely sure how we should price those in the market when it's a new solution. Many times there's a lot of puts and takes there that you have to consider. And so early on it was a very much live discussion, but now it's part of the standard process, and very much something we follow. We were guarded about that margin profile. We were very particular about it. And then we realized that there's many other components to our numbers that we can manage better to free up those dollars to win more business. And what we were able to do is understand that from a valuation perspective, moving from X to 1.1 X margin may not be as important to us as having higher revenue growth. So let's orient around that. Let's take the additional dollars we have and maybe give a little here, invest a little there, and make sure that we're driving that top line growth. Because ultimately there's a finite universe of health plans and provider groups after which the sales team can go. But once you're in there, the opportunity to sell more is really where the sizzle is. And so it's important to sort of win the day, and that became something that the management team, ranging from operations and engineering over to obviously sales and marketing, everyone could coalesce.
31 minutes | 2 months ago
641: The IPO Playbook & Creating Opportunity for Others | Steve Cakebread, CFO, Yext
“It’s not cheap to go public,” concedes CFO Steve Cakebread, echoing the oft-repeated refrain that founders and CFOs confront when considering the prospect of selling shares in their companies to the public. Concessions aside, it will come as little surprise to Wall Street and private investors alike that Cakebread—a seasoned finance leader who has taken public such companies as Salesforce, Pandora, and his latest firm, Yext—has come not to bury IPOs, but to praise them. And 2020 might be the year when founders and CEOs are prepared to listen. Certainly, few of Cakebread’s CFO admirers are likely to question the finance leader’s keen sense of timing. In fact, more than a few will likely be making room on their bedside tables for Cakebread’s soon-to-be-released The IPO Playbook: An Insider’s Perspective on Taking Your Company Public and How to Do It Right (Silicon Valley Press, 2020). “With all of the macroeconomic and pandemic issues going on, there have been as many—if not more—IPOs through August than there have ever been in the past couple of years,” says Cakebread, signaling an optimistic note for U.S.-listed publicly held companies, which have seen their numbers cut in half over the past two decades. The coronavirus, it turns out, might in part be the antidote for Wall Street’s IPO blues. As COVID-19 spread, many companies made greater operational discipline and efficiency top-of-mind, which in turn led to the adoption of governance practices more commonly used by publicly held companies. What’s more, they began doubling down on culture, a trend that has prompted IPO-minded founders to more thoughtfully expose the connective tissue between public ownership and social responsibility. “Most founders want to create opportunity both for themselves and for the people around them, and this happens only when you go public,” explains Cakebread, who notes that the social responsibility aspects of going public were a big incentive for each of the companies that he took public, including Salesforce, where he and CEO Marc Benioff identified a number of benefits. “Marc and I talked about it a lot before we took Salesforce public. The discipline of going public makes your organizational governance better. It makes companies more socially responsible, and this was a big item for him and for me. It grows careers and spins off other technology companies,” continues Cakebread, who joined Salesforce as employee #67, when the $17 billion company was eking out a quaint $20 million annually. According to Cakebread, public firms operate with a certain rigor that privately held firms struggle to match—and VC-backed and private equity–owned firms can at times miss the big picture. Notes Cakebread: “I actually find it tougher to work with VC boards because all they care about is the numbers. They don't care about the opportunity so much.” To Cakebread, the IPO process is important because it allows CFOs to realize their role as visionary storytellers with the ability to articulate a narrative that educates others about where the business is headed and what opportunities are being pursued. “You’re always going to have one number out of whack every quarter, but if the sell-side research people understand the underlying story, they can teach the longer vision to their investors and say, ‘This is an upsy-downsy quarter, but long-term, this business is intact,’” he observes. Asked how diminished listings of U.S. public companies have likely impacted industry over time, Cakebread points to the dynamics of wealth creation. “This has meant less access for most of us, and I think that this is helping to create this disparity between people who are very wealthy and people who aren't because they can’t get access to the market,” says Cakebread. “This is a challenging topic for a lot of people, but I personally believe that access is important because wealth distribution happens when employees