Roughly 20 years ago, Neha Krishnamohan arrived as a college freshman on Duke University’s Durham, N.C., campus, intent on pursuing a career that would someday grant her the agency to develop a product or therapy capable of solving a healthcare problem. Having grown up among family members with different careers in the medical field, Krishnamohan had inherited a deep interest in medicine—although she felt that her tendency to want to be more “hands-on” might make engineering a more suitable field of study. “As far as I was concerned, I was going to go to work for a Medtronic or a Pfizer, where I would come up with a great new product,” reports Krishnamohan, who after enrolling in Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering chose biomedical engineering as her major. As Krishnamohan was ratcheting up her engineering studies, one of her professors made a lasting impression on her by enlivening their discussions with tales of past experiences as a Wall Street banker. “The idea that the financial merits of a company really inform its decision-making and that you as a finance person are at the center of critical decisions that need to be made was intriguing, to say the least,” recalls Krishnamohan, who along the way began thinking of investment banking as perhaps an alternative path along which to achieve her goal of developing a medical product. As her college years progressed and Krishnamohan applied to a number of investment bank internship programs, eventually she nabbed a spot at Goldman Sachs, which subsequently offered her a full-time position upon her graduation in 2008. “This was a tumultuous time to be starting a career in investment banking, but I think that it helped to lay a foundation for me with regard to the importance of being prepared for the worst,” explains Krishnamohan, who would remain at Goldman Sachs for a period 13 years, 11 of which were spent inside the firm’s healthcare investment banking group. Krishnamohan ended up being named a Goldman vice president in 2015, about midway into her lengthy tenure with the firm. In this same year, while Krishnamohan was tasked with helping a Boston-based client to prepare for an IPO, a snowstorm prevented her manager and Goldman colleagues from attending the company’s “drafting sessions,” wherein the firm’s management and lawyers would toil for many hours over a period of days to create its IPO documents. As Krishnamohan remembers, “I knew that the room was going to be looking to me for the right guidance, so I embraced this and found myself having a point of view, asking questions, guiding them through the story—and I saw that people were listening. It was a remarkable 3 days.” “Leadership doesn’t have to have all the answers,” she adds. “You have to listen and drive toward decisions that have conviction.”
It was late 2020 when Michelle Hook ended 17 years of fruitful career-building at Domino’s to accept a CFO appointment at fast casual restaurant chain Portillo’s. “The two things that I was looking for were to be passionate about a new brand and to feel a culture fit,” recalls Hook, who adds that she had long imagined someday leaving Domino’s to join a smaller company that she could help to grow. “I just didn’t care about going to a bigger company or ‘X,’ ‘Y,’ or ‘Z,’” continues Hook, who tells us that she ultimately took a leap of faith with regard to there being a culture fit at Portillo’s. “I actually never stepped into our headquarters until my first day on the job and had met in person only with the CEO, since this was during COVID times and the rest of the hiring process had been done on Zoom,” comments Hook. Fast-forward 15 months to when the Omicron variant was still grabbing headlines and inflation had begun to rattle the economy—and Hook could not escape the notion that the traditional Portillo’s restaurant needed to change for the post-COVID world. “I thought to myself, I think that we’re overbuilding our restaurants—we need to think about where the puck is going,” remembers Hook, who notes that Portillo’s dine-in customers in today’s post-COVID environment account for only roughly 35 percent of the chain’s volume. “I had come from Domino’s, which didn’t have these big dining rooms and had built out a heavily digital business,” remarks Hook, who reports that Portillo’s digital business represents only 20 percent of overall sales. This subject soon surfaced at an executive strategy session at which Portillo’s CEO, Michael Osanloo, tasked Hook and Portillo’s head of marketing with leading an initiative dubbed “Restaurant of the Future.” “I think that Michael knew that I’d take on the project by using a data-driven lens,” comments Hook, who points out that the project has involved “time and motion studies” involving specific restaurants and their conveyance activities within the kitchen. “Getting the engine right in the car is super important to us,” she says. “This will bring benefits not only on the cost side of things but also for our team members, who will find it easier to complete their work.”
