When Rajesh Gupta tells us that he likes change and fixing things that are broken, we can’t help but wonder how a finance career that has encompassed more than 20 years with General Electric has come to satisfy that appetite. Certainly, we reason, this number of years with a single company is more likely to accent the resume of a change-averse executive than that of someone who actively pursues it. However, as we quickly learn, Gupta’s GE years were spent across three continents, and 15 of them involved ever-acquisitive GE Capital. “Because GE Capital grew from a lot of different acquisitions, each of its new companies would in effect have its own culture—and rather than try to force their own culture on it, GE would instead introduce its leadership training and financial management approaches,” explains Gupta, whose career with GE began in India after he was first hired by a GE joint venture that was shortly thereafter acquired by GE Capital. “I was asked to join a leadership training program, which basically opened the door to opportunities through which I could take on different roles inside GE,” reports Gupta, whose vocational track quickly found traction inside GE’s M&A and commercial business partnering activities. From restructuring acquisitions to dealing with credit card operations, Gupta tells us, his appetite for change found a wealth of avenues to pursue. “I was heading down a path that I felt would someday allow me to become a general manager of a GE business unit—but then 2008 happened,” comments Gupta, who notes that the economic downturn of the late 2000s became something of a wakeup call. “When I looked at my CV, I saw that I had had a career that was difficult to explain to people and that I needed to make a choice rather than continue to straddle the general manager and finance worlds, so I decided to go down the finance track,” recalls Gupta, who in short order was named CFO of a bank owned by GE Capital in the Czech Republic. “I took hold of the position with both hands,” remembers Gupta, who years later doesn’t attempt to conceal the grave uncertainties of the time. Nonetheless, from that day forward—whether inside or outside of GE—Gupta has always had the CFO title preceding his name. Adds Gupta: “What became clear to me was that the outside world typically thinks about future roles based on the last role that you occupied.”
Looking back to the mid-1980s, Larry Angelilli knows now that he was at the time witnessing something that others would not see for decades. Before Jack Welch declared war on “green eyeshade” auditors or Indra Nooyi endowed Pepsico with a strategic finance function or conference promoters added the edgy words “The Changing Role of the CFO” to their event agendas, Angelilli was sitting courtside, observing the game-changing moves of Chrysler Corp. CFO Steve Miller. Angelilli—a banker then in his late 20s—had joined Chrysler Financial Corp. shortly after CFO Miller had arranged for loans from hundreds of banks under a government-insured loan program that would permit Chrysler to avoid bankruptcy—a feat that helped Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca to later achieve icon status. “At the time, Miller wanted to populate the finance team with bankers and people who knew credit risk and understood what could go wrong in the type of cyclical business that Chrysler was in,” explains Angelilli, who credits Miller with having had a survival instinct that enabled Chrysler to navigate the ups and downs of America’s auto manufacturing sector in the 1980s. Recalls Angelilli: “When Chrysler began to have trouble again, Miller became that pivotal person who had a strategy. It had everything to do with managing the balance sheet, generating liquidity, and picking winners and losers.” In short, Angelilli describes Miller as “probably the best CFO in the United States” at that time. “I was a junior guy, working in M&A and asset-backed securities, but he showed us what was possible for the CFO role,” comments Angelilli, who notes that Miller was “totally plugged in to strategy and connected to the CEO.” Still, Angelilli says, Miller’s calm demeanor was what perhaps made him an exceptional CFO. “We’d be going through this epic change as a company and everyone would be nervous, and here was this incredibly calm person with a steady hand,” remarks Angelilli, who further compliments Miller as being “friendly and warm.” Says Angelilli: “If business were a democracy and you could vote for your CFO, Miller would have gotten 100 percent of the vote.”