and other investors get to participate,” asserts Cakebread, who believes that a new generation of investors is quickly emerging. “The retail investor is realizing that there’s opportunity and getting back into the stock market, and this next generation is starting to recognize the public market as a way to create wealth,” continues Cakebread, who cautions IPO-minded CFOs not to become too besotted by numbers. Concludes Cakebread: “What I have found in my career is that science and numbers are important, but you need a little bit of art to make a really successful bottle of wine or a really successful company.” CFOTL: For many CFOs - the IPO process is challenging in terms of communications. Cakebread: That's a good part of it. I mean, you have to be able to one, love your business, have a passion around it, explain it to third parties that may not have a good idea of what you're doing. The IR function is really critical. The good news is, there's a number of very capable IR firms that can help you get through that early stage of communication. Not the least of which is your investment banker that can help you write the story of the S1, and then there's others that I've worked with my whole career and even after we've been public for five or 10 years, I still use those same IR people to bounce ideas off of, to look at my problems differently and how to communicate. Yes, if you want to be shy and introverted and don't want to talk to people, this is probably not a company that you want to take public, but you learn speaking skills, which is good for all of us, I think. You learn how to approach and answer questions and explain your story. None of that is hard. It just takes a little bit of work, but shouldn't prevent you from going public because personally, it is kind of interesting. I actually find it tougher to work with VC boards because all they care about is the numbers. They don't care about the opportunity so much. What I found in my career is science and numbers is important, but there's a little bit of art that you need to make a really successful bottle of wine or a successful company. It can't all be driven by numbers and I've been around long enough. If you remember, General Motors at one time, was known as the organization that the bean counters ran the company. Well, that company went broke and they had to bring in people with a little bit more vision and a little bit more art to the car, not all numbers. I think that's a good opportunity to really help the company see itself, not only mathematically, but in a different vision, and talking to investors is a great way to hone your story in terms of how you might talk to a customer.
40 minutes | 2 months ago
640: Communicating Your Strategic Plan | James Samuels, CFO, EXUMA Biotech
Jamie Samuels still recalls some of the raised eyebrows that he saw after having completed in short order both the verbal and written portions of an exam that his future employer administered to job applicants. Not unlike most of his fellow applicants, Samuels had been invited to take the exam after responding to a newspaper advertisement, but, unlike his peers, he had been the only foreign applicant—or, more important, the only foreign applicant able to complete both portions of the exam in fluent Chinese. “At that time, my written Chinese was very good because I had only recently completed my senior thesis,” explains Samuels, who first became immersed in the Mandarin-speaking world in the early 1990s when at 18 years of age he spent 12 months in China in a gap year before returning to the U.S. and entering college as a Chinese language major. “Language is a tool to go do something else, so I spent a lot of my early career in trying to figure out just what that ‘something else’ was,” remembers Samuels, whose stellar exam performance earned him a junior sales rep position with a Taiwanese medical device company. “While I was good at sales, I discovered that it wasn’t for me—it was too much of an emotional roller coaster,” observes Samuels, who would remain in Taiwan but change companies as he migrated from sales into a corporate development role. The job switch was enlightening. Says Samuels: “It taught me that my financial toolbox was lacking. My response was to get myself into the most quant-oriented MBA program that I could.” Samuels returned stateside and nabbed a Wharton MBA before being recruited by Johnson & Johnson to fill a CFO role at a small Taiwanese operating company. “They don’t give CFO roles to fresh MBA grads for nothing. They had an operating company that was in a little bit of trouble in Taiwan, or so I figured out after starting the job,” confesses Samuels, whose career with J&J would last more than 10 years and span a variety of senior finance positions in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Next, Samuels stepped into a CFO role for a privately owned manufacturer of air compressors. Based in Taiwan, the company operated six plants in the United States and Europe. Finally, with more than 20 years abroad behind him, Samuels began considering CFO career opportunities back in the United States. “When you spend as much time as I did in the Far East, you risk getting pigeonholed,” says Samuels, who, as CFO of EXUMA Biotech, may have finally figured out what that “something else” is. Headquartered in West Palm Beach, Fla., EXUMA produces cancer-fighting therapies largely developed at research facilities in Shanghai and Shenzhen, China—a strategic advantage that Samuels seems uniquely experienced to leverage. - Jack Sweeney Signup for our newsletter