Not unlike that of many of his CFO peers, Derrek Gafford’s career path has been shaped in part by geography—specifically, by having its origins in a city that was at once home to a state college, the corporate headquarters of a marquee company, and a Big Four accounting office populated with new college grads. In Gafford’s case, the city was Boise; the college, Boise State; the marquee company, grocery giant Albertsons; and the Big Four accounting house, Deloitte. “I had worked my way through Boise State in an Albertsons grocery store, which actually paid for a lot of my education,” explains Gafford, who upon graduating with an accounting degree would end up nabbing a job with Deloitte’s Boise office. “Originally, the only job that I had ever really wanted was to work in finance at Albertsons,” he continues, “and guess what company became the first account that Deloitte assigned me to?” After about 2 years with Deloitte, Gafford joined Albertsons’ internal audit staff, from which he eventually advanced to oversee the company’s audit department while reporting directly to Albertsons’ CFO. “As an internal auditor, I had traveled the country visiting stores and distribution centers, so I had gotten a feel for the various aspects of the business and how the company operated,” recalls Gafford. However, after 6 years with Albertsons, Gafford began to consider different finance leadership roles beyond Boise’s city limits. “The way things were headed,” he remembers, “it seemed like I was going to be a lifelong leader of internal audit—which is not where I wanted to be. There was this small, privately held grocery company in Seattle that was looking for a CFO, and the CEO and I got along, so we packed up and headed north.”
We are near the end of our discussion with CFO Svai Sanford when he permits us to unlock one last door to his past. Unbeknownst to us, 20 minutes earlier, Sanford had handed us the key to its lock in the form of a short story. The story had begun with Sanford receiving a job offer, to which he had replied, “Are you sure? I do not have any experience in this sector.” His future boss had replied: “You will figure it out.” At first, we were left wondering whether there had been something more that the future boss had known about Sanford—perhaps a piece of contributing evidence that had made him feel confident that Sanford could acclimate and succeed. “There’s something in me that has always allowed me to figure things out,” Sanford had confided. Sanford’s choice of words—“something in me”—had been interesting. Certainly, there is no shortage of problem-solving exercises along any CFO’s path, but he had already told us that his career track had likely been different from that of other CFOs—and we had sensed that the “something” to which he had been referring had not yet been disclosed to us. Still, as Sanford had helped us to check off the requisite CFO career milestones via his engaging and modest narrative, we eventually had heard about his arrival in the C-suite—which for a moment had led us to consider how Sanford’s success story is not remarkably different from that of other CFOs. However, that’s exactly why it’s so remarkable, or so we later realize. As we enter the final minutes of our discussion, we learn that Sanford had arrived in the United States as a 13-year-old refugee from Laos, who with only a 3rd-grade education had entered a Kansas City high school while not yet speaking a word of English. How does someone enter the C-suite some 20 years later after having surmounted such adverse circumstances? Here’s where we find the key that Sanford gave us. We think of the 13-year-old Sanford and hear the words of his future boss, “You will figure it out.”