When Peter Walker looks back on his career, he never hesitates to highlight “the big asks,” or those times when he asked a boss to “take a chance” on him. One such instance occurred when he asked his CEO to sponsor his studies as he pursued an executive MBA on nights and weekends at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “He said ‘Yes,’ and the degree really flipped my brain from being that of an accountant to that of a big picture finance partner,” comments Walker, who was working for Assurant, a provider of risk management products and services. Still, an even bigger “ask” followed—one that engendered a response that even today seems to surprise Walker. “It was only a couple of months later that I found myself on a plane to Atlanta, about to step into the CFO role at a $2 billion business unit,” explains Walker, who recalls that this divisional CFO role opened up shortly after he completed his MBA—which allowed him to make the pitch, “Hey, you made this investment in me—the company needs a good ROI off this, so why not put me in that CFO role?” Today, Walker doesn’t hesitate to characterize his leap upward at the company as a case of “right place, right time.” However, he points out that the promotion came 9 years into a 17-year tenure with Assurant—a hefty investment of career years that spanned such milestones as the company’s 2004 IPO, multiple acquisitions, and expansion overseas. Unbeknownst to Walker when he entered the CFO office at Assurant in 2014, still ahead was yet another promotion to EVP and chief strategy officer. “As I sat in the chief strategy officer role, I really missed finance, as I view the CFO role today as the trifecta of finance, strategy, and leadership,” remarks Walker, who notes that during his strategy chief stint he had become increasingly interested in the deal-making mechanics of the private equity realm, an area to which his career thus far had offered only limited exposure. Comments Walker: “I had had a lot of M&A experience within a public organization, but I wanted a turn at being the CFO leading the sale of a PE-owned organization so that I could gain another set of experiences—which, as it has turned out, have proven critical to reaching where I sit today.” Walker was recruited to lead the successful sale of Jackson Hewitt from H.I.G. Bayside Capital to Corsair Capital and in 2017 was named CFO of Jackson Hewitt, a firm in Corsair’s portfolio. “I specifically went after a private equity opportunity and was looking for something where the sponsor was going to want to sell in the next year or two,” explains Walker, who would remain as CFO of Jackson Hewitt for another year (post-transaction) before stepping into the CFO office at Sterling in 2019. Looking back, no matter how many CFO tours of duty or transaction milestones he achieves, Walker seems resolute in believing that none of them could have been achieved if not for “the big asks.”
Michael Sumruld recalls that after investing 10 of his finance career–building years in oil field services giant Baker Hughes, he found a deep fog settling on the career path before him. Unlike the case with BH engineers—who could always be confident of being able to place a foot on the next rung of an ever-present career ladder—the climb upward for finance executives was becoming less and less visible. Or at least such was the case for any of BH’s finance rank-and-file who aspired to advance beyond the ranks of middle management. Rather than land a more senior finance position at another company, Sumruld set out to leverage some of what his 10-year BH investment had afforded him. “In a decade’s time, I had developed relationships with different senior leaders, so I spent time with them and interviewed them to try to get a sense of what it would take to become CFO of Baker Hughes,” comments Sumruld, who adds that a research document highlighting his discussions with senior leaders later would later land on the desk of BH’s vice president of human resources. Part of what the document highlighted was the different experiences and knowledge sets that finance executives can gain when they are rotated into different positions. Says Sumruld: “We were able to put this in play—not formally, but informally—with a number of executives who were in my situation and had also become siloed as they had gone down a particular career path.” Along the way, Sumruld remembers, a number of his finance peers became mystified by career jumps that didn’t always align with their rank or tenure within the organization. “They’d say, ‘Mike, why are you exiting a finance VP role to become a director of IR?,’” recalls Sumuld, who notes that he views the director of IR role as a worthy prerequisite for any future CFO. Ultimately, Sumruld’s career with BH would end up spanning two decades, with his last 3 years spent as company treasurer—a position that the CFO granted after Sumruld expressed great interest in the role. “He gave me a shot,” remarks Sumruld, who observes that the CFO was confident that if needed, his team had the bandwidth to support BH’s newbie treasurer. “It’s uncomfortable to take on new roles,” reports Sumruld. “It’s not easy, but I think that this is what we need to do if we want to become leaders.”
This episode features the workforce insights and commentary of CFO Adam Swiecicki of Brex, CFO Manish Sarin of Sprinklr, CFO Jason Keen of Mills Nebraska, and CFO Komal Misra of Starry
As the 32-year-old CFO of Brex, Adam Swiecicki has a professional narrative unpopulated by the tales of economic and business hijinks that many of our CFO guests share to reveal the perils of a CFO’s rite of passage. Instead, Swiecicki’s forward-looking delivery seems intent on making a clean break from the CFOs of the past, whose career lessons frequently have involved the same one or two finance constituencies. “I just realized that there is a broad ecosystem of people whom Brex touches,” he observes, “and it’s really important that we keep all of them in mind.” To Swiecicki, the phrase “stakeholder capitalism” has become much more than00 buzzwords and indeed a guiding principle for the kickoff of his CFO career. Having entered the CFO office from stints with investment banks and hedge funds, he realized quickly that he needed to make a “big change” when it came to his management mindset. “I had heard about stakeholder capitalism, but I hadn’t really given it much thought until I stepped into the CFO role,” comments Swiecicki, who shortly after assuming the role of finance chief found himself engaging with not only investors and board members but also customers and employees. “Historically, there has always been a view that shareholders and stakeholders are not aligned, but what I have come to realize is that they are very aligned when it comes to maximizing value for them both together,” reports Swiecicki. Meanwhile, having spent more than a few hours over the past 9 months with company customers, Swiecicki seems intent on removing any doubt that such an alignment exists, particularly when it comes to serving Brex’s customers. “The question that we like to think about is ‘What is the value that we’re creating for our customer?’—and this is really not so much a finance metric as it is a goal that the whole company can rally around,” remarks Swiecicki, who notes that executives from product management, engineering, and operations can now share the common goal of finding new value for the customer. Once this value has been created, the ball is back in finance’s court, where the finance team must determine a pricing model hopefully appropriate to achieving an even better alignment of common goals. Says Swiecicki: “From a pricing perspective, we want to extract some of this value for ourselves but ultimately deliver a lot of ROI for the companies that are buying our software products.”