39 minutes | 2 months ago
639: Thriving at the Deep End | Catherine Birkett, CFO, GoCardless
Back in the early 2000s, Catherine Birkett found herself being pulled into confidential meetings where her company’s senior management was discussing restructuring plans with the company’s largest investor. The company—a fiber optics telecom firm known as Interoute—was not yet 6 years old, but its days appeared to be numbered as the company sought to weather the telecom industry’s historic collapse. As Interoute’s top FP&A executive, Birkett knew from the ongoing business plan’s numbers that massive changes were urgently needed, and she as well as others were not optimistic about the restructuring options available to the company. In fact, Birkett recalls, she and many executives had to tamp down the feeling that “this was not going to end well.” From a career perspective, Birkett arguably had less at risk than the other more senior executives sitting ringside during the restructuring discussions. Not yet 30 years of age, she joined the discussions knowing perhaps that other more gainful career opportunities were available to her outside Interoute’s four walls. Nonetheless, she had been given a seat at the meetings out of recognition of not just her ability to recite numbers but also her grasp of the intellectual property that governed the numbers. “I owned the business plan,” Birkett explains. In the end, the company’s multiyear restructuring allowed Interoute to find a new path to growth while operating under a new management team—one that included the 32-year-old Birkett as CFO. “I was thrown into the deep end as a finance leader—I basically had to learn on the job,” recalls Birkett, who entered Interoute’s CFO office in 2003 and went on to serve in the role for the next 15 years. “We managed to transform the company,” says Birkett. Along the way, Interoute marched in step with a new private equity firm owner and closed a string acquisitions. Ultimately, the company was sold to GTT Communications in 2018 for $2.3 billion. “Being promoted so young, I definitely made mistakes,” admits Birkett, who credits her CEO and other members of senior management for standing behind her as she ran at breakneck speed to acquire the skills necessary to manage a quickly expanding finance team. –Jack Sweeney
47 minutes | 2 months ago
638: The Path to Being Cost Smart | Jim Gray, CFO, Ingredion
It's the type of business restructuring capable of striking envy in the hearts of many a company board member—and particularly those known to favor one oft-repeated bit of business wisdom: Never waste a recession. At food ingredient maker Ingredion, where the recession’s bite is directly linked to the eating habits of consumers, a 2-year-old restructuring strategy dubbed “Cost Smart” has begun to deliver on its cost savings promises. In fact, last month, the maker of sweeteners and starches announced plans to increase its Cost Smart run-rate savings target from $150M annually to $170M—a $20M uptick that led certain analysts to believe now might be the right time for the food giant to step on Cost Smart’s accelerator. Not so fast, says Ingredion CFO Jim Gray, who reports that he already likes what he’s seeing in Ingredion’s rearview mirror. The opportunity around remote work environments and online collaboration has accelerated toward us,” observes Gray, who over the past 2 years has replaced the dated architecture of Ingredion’s finance function with a new shared services model and a mandate for greater online collaboration. The restructuring involved the relocation of 107 finance and accounting employees to shared services location in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Guadalajara, Mexico. The movement of this part of Ingredion’s workforce is expected to be followed by that of a number of other functional areas within the company. “This was not about lowering head count—it is about holistically redesigning processes to have a lasting impact on cost,” says Gray, who last month—along with Ingredion CEO Jim Zallie—briefed investors and analysts on COVID-19’s impact on the business. After having experienced a significant drop in demand for different ingredients in April and May, advised Zallie, the company had seen “sequential improvements” in June and July as shelter-in-place restrictions had eased. These improvements were more than likely first detected by a member of Gray’s finance team, which had been working to better expose how the pandemic is altering the buying patterns of Ingredion customers. “With the pandemic, there has been a change in consumer behavior that’s impacting the pull of our customer products. Then you also have the effects of a recession, in which there is less personal income, so this changes how they shop in grocery stores and how often they dine out,” comments Gray, who credits the company’s widening use of technology for helping to track and monitor customer activities.