When Charly Kevers took his mentor’s advice and swapped a corporate development role at Hewlett-Packard for a tour of duty as a director of HP’s investor relations arm, he looked forward to tackling a variety of IR requisites, including crafting the messaging that follows a change at the top. Two years and four HP CEOs later, Kevers exited HP knowing that his IR term (with its extra helping of CEO turnover) had afforded him a stint unlike any before it at HP. “It’s a highly stressful role when you are standing in front of the Fidelitys of the world and they’re asking you a lot of questions beginning with ‘What does it mean for the business and what does it mean for my stock,’” explains Kevers, who subsequently stepped into a corporate development role at Salesforce. “That experience has since helped me by allowing me in many cases to rationalize things by saying, ‘Well, this is not as bad as what I dealt with there,’” comments Kevers, who these days, as CFO of Carta, appears to be focused as much on internal communications as he is on external PR. “Having worked mostly for public companies, I‘ve been trained to not talk about any number that isn’t public information, but here at Carta, we are very transparent,” remarks Kevers, who adds that he is routinely surprised by how Carta employees respond to numbers. “We’ve been very transparent about where we want to save money and have sought to explain why we care about gross margin and metrics like sales efficiency and other things that contribute to profitability, and I have been surprised by how much people will care about them and then take ownership of them by finding ways to improve these metrics,” reports Kevers, who notes that Carta’s efforts to achieve greater transparency are visible on the company’s P&L, which now reports the gross margin for different product areas along with product-specific marketing and R&D spending. “We can now look at how the Rule of 40 applies to every one of our product areas, so the board room discussions can be much more in-depth when it comes to discussing tradeoffs” observes Kevers, who seems to harbor as much enthusiasm for transparency outside the boardroom as he does for clarity inside its doors. “If you’re transparent and explain what metrics need to be watched,” he says, “doing so really does help to drive productive discussions between finance and the rest of the business.”
Looking back, Jeff Coulter is not exactly certain how he landed a spot on a team tasked with designing and implementing the first-ever budgeting and reporting processes responsible for tracking Procter & Gamble’s marketing dollars on a single worldwide system. “P&G had hundreds of disparate setups that we had to bring into one system globally,” explains Coulter, recalling the effort behind the information systems upgrade with SAP software that many at the time (the year 2000) deemed to be a historic milestone not only for the packaged goods company but also for industry at large. Coulter had been plucked out of Procter & Gamble’s Iowa City office, where he had been working as a cost analyst for such products as Pantene and Scope. The new assignment required Coulter to relocate to Cincinnati, where for the next 2 years he became involved in multiple aspects of the implementation, including the rollout of SAP end-user training across P&G globally. “At the time, any career management at Procter & Gamble was essentially the result of a benevolent dictatorship—you were basically told where you were going to go next,” remembers Coulter, who adds that the experience and training that he gleaned along his P&G way made his time there a very worthy investment. Still, Coulter was eager to return west. Living close to family had always been a priority for the young finance executive, and Cincinnati turned out to be not so short a stint. Consequently, while geography is perhaps not the first reason that people give for having joined Intel Corporation, for Coulter—who would first join the chip maker’s Portland, Oregon, complex—it was certainly among his top three impetuses. To move from a consumer products company to a technology company may seem unconventional, but Coulter tells us that his love for learning and his growth mindset helped him to adapt quickly at Intel, where he would remain for the next 6 years. He emphasizes the versatility of finance, which allows professionals to work across various industries. Says Coulter: “I love learning business models and figuring out how they’re making money and how to optimize that.”
The year was 2015, but for Jeff Laborde, a seasoned finance leader kicking off his second C-suite tour of duty, it seemed as though the conference room that he had just entered had transported him back to 2005—or was it 1995? Across the way, an executive who had noticed Laborde’s presence stopped the meeting and queried: “Jeff, what are you doing here? Why are you in my meeting?” Caught by surprise and somewhat tongue-tied, Laborde recalls, he registered a less than articulate response to the question that had quickly swallowed up the room’s attention. Having only recently joined the company as CFO, Laborde was seeking to sit in on a number of meetings in order to better understand how the company operated. Given that this particular gathering had been expected to discuss go-to-market priorities for the upcoming quarter, Laborde had made it his business to attend. “I was only following my instincts, and it came as a shock to me to find their swim lanes so impervious to being swapped or crossed,” continues Laborde, who adds that the experience highlighted for him the importance of fully understanding a role’s limitations before accepting an appointment. It wouldn’t be long, though, before Laborde’s career transported him back to 2015. “I realized that I wouldn’t be happy in the strict silo of finance without understanding what’s around the corner,” he remembers. Still, Laborde tells us, finance leaders who expect to cross lanes and enter different operational areas of the business must always be approachable, while at the same time being prepared to experience what he refers to as “Oh crap!” moments. He doesn’t provide us with much further detail here, but we assume that such instances involve developments that are perceived to put the operations of the business at significant risk. Nonetheless, Laborde’s advisory is less about managing risk per se and more about serving as a reminder to finance leaders to be mindful of the nature of their response to crisis. “Stay calm, get your facts straight, don’t overreact—and just know that these moments are going to come,” emphasizes Laborde, who characterizes such moments as the status quo for CFOs who make looking around corners a priority. For those finance leaders who do not, Laborde tell us, time travel remains a viable option. He observes: “You shouldn’t assume that you’ll be welcome within core areas of the business. There are some CEOs and ownership structures that don’t expect or want the CFO to go there.”