Just where and how Glenn Hopper came to acquire his finance skillset exposes an organizational dysfunction to which no small number of finance leaders have likely contributed. As a product manager for a small telecommunications firm, Hopper was asked by the vice president of marketing to begin giving presentations at a recurring management meeting regarding the allocation of marketing dollars and their impact on his specific product’s P&L. “I was basically doing shadow FP&A for the marketing team,” explains Hopper, who adds that his presentations caught the eye of the company’s chief operating officer, who subsequently “poached” Hopper and tasked him with producing a similar financial analysis for the company’s operations at large. “The COO was tired of having to battle the CFO for the resources that he needed,” remarks Hopper, who went on to lead a department of 32 employees that was principally tasked with managing a $150 million annual operations budget, including $130 million of SG&A and $20 million of capital. Looking back, Hopper recalls that “the company’s environment was very siloed—the finance team was very protective of their data, so the operations team was unable to plan because they did not have access to it.” According to Hopper, finance’s proprietary approach with the company data quickly began to magnify its cross-functional planning challenges as the company acquired and merged with a string of other firms. “What I learned from having to scrap and battle for the budgetary dollars outside of finance and at the same time still liaison with finance people was the importance of the finance department not just being in this ivory tower but seeking to understand the challenges of other departments,” he notes. Along the way, Hopper became visible throughout the organization to functional heads and C-suite executives, as well as to company investors, one of whom helped Hopper to open his first CFO career chapter when he recruited him to become finance chief for one of his new angel-round companies.
Looking back at the early years of his finance career, David Bedell recalls being frustrated when a business unit leader remained leery about the merits of a potential deal. “I had done all of the analysis and was convinced that it would make a lot of money for the company, but I just couldn’t figure out how to convince him,” explains Bedell, who spent the balance of his early career years at software developer Intuit, where he advanced from running the gauntlet of FP&A projects to serving in multiple CFO business unit roles. “Finally, I bet my entire bonus for the year on it—I told the leader that if the deal failed, he could keep it, but if it was a win, I would appreciate my bonus being doubled,” explains Bedell, who notes that his confidence in his own analysis of the deal compelled him to break what he refers to as the “glass wall.” Says Bedell: “If we in finance limit ourselves to only making recommendations and choose to keep that wall between us, it’s just not personal enough.” For Bedell, his hefty investment in 13 Intuit career years appears to have been well spent, as the company achieved a number of strategic milestones, including the acquisition of Mint.com and the sale of Quicken. “I was just there at the right time with my hand raised, always being eager—and for people early in their career, it’s about being there at the right time,” comments Bedell. As for the business leader whom Bedell once risked his bonus to win over, the end appears to have justified the means. “He just laughed at me and said, ’If you’re confident, we’re going to do it,’” remarks Bedell, who adds that while his bonus bet may have been a bit “childish,” it got the job done. “Sometimes it’s not personal enough for finance,” he observes. “You have to push that emotion or excitement forward to the point where you’re part of the business and your soul is on the line—that’s what makes a great finance person.”
When Kabir Shakir first arrived inside the CFO office at Tata Communications, the former Microsoft India CFO quickly determined that there was one person above all others who held sway over the company’s maturing transformation plans. “The person who is actually giving pricing to our customers needs to know how much cash we make on Year 1, Year 2, and Year 3,” explains Shakir, whose 2-year CFO tenure has spanned a period in which the company’s free cash flow has grown twentyfold. “We had to bring our ‘cash thinking’ down to the deal profitability level,” reports Shakir, whose choice of words at first makes it sound as though his finance team had become tasked with running an errand. However, Shakir quickly clarifies the magnitude of what he was looking to achieve: “I wanted there to be an undying focus on cash. It’s not the most profitable companies that survive—it’s the liquid ones.” While this is certainly an organizational mind-set that many CFOs eventually reach, not that many do so within a span of time comparable to that of Shakir’s short ascent. For those who succeed in implementing the emphasis, as he appears to have done, leadership style is often the key contributing factor. Shakir, who spent 23 years climbing the finance career ladder at packaged goods giant Unilever, cites the scathing results of a 360-degree review that he once received as an aspiring future leader as the experience that most helped to shape his leadership skills: “It was the worst feedback of my life. Some of my friends even reported that I was a real pain to work with. They said, ‘When we come to you, you always have to show us how much smarter you are than all of the rest of us.’” In truth, a chastened Shakir tell us, he was indeed “nosy” by nature and would at times second-guess the work of others. Even faced with such cutting feedback, though, and as “extremely difficult” Shakir found it to change, nevertheless, change did come. “I have let go. And I now spend my time thinking, not doing, because that is what I’m paid to do,” observes Shakir, who says that Tata’s undying focus on cash took root with the help of many rather than just one. Adds Shakir: “When I first walked into Tata Communications, I told my team that I knew nothing of telecommunications. I said, ‘Help me learn.’”