46 minutes | 2 months ago
637: Experiencing the Market Economy Spirit | Tom Fencl, CFO, Pricefx
The son of two doctors, Tom Fencl recalls that while growing up in communist Czechoslovakia, to him a free market economy was more “an intellectual curiosity” than a possible career destination. “When the Berlin Wall came down, I was midway through high school—it was a very formative experience,” remembers Fencl, who says that the historic happening suddenly released “a market economy spirit.” After studying at Prague’s University of Economics, Fencl says, he was “drawn to the big financial centers” and worked in London for 2 years at Stern Stuart & Co. as a consultant before heading to the University of Michigan for an MBA. “From a university standpoint, the University of Michigan may not be the most obvious place for a European to go—but they found me more than I found them,” explains Fencl, who notes that years earlier in Prague he had met students from the University of Michigan who were involved in a study of post-communist economies. “They were virtually the first MBA students that I had ever met,” he observes. From Michigan, he went directly to New York and Wall Street, where roughly 10 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall Czech-born and -raised Fencl became an investment banker. “I worked as sort of a traditional investment banker, meaning that I covered everything from capital market transactions to M&As,” says Fencl, who worked for Salomon Smith Barney (later acquired by Citigroup) and Bank of America. “I left Wall Street just before the 2008 meltdown,” he reports. “That was some lucky timing. I moved back to my home country, the Czech Republic, with my newborn and my wife, and there I joined a private equity boutique,” explains Fencl, who over the next 10 years migrated from what he describes as “transaction-driven” finance roles to more traditional CFO posts. “I joined Pricefx in Prague—which was its largest office and where a lot of the banking office functions are,” says Fencl, who was named CFO of the company in 2017 and subsequently relocated with his family back to the U.S.—a market that Pricefx now views as a primary source of future growth. –Jack Sweeney Fencl: To remind your listeners, we're a SaaS company. So that is a subset of the industry where there's one metric above all, which is ARR, annual recurring revenue, and more specifically the growth of ARR. And then you rank companies based on where they are. For the past few years, we've been somewhere around 80% year over year. So that's a pretty decent clip. Now, you ask what did I change since I arrived? I didn't have to introduce that. They were told already by the very first investors, "You need to watch your ARR growth." The thing that I had to work on doing, and it is obviously a cultural shift, is understanding that particularly when you're using other people's money, where you're not regulated by, do I have the cash or not ... Now, you have a lot of cash, but the right question is how are you deploying it? How efficiently are you using that capital? So, the metric that I had to work and make sure that the organization understand is payback, customer acquisition cost payback. So understanding how the growth ... How much did I have to spend to get that growth? And that of course is something that then leads to further analysis because you break down the metrics into its components. And that's something where you can't just buy the growth, right? You have to have a certain level of patience. Well, for us, we mentioned before that we just finished fundraising. So we have plenty of cash to give us the, what they say, runway; meaning, we don't have to worry immediately on the short-term of funding the business. But conversely, we need to deploy that capital and, what we say, that's to scale up. And as I was saying before about it's not just growth, but how efficiently it grows. So I guess the biggest priority is make sure that we deployed efficiently, that we do achieve the growth, but we do it in a way that will satisfy sort of the requirements of the return on capital. And to do that, one of the key areas of our focus today is work with data. There's obviously a lot of data in the business, but not all of it is structured perfectly. And not all of it is organized in the right way. So we're currently spending a lot of effort on making sure that we clean that up and that we, going forward, make the decisions based on data. Data-driven decision-making is a big priority internally.