While the leadership journeys of many of our CFO guests began on an upper floor of a glass-and-steel skyscraper affording a wide-angle view of a cosmopolitan metropolis, that of Blackbaud CFO Tony Boor started at street level in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Less than an hour’s drive north of El Paso, Texas, Las Cruces is home not only to the main campus of New Mexico State University but also to a crowded schedule of holiday festivals and a varied collection of retailers—including motorcycle shops such as the one that Boor first visited in the mid-1970s. “When I was 13 or 14 years old, I walked into a motorcycle shop to buy my first bike and they ended up hiring me to sweep floors and haul trash,” recalls Boor, who over the next 10 years segued from maintenance to the service department, to parts management, to sales management, to being general manager of the store. “Thinking back now on being that young and running a business, I realize that I got a chance very early in my career to experience a firm from the other side of the desk, as I oversaw people much older than me and dealt with things like payroll, books, and accounting,” continues Boor, whose hours at the shop populated his high school and college years. Nonetheless, in a family with a father who worked at the nearby White Sands Missile Range as a nuclear electrical engineer and other sons who were embarking on engineering careers of their own, the motorcycle shop entry on Boor’s resume did not go unnoticed. Thus what might be surmised to have been a collective sigh of relief may have been heard when he decided to pursue an engineering degree at New Mexico State, thereby keeping safe the Boor family tradition. Or would it? “I was actually in my senior year of college when I decided that I didn’t want to be an engineer because I knew from working in the motorcycle shop that I loved business,” reports Boor, who remembers his parents not being at all pleased that the timing of his decision was coming so “late in the game.” “It ended up taking me a little longer to be done with school, but I did switch over to accounting,” explains Boor, who would subsequently work for a number of the original Big Eight accounting houses before stepping into the ranks of corporate finance professionals—where the same qualities that had once served him well at the bike shop appear to have propelled his climb upward. Says Boor: “A lot of what I learned in those very early years of my life and career had a big impact on how things have gone for me, even in these finance leadership roles.”
Evan Goldstein tells us that it was at the end of another long day—after a week of long days—as he was walking to the parking lot adjacent to Genentech’s offices that he received a “gut punch.” Becoming more self-aware of others is something that many finance leaders have told us that they have needed to lean into during their career, but few have shared with us the pivot to self-reflection as vividly as Goldstein, whose multi-decade finance career boasts an unusual dual-chamber architecture centered on 10 years at Genentech and another 11 at Salesforce. “I refer to myself as a serial monogamist when it comes to my professional career and the longevity that I’ve experienced at both of these companies,” explains Goldstein, who credits his extended stay at both firms to the power of three: the people, the mission, and the innovation. Still, Goldberg wants us to know about the long day that ended in Genentech’s parking lot. For young finance career builders, arriving at the end-of-day parking lot can be somewhat likened to a runner breaking the finish-line tape, not to be awarded a medal, though, but to be met with the refreshingly cool evening air that routinely rewards a long day’s work. It was in just such environs that Goldstein chose to thank a younger Genentech colleague for their hard work on an important and ultimately successful “deliverable.” “After having just been promoted to the manager level, I had taken over short-term planning in the corporate organization and had hired this person—whose role I had had in the past,” reports Goldstein, who earlier in the week had presented the “deliverable” to Genentech’s leadership team. “Here we had had this really successful outcome, and this employee was just doing phenomenally well,” comments Goldstein, who found himself alongside his young report as they made their way to the parking lot together. “Thank you for all of your hard work,” Goldstein remembers saying—to which the employee then replied: “Yeah, well, I don’t think I want to do this.” Such a response was like a punch to the gut, Goldstein recalls, and one that not even the fresh evening air could ease. The employee explained further: “Evan, you’re telling me what to do, and you’re not letting me figure it out.” Looking back, Goldstein realizes that he was shortchanging the opportunities that he provided to others by failing to allow them to grow and develop along the way as they “added their own flavor to the process.” Says Goldstein: “This was one of my turning points from a managerial leadership perspective—when I started to realize that it’s not just about what you deliver but also how you deliver it.”