It was the type of assignment that Mike Milotich had been awaiting for most of his career. An innovative product team at American Express had just launched a promising new offering, and Milotich had been assigned to the group to help “optimize its day-to-day decision making”. “I arrived when it had been live for only maybe 4 to 6 weeks, and all of the traditional metrics indicated that it was a runaway success,” explains Milotich, who adds that the early consensus among team members and even the company at large was, “Wow! It looks like we may really have something here” As it turned out, the assignment provided Milotich with a singular perch from which to study the high-flying opportunity. “My job was to determine what was driving this success and what we were seeing with regard to the behaviors of customers that could be fueling this,” comments Milotich, who notes that such insight could have potentially uncorked a new secret sauce for the company as a whole. However, there would be no recipe for significant new revenue. Observes Milotich: “As we started to dig deeper, we began to understand that we had a problem.” The nagging question that began to haunt the product team was whether its new product was cannibalizing sales from existing customers. “We set up a weekly meeting with the leader who ran the business, at which for an hour each week I would come in with analysis and say, 'Here’s what’s happening,'” recalls Milotich, who points out that at the time, the indications of cannibalization remained somewhat murky because behaviors of early adopters sometimes vary from those of broader customer segments. As time moved forward, the leader and the greater team began to accept the idea that the product was flawed and changes were required. “Then the discussion shifted to ‘How do we maintain many of the new innovative attributes of the product but make certain that it’s both almost as attractive to the customer and at the same time not something that’s going to damage us financially?,’” reports Milotich, who in the weeks ahead would begin working closely with the team’s marketing and sales executives to help them to reposition the product to mitigate the risk of cannibalization. Says Milotich: “In something like a 6- to 9-month time period, we went from a kind of a euphoria to ‘Uh-oh!’ to then designing a solution that could hold on to the best parts of the product.”
Last winter, when China ordered tens of millions of people back into a pandemic lockdown, executives inside the $170 billion automotive aftermarket parts industry took a deep breath. Jeff Shepherd, CFO of aftermarket giant Advance Auto Parts, says that the possibility of another China shutdown had just not been part of Advance’s procurement calculus. Still, parts “in stock” at Advance stores during 2022 have dropped only a few percentage points from their usual inventory level in the “mid-90th” percentile, according to Shepherd, who credits the anticipation of yet another China-related event as further evidence of Advance’s astute procurement practices. “The last time China hosted the Olympics, they shut the power down and they shut the factories down. So, during the Games, you can’t get product out and it’s not being manufactured,” explains Shepherd, who notes that Advance’s procurement team anticipated a China shutdown in February due to the Beijing Olympic Games. “We started doing a lot of buying late last year and very early this year,” comments Shepherd, who reports that not unlike those of its competitors, Advance’s 2021 supply chain troubleshooting efforts were related mostly to bottlenecks at U.S. ports and a confounding shortage of truck drivers. “We’re not out of the woods now—I will tell you that it’s not perfect,” remarks Shepherd, regarding the existing supply chain challenges inside the U.S. However, if Advance’s “in stock” levels stay in line, the company may have a read on future developments in China. Says Shepherd: “I can’t take credit for knowing those things, but we were indeed able to get out in front of the China shutdown, and our ‘in stock’ percentages are now nearly back to their pre-pandemic levels.”