52 minutes | 2 months ago
636: Being Part of the Team | Marsha Smith, CFO, Siemens, USA
Members of Siemens USA’s finance team would probably not be surprised to learn that when their CFO, Marsha Smith, is asked to reveal the experiences that prepared her for a finance leadership role, the ones that she relates most often originate from being part of a team. Such was the case in 2004, when she had been assigned to a Siemens joint venture as a commercial project manager. “I’ll never forget: It was my first week on the job, and the project manager came up to me and said, ‘Hey, Marsha, we need to ask for a change order on this one, so write a letter to the customer,’” comments Smith, who recalls thinking at the time: “I know how to use spreadsheets, I perform calculations—but I don’t know how to word this letter.” Later, Smith says, she reached out for guidance from the technical team, followed by the legal team, before sitting down and writing a letter to the customer. Very often, the customer relationship would involve multiple partners and payment schemes, she explains. “This was the beginning of my external-facing experience,” comments Smith, who at different times during her career has found herself seated at conference tables flanked by dozens of customer executives and their attorneys. Says Smith: “I’ll never forget when at a certain meeting I asked a question and one of the managers asked: ‘And who are you?’” From her early customer-facing experiences on forward, Smith’s business mind-set has become largely influenced by teams. “Everybody has to work together because everybody has a piece of the puzzle and we must make sure that we’re collectively doing the right thing for the customer,” says Smith, who believes that teams can also help to bring clarity to each individual’s contribution. “You see who goes the extra mile,” she says. –Jack Sweeney SUBSCRIBE
48 minutes | 2 months ago
635: Finding Your Finance Team's North Star | Markus Harder, CFO, Contentful
The Berlin headquarters of software developer Contentful occupies an old brick warehouse with heavy metal doors and broad functional corridors and spaces native to its industrial past. Standing six stories high, the structure once accommodated its worker population with a miniature kitchen on every floor, a favorite employee perk perhaps first introduced by a coffee-loving tenant. Still, not everyone at Contentful loves coffee—or at least its CFO, Markus Harder, doesn’t. “My secret is that I hate coffee—I just don’t like it,” says Harder, who shortly after his arrival at the firm put in motion a mandate to remove the small kitchens. “It was arguably one of my biggest career gambles,” says Harder, as he captures our attention and leads us to wonder why a finance leader would make a point of championing such a seemingly misguided decree. Of course, Harder’s actions are only Part I of a two-part tale. The second part involves the creation of what he dubs “a central watering hole” complete with a coffee machine worthy of Berlin’s trendiest “third-wave” coffee shops. “With all of these floors and their little coffee machines, we were never seeing each other—we never talked to each other,” explains Harder, who reports that Contentful hired a champion barista for a 2-week period to teach every employee how to properly use the new machine to render an excellent coffee. Says Harder: “Whatever you want to drink—a coffee, a latte, an espresso—you’ll find that there’s always somebody there who has been to the training or someone in line who is ready to train somebody else.” According to Harder, skeptics of the original mandate have largely been won over, but outsiders still find the coffee-making arrangement hard to imagine. “Three hundred people, just one coffee machine—how does that work?” asks Harder, echoing the thoughts of coffee drinkers beyond Contentful’s four walls. “Well, actually, it works. And it’s about the line. It’s a social experience, and one that I celebrate each morning,” remarks Harder, who says that on any given morning he’ll spend a minimum of an hour at the café. Says Harder: “We’re all in the open. I’m available. Ask me something.” –Jack Sweeney Harder: We're in the fortunate, but also tricky situation that historically we've doubled or more than doubled revenue over basically every year of our history. And that brings challenges toward pipeline generation. Because if you want to double the revenue again, you need to have a massively bigger pipeline. So we are doing more with existing customers. Our existing customers have certain requirements that today we can't fulfill. So how do we get them to be successful in all those things they want to do? We have just relaunched our partner program. So oftentimes Contentful gets implemented through a large partner who is either specialized in building web presences, or building workflows for the customer without touching any internal user interfaces and so forth. So you can think of the Accenture's and Capgemini's of this world, or Razorfish or ... There are certain marketing agencies that use Contentful. So you were trying to work more with partners, enable them to be more educated with how to best implement Contentful. We're investing a lot in enablement and training and coaching. So the learning materials about Contentful are out there are heavily downloaded. We have a Contentful certification. So if you are a developer, you can actually graduate with a Contentful diploma. And we try to be industry agnostic, such that our solution really works for a broad variety of customers though. Yeah. So I continue to invest in the team. I continue to invest in automation and systems. I'm actually accelerating hiring at this point and I'm getting Contentful ready for being a public company in a couple of years. That is sort of a North star. That doesn't mean that we will go public, but a North star that I'm instilling in my team because the quality of financials, the quality of insights, the quality of processes I want to see us have is that of a public company. - Jack Sweeney SUBSCRIBE
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