Marco Torrente kicked off his finance career inside the Milan, Italy, offices of SC Johnson, the household cleaning products giant headquartered in Racine, Wisconsin. All told, he would end up spending 7 years in various finance roles at Johnson—including that of controller—while relocating first to London and then eventually to Geneva. Looking back, Torrente tells us that the family-owned company created a “flexible culture” that valued autonomy and direct communication—two qualities that have been instrumental in shaping his approach to finance leadership.
Perhaps it would be fair to speculate that were it not for the changing dietary habits of Americans and surprise arrival of a global pandemic, Steven Cirulis would likely not be occupying the CFO office at Potbelly Sandwich Shop. The pursuit of new alternative proteins inside the land of agtech has in recent years led more than few venture capital firms to seek out the advice of strategy executives familiar with the mathematics behind the evolving menus of fast dining establishments. Having held a succession of top strategy roles with the likes of McDonald’s and Panera, Steven Cirulis found his budding popularity within the VC community to be little more than a rewarding satisfaction—that is, until late 2019, when he decided to put some of his VC-related activities aside to accommodate an advisory gig with publicly-held sandwich shop Potbelly. “They had been looking for a CFO at the time, but I was really enjoying my work on the venture capital side of things,” recalls Cirulis, who adds that the arrival of the pandemic changed everything. “I ostensibly became the person whom they turned to and asked, ‘Okay, what do we do here?,’” continues Cirulis. Within the next several weeks, he busily implemented a list of cash preservation edicts, triggered the renegotiation of bank covenants, and—along with Potbelly management—announced a pay cut, instituted an employee furlough, and applied for a PPP loan. Along the way—perhaps not more than a month into the pandemic—Potbelly proposed to Cirulis that he join the company as CFO and chief strategy officer. “Why would you join a restaurant business at the start of a pandemic?,” rhetorically reflects Cirulis, in highlighting but one of the queries that crossed his mind at the time. Nevertheless, Cirulis tells us, “I jumped at it.” Three years later, with the virus now in the rearview mirror, Cirulis makes it clear that the pandemic will never fully escape his view: “Getting forgiveness on that PPP loan was a great day in my career as a CFO.”