It was nightly business conversations at his parents’ dinner table that first led Prashanth Mahendra-Rajah to consider alternatives to business when it came to building a career. “As most small business owners do, my parents worked all the time—and as with most small businesses, things could at times be financially challenging,” explains Mahendra-Rajah, who vividly recalls business rent increases, outstanding receivables, and the dynamics behind supply and demand that pervaded his parents’ dinner conversations. Nevertheless, it was this same scrutiny of supply-and-demand dynamics that Mahendra-Rajah credits with helping him to “come full circle” and ultimately led him to business school. At the time, Mahendra-Rajah was working full-time as a senior process engineer for chemical giant FMC Corp., a career-building stint that afforded him the real-world insights required to enrich a master’s thesis that he needed in order to complete a chemical engineering degree from Johns Hopkins. “It was my first job out of college, and the plant manager’s M.O. was to always beat me up and demand more cost reductions and better process yields,” recalls Mahendra-Rajah, who notes that his immersion into the business side of manufacturing quickly escalated when FMC received a large order for a synthetic that the company no longer manufactured. “I was given the task of refurbishing an old factory and getting it up and running in a matter of weeks,” remembers Mahendra-Rajah, who adds that the production of the once-discontinued synthetic led the plant manager’s mind-set to suddenly pivot. “He was pushing me to spend as fast as I could. I was told not to negotiate with suppliers, and if I needed overtime for the maintenance workers, to ‘go for it’—schedule was paramount, cost was secondary,” explains the career finance leader, who credits the experience with helping him to open a door that he had once shut. Says Mahendra-Rajah: “It kind of brought me back to the table with Mom and Dad and made me realize how so much of our world is really driven by supply and demand and how finance is the oil in the gears."
Even after serving in multiple CFO roles and spending 10 years on Wall Street, Manish Sarin still marvels at the plus-size experience that he acquired in the mid-1990s when he worked for Price Waterhouse as a financial advisor in its Nairobi office in Kenya, East Africa. At the time, Sarin recalls, an abundance of available funding from the World Bank and IMF was enticing growing numbers of state-owned business in the region to privatize their operations as a prelude to jump-starting their capital market strategies. * “These were businesses like steel mills, aluminum plants, car dealerships, and commercial banks—for me, it was just an amazing introduction to how businesses work, what makes them successful or not successful, and how to actually evaluate businesses from a capitalistic perspective,” explains Sarin, who reports that he was the most junior member of the East African privatization practice, a team of 10 people within PW’s 100-employee Nairobi office. Says Sarin: “Our clients were really the World Bank and IMF—we would go and work at state-owned businesses at their request and then prepare and present our analysis to both the World Bank and the national government.” Twenty years later, as Sarin prepared to open his first CFO chapter, some of those presentations undoubtedly came to mind as he began to formulate his own vision for the role and the broader business contexts that Wall Street now expects 21st-century finance leaders to deliver. Along the way, Sarin tells us, he has learned that a broader perspective is being demanded not only by outside stakeholders. “A few years ago, a head of sales told me, ‘You have great ideas, Manish, but you need to provide greater context and better explain why you are doing the things that you are doing,’” remarks Sarin, who says that he took the advice to heart and has found that adding more context has accelerated his relationship-building with different parts of the organization. “If a CFO approaches the role from the perspective of occupying a finance swim lane, I think that this is a very narrow view of the role—it has to be much broader, and you have to be thinking, ‘the entire company and what is happening in every department are part of my concern,’” explains Sarin.
Looking back on her career as a corporate finance executive, Angela Pierce says that the call of leadership arrived at a moment of unvarnished frustration. Sixteen years ago, when the management of Level 3 Communications was expressing a keen interest in acquiring Pierce’s then-company, Broadwing Corporation, it was not the first time that Pierce found herself sitting across from Level 3 corporate development executives. In fact, as Broadwing’s vice president of finance, Pierce had been involved in two earlier engagements when Level 3 executives had expressed similar sentiments—only to have nothing come out of the exercises in M&A due diligence. For Pierce, the third engagement necessitated a more direct approach—one that signaled to Level 3 that Broadwing management was confident that further negotiation was not necessary. “At some point, you have acquired the required competence from your past experiences, so I said to the executive, ‘Look, I don’t want to do this again, so here’s the deal,’” recalls Pierce, who adds that she shortly received a term sheet for a $1.4 billion deal that would be signed only a few days later. While Pierce says that she was just expressing a sentiment shared by Broadwing’s wider management, her grasp of the deal’s fundamentals and confidence in her own ability to deliver the message abruptly quelled any angst concerning her future leadership roles. “At that moment,” she observes, “I realized that I wanted to be the one to make the call.” –
Among the career milestones that CFOs prefer to highlight for us during our discussions, there’s little question that examples of driving business growth are an ongoing favorite. However, for Jason Keen, who built his finance career inside midsize construction firms, management’s growth goals have always needed to be mindful of a company’s organizational culture. Inside the construction realm, where multigenerational, family-owned businesses survive and thrive, growth goals are often tempered by enduring organizational cultures that are apt to cast a cautious eye upon those who choose to champion change. As just such a champion, Jason Keen has had few milestones for driving growth that have resembled the double-digit feats commonly recounted to us by CFOs from other sectors. Instead, Keen tells us of the unique challenges that finance leaders sometimes face within multigenerational firms. “Part of what I do is to get a foundation in place—which is what I have done three times now—and then structure the company to be ready for growth,” he reports. “This means putting the right type of team in place and preparing them for this smart growth so that both the top line and the bottom line grow together.” It’s an approach that most recently led Keen to step into the CFO office at Mills & Nebraska, a family-owned business specializing in the manufacture and installation of doors. Says Keen: “We want to be ready for growth in a smart way.”
Generally, when legendary CEO Roger Enrico wasn’t happy, just about every PepsiCo executive from junior grades on up knew about it. So it was that when David Barnes was told he would be presenting to Enrico on a subject known to inflame the CEO’s ire, he knew that his presentation—one way or the other—would be career-defining. “Enrico was known to be very impatient with those who would present a bunch of facts but offer no insights,” remembers Barnes, whose tryst with destiny surfaced via the guidance of none other than Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s future CEO, who Barnes tells us was his “great mentor and sponsor” during his Pepsi years. “Pepsi had hired a big consulting firm and they had dumped a lot of data on us, but they couldn’t find any insights, so Indra asked me to work with the consultants and actually get the insights out of the data,” continues Barnes, who had been hired in the mid-1990s to be part of a strategy group within PepsiCo that had been tasked with integrating strategy and finance across the company. As it turned out, Barnes’s presentation succeeded in delivering a number of new insights related to the profitability (or lack thereof) of PepsiCo’s restaurant business in China. “We had a small, money-losing business in China at a time when the Asian economies at large were experiencing deep recessions, so the questions being asked were ‘Do we give up?’ and ‘Do we double down?,’” recalls Barnes, who would soon open a new career chapter in China—an indication that perhaps his presentation had gone well. “They wanted a known quantity in China—someone with the company’s corporate interests at heart—so I became responsible for finance as well as our development activities around new stores for KFC and Pizza Hut,” explains Barnes, who would subsequently use data to better expose an opportunity for new stores inside China’s smaller tertiary markets rather than in big cities. “We figured out that there was a better way to do capital resource allocation just for these markets,” comments Barnes, who recalls the business leader who ultimately made the call when it came to opening new stores as saying: “Let’s get at it!”
Among the many strategic changes that finance leader Danielle Murcray has helped to put in motion during her multi-chapter CFO career, perhaps none better reveals her mantle as a strategic leader than the move by cybersecurity firm AttackIQ to adopt a 100 percent–remote U.S. workforce. With the arrival of the pandemic, Murcray—like many of her CFO peers—became laser-focused on the company’s finance liquidity and operational efficiencies. At the same time, though, she felt compelled to communicate the health and well-being of the company more broadly. “I really sought to promote stability across the organization and looked to instill trust with employees and investors,” comments Murcray, who credits the same aspects of her leadership outreach with helping AttackIQ to leverage the advantages of a remote workforce. “I spend quite a bit of my time making certain that we are overcommunicating and collaborating in different ways so that people feel that we are together even though we are not physically together anymore,” explains Murcray, who moved to Montana from California back in late 2020 after the company announced that its U.S. operations would be moving to a remote model. It subsequently closed its Santa Clara headquarters and San Diego offices. “From the results of our own surveys, we realized that most employees did not want to go back to the office anymore, so we could see that being 100 percent–remote would be a huge competitive advantage,” reports Murcray, who adds that since the decision, more than a dozen AttackIQ employees have relocated out of the state of California. Says Murcray: “I think that leading through the pandemic is now become something of a defining moment in my career.
When Komal Misra, a software engineer turned asset manager, decided that it was time once again to make a career change, she found herself staring at a computer screen filled with stocks from various portfolios that were being traded based not on business fundamentals but larger macro-driven trends. “It got me to thinking: Here I had invested so much time in understanding these businesses and why they were good or great investments, but none of it mattered in that place in time when things were just selling up,” recalls Komal, who adds that she began thinking about her career as if it were a company stock that over time would be propelled or impeded due to macro-driven trends. According to Misra, “I started with a top-down approach to consider what my options were within business—in just the same way that I would’ve analyzed any stock investment. This led me to the conclusion that in the long run, if I wanted another 10- or 15-year career, I really should be thinking about transitioning to something that had a lot more staying power than what I was doing at that time. “ For Misra, who had spent the previous 15 years as a tech sector portfolio manager, the move to corporate finance was not triggered by ambitions to someday be a CFO. Instead, she tells us, she knew that management teams were seeking to add senior finance executives who could help to propel traditional finance teams into the realm of strategic finance. Misra would join technology services company Cognizant as a vice president of finance and eventually oversee the company’s corporate development. “Cognizant is where I learned the inner workings of a large, mega-cap company from a finance team point of view,” comments Misra, who a few years later would enter the CFO office at Internet service provider Starry, Inc. Looking back, Misra says that it was not so much the CFO role as the opportunities that the role has afforded her that led her into the C-suite. Says Misra: “I was very willing to take on risks in life and see where things led me and not be afraid to fail, because from my point of view, whether I became a CFO or not didn’t matter—what mattered was that I was doing something interesting.”
A dozen years ago, if you had told Ryan Gwillim that within the next decade he would be named CFO of the Brunswick Corporation, he may have laughed. At the time, he was an associate with law firm Baker & McKenzie who was spending his days traveling the globe to advise legal clients as an M&A transaction guru. However, over the next decade, Gwillim and Brunswick would together find a common groove as each embarked on a journey of transformation. For Brunswick—a 155-year-old conglomerate—the evolutionary arc would trigger a flurry of historic M&A activity that included the sale of its marquee bowling center business (2014) while at the same time advancing its steady stroke into marine products. For Gwillim, the transformation chapter would put an end to his vagabond existence while landing the seasoned M&A attorney inside Brunswick’s corporate counsel office in 2012. It would be little more than 5 years later, after a steady progression of internal M&A projects, that Gwillim would be asked by Brunswick’s CFO to step into the role of vice president of investor relations. “From September 2017 to about the summer of 2019 was one of the most volatile times in Brunswick’s history, and here I was, along with the management team, becoming the face of storytelling for the investment community,” explains Gwillim, who characterizes the period as one when Brunswick once-and-for-all “closed the books on its conglomerate viewpoint.” Determined to focus investor attention on the company’s promising future in marine technology products, Brunswick accelerated efforts to jettison businesses procured during its conglomerate years, such as a struggling fitness operation that had been undermining investor confidence in the company. Along the way, Gwillim would become a primary driver of the Brunswick transformation as he helped to manage investor expectations as well as the financial levers that would allow the company to find its footing while opening its post-conglomerate chapter. As it turned out, the beginning of Brunswick’s post-conglomerate life coincided with the completion of the seasoned-M&A-attorney-turned-IR-executive’s own transformation chapter. Appointed as Brunswick’s vice president of finance and treasurer in 2019, Gwillim would be named Brunswick CFO only a year later. “We are completely different from what we were 10 or 15 years ago,” reports Gwillim, sharing a thought that one could argue applies to the CFO as well as to the company.
Among the many acquisitions with which Marc Levine became involved during his 25 years at Hewlett-Packard Co., it may surprise few of his former colleagues that he counts HP’s purchase of Compaq Computer as one of the tech giant’s most unusual marriages. However, Levine doesn’t single out HP’s purchase of Compaq due to the lively behind-the-scenes drama that accompanied it after Walter Hewlett, son of one of the HP founders, loudly voiced his opposition to the deal or the two books that a subsequent proxy battle helped to fatten. Instead, Levine tells us that from his perspective, the unusual aspect of the Compaq acquisition had more to do with the integration of certain pieces of the business. “On my particular team, I was the only person from HP, which was unlike in any of the other HP integrations I had previously been involved with, where there had always been more HP people,” explains Levine, who recalls spending many a night in Houston, Texas, hotel rooms beside Compaq’s headquarters. Looking back, Levine suspects that the lack of HP representation on his team had to do with his group’s focus on the integration of Compaq’s sales team and field organization. Having in the past worked closely with the HP sales team (including a stint as a sales leader in HP’s Southeast Asia operations), Levine was perhaps better prepared than many of his HP peers to join the integration effort. Says Levine: “I think that past experience brought me a little more credibility when I walked into the room, and I could understand better some of the things that the Compaq people were dealing with.” Still, while HP was widely known as an engineering organization rich with technical talent, Compaq was known for having a dynamic sales organization—a standout attribute that may have led the acquiring company to give Compaq greater influence than in other deals when it came to integrating sales talent. Adds Levine: “It was the biggest and probably the first acquisition that I became involved with at HP. There was a lot of controversy at the time as to whether it was the right move for HP, but the integration was really about making certain that we could bring together the best of both companies.”
It was not long after Chris Greiner became CFO of IBM’s fast-growing Analytics Division that the gravitational pull that IBM had maintained on Greiner’s finance career-building began to give way. While his new divisional CFO title more than validated his 7-year career investment with the company, Greiner—like many divisional finance chiefs—discovered the next rung of the company’s finance career ladder becoming increasingly obscured from view. Meanwhile, his divisional CFO role afforded him a wider view into IBM’s business development as he sat across the table from different owners of middle-market companies. “What I saw was companies that were 200 to 400 employees in size, with hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, that were being successful at disrupting markets, and I knew then that I wanted to be on the other side of the table one day,” recalls Greiner, who notes that the experience of dealing with business leaders intent on disrupting the market led him to his revise his career-building agenda. Says Greiner: “I knew that for me to get the experiences I wanted to get, I needed to take a leap.” One of those experiences, Greiner reports, had to do with talent development in midsize firms versus that at large enterprise companies like IBM. “At IBM, you can’t empty the tank when it comes to talent because there is always another person looking to step in to fill a role when someone leaves,” observes Greiner, who points out that talent development in midsize companies is not always as robust. “That muscle for developing talent within an organization needs to be worked on,” comments Greiner, who found that his menu of responsibilities inside midsize firms also became more fluid. Adds Greiner: “Another eye-opener for me—post-IBM —was how I needed to invest a disproportionate amount of time on the organization itself.”
Now Listen | This leadership interview was recorded on May 24th, 2022, at Planful’s Perform 2022 Customer Conference, Las Vegas, NV.
When Al Farrell tells us that finance leaders must never lose sight of the value of a business asset, as well as acquire a strong understanding of how to optimize the returns on it, we sense his frustration. This is not because he’s relating a situation in which management failed both to properly value an asset (which, Farrell tells us, was worth nearly $650 million) and to optimize the asset’s returns (which ended up being increased by 12 percent). Instead, Farrell’s angst was due to the fact that management’s asset utilization improvement feat was achieved on the eve of COVID-19’s arrival in the U.S., and the asset that was so adroitly leveraged to pump up returns was none other than a fleet of rental cars some 35,000 vehicles strong. Certainly, few industries were hit harder by COVID’s arrival than car rentals, and as car rental businesses go, few suffered a more direct hit than Advantage Rent A Car, where Farrell occupied the CFO office from 2016 to early 2022. “The car rental business is like the airlines because it requires a great deal of capital investment—but unlike with the airlines, you don’t have a firm reservation and people generally don’t prepay,” explains Farrell, who notes that in early 2020, after the U.S. announced a travel ban in response to COVID, Advantage’s reservation snag was in full view. “That’s when 96 percent of our reservations went up in smoke,” recalls Farrell, who reports that prior to the travel ban, Advantage’s growing utilization rates had begun to increase the prospects for selling the company. Says Farrell: “Unfortunately, we didn’t come out with the outcome that we wanted, but had COVID not hit, I think that we would have had the very successful sale of a business that was significantly more productive and lucrative than it was when we started out.”
Back in April of 2020, as the consequences of COVID’s arrival in the U.S. left financial markets reeling, Paychex CFO Efrain Rivera had the temptation “to say nothing.” As the company’s quarterly earnings call with analysts quickly approached, Rivera reports, a number of management team members had gathered in conference to debate the idea of halting any future guidance in light of things being just so uncertain. “The problem was that we have data!,” explains Rivera, referring to Paychex’s unique lines of sight into the payroll practices of thousands of middle-market businesses. The subsequent earnings call was unusual for its length (2 hours) as well as the general nature of the discussion, recalls Rivera. “Half of the analyst questions were really about the general economy and what we were seeing because they knew that we had unique insights into employees,” remarks Rivera, who notes that the prior debate ended with those lobbying for “more guidance” scoring the win. Rivera adds that the prevailing point of view became, “We need to say what we know, and we need to say, ‘This is the limit of what we know.’” Weeks later, when Paychex found it necessary to revise some of the guidance that it had provided on the Spring 2020 call, there was no double-guessing of the earlier debate’s outcome. Says Rivera: “To this day, we still get credit for having said what we said and shared what we shared at a moment when people were very concerned about saying things.”
Steve and Jack talk about the volatile business environment and what it means for business planning professionals. Featuring commentary and FP&A insights from Planning Aces: CFO Will Johnson of Iterable, CFO Adam Ante of Paycor, CFO Ryan Van Hatten of Prophix and CFO Steve Vintz of Tenable.
When Mike Catelani seeks to identify the objectives and career milestones that have helped to advance him into the ranks of Bay Area biotech CFOs, he mentions that although he had a deep interest in biology during his high school years, upon entering college he decided to swap out a biology curriculum for an accounting one. More than a decade later, Catelani decided to make a career “lane change” to accept a CFO role for a manufacturer of instruments and tools used in drug discovery. While the company, whose stock was traded on the ASX (Australian Securities Exchange), was not directly involved in drug discovery, Catelani believed that the CFO stint would put him one step closer to opportunities inside the biotech realm. Still, he can’t help but marvel at the randomness of the circumstances that ultimately opened the biotech door. “It was complete dumb luck: A recruiter was looking for a CFO who had Australian Securities Exchange experience for a biotech firm in the Bay Area, and—not surprisingly—mine was like the only name that popped up,” explains Catelani, who was named CFO of Benitec, an Australian public company that at the time specialized in drug development for hepatitis C and HIV. Seventeen years and multiple biotech chapters later, Catelani looks back on his original door of entry as “a bit of a turnaround.” “It had roughly 6 weeks of cash when I came on board and at the time was involved in a number of patent infringement lawsuits,” reports Catelani, who lists cash management as every biotech CFO’s mission-critical skillset tool.