No matter how many phone calls Matt Gustke receives during the span of his finance career, none will likely be more memorable or important than one he received nearly 22 years ago. At the time, Gustke, a research analyst for a major bank, was spending his days assessing the carnage piling up in the aftermath of the dotcom bubble burst. “The times were really weird, and uncertainty was everywhere,” comments Gustke, who despite the tech sector’s dotcom bust chapter assures us that he thoroughly enjoyed his research days—and in fact he may well have remained in research if not for a fateful phone call. “He was without a doubt my favorite executive at my favorite company,” comments Gustke, recalling the late Rajiv Dutta, who as the CFO of eBay at the time called Gustke to invite him to lunch. “The lunch turned into a full day, which then became a dinner and a meeting with the whole team, which then a week later led to my joining eBay to build out its IR function,” recalls Gustke, who as a research analyst had already established a rapport with Dutta by having frequently queried the CFO and summoned his comments as part of his regular research coverage. “At the time that I joined eBay, I honestly viewed it as sort of a 1- to 2-year working sabbatical during which I would get to see a company from the inside, but I eventually ended up being part of the eBay family for 12 years,” continues Gustke, who once more credits Dutta with extending his “leave” and ultimately helping to point him down the CFO path. Gustke tells us that Dutta was often known to be generous with praise: "I guess it was a couple of years into my eBay journey when Rajiv came up to me and said, 'You know, investors don't want to talk to me anymore because they just want to talk to you, which is freeing up so much of my time to do other things—so I want to say thanks.'” However, as it turned out, Dutta had more than praise in mind. “The next thing he said was, ‘And now I need you to go into a different role—what would you think about leading FP&A for eBay International?,'” reports Gustke, who after giving Dutta an affirmative response first began serving in his new international role from California before relocating to Switzerland for additional finance responsibilities that would eventually lead to heading up eBay's European finance team. As he continued to grow his experience across multiple finance disciplines, Gustke became a candidate for more senior leadership positions. In 2010, he garnered what would be his first CFO appointment when he was named CFO of StubHub, the online ticket broker acquired by eBay in 2007. Still, Gustke wants us know that one of his most important lessons wasn't gleaned from life among finance's rank-and-file but instead at a research team's conference table—and perhaps the very one where he first met Dutta. Says Gustke: "Long ago I stopped worrying about asking stupid questions in meetings. I figured that if something wasn't clear to me—and I'm at least of average intelligence—it wouldn't be clear to someone else. It turns out that more often than not, my questions led to better conversations, new insights, and a clearer mandate as to what was to be done after the meeting."
As listeners to our podcast well know, one of our favorite queries for finance executives who have had a lengthy tenure in one place is, “What kept you there?” It may go without saying that something with the word “opportunity” in it is perhaps the most popular response. Still, for certain finance leaders—and especially those whose careers span multiple decades with a single company—this question often summons up a degree of self-reflection that few others bring forth. Such was the case with Cox Enterprises President and CFO Dallas Clement, who afforded our question an extra modicum of contemplation that we had not expected before issuing some of the best career advice that has ever been shared on this podcast. * To be fair, we may have prejudged Clement in assuming that his expansive (33 years) and adventurous career within Cox had unfolded without any degree of uncertainty. However, Clement quickly dispersed our presumptions by unveiling two career snapshots. The first came from the early 1990s, when Clement was contemplating exiting the environs of Cox’s Atlanta headquarters to practice law while living on the beach in Sarasota, Florida. “I had kept deferring law school, but at the time, I thought that this possibility might make for a pretty good life.” Another came from nearly 15 years later, when Clement—now a father with four daughters—was touring homes with his wife in Silicon Valley as he evaluated the relocation possibilities associated with an appointment that he subsequently would reject. “Even if I wasn’t completely happy in my current role, it would have been disruptive to the kids and risky, so I didn’t leave,” explains Clement, who perhaps saves his best observations for those career-builders who like him have elected to stay put. He advises: “Once you’ve gone through that exercise and decided to stay, don’t second-guess yourself. Be all in—not only in your professional role but also more broadly in your life, your family, your outside work activities—because work is what you do, it’s not who you are. Over time, I have learned to be more mature and thoughtful about this. I really appreciate how lucky I’ve been in a variety of areas.” * * LISTEN TO THE EPISODE BELOW (1:00:27)
If Paystand CFO Scott Bennion were to break his three-decade-long finance career into different chapters, the software finance leader would likely agree that he and many of his peers have recently opened a new one. As a starting—or concluding—point, the chapter that has just ended might simply be titled "The Data Set," in order to focus our attention on the means by which Bennion and others of his ilk have over the past decade extended their lines of sight into the business well beyond those of any previous generation of CFOs. For Bennion—who remembers tracking CD shipping costs during the desktop computing era—the latest marker or evidence that a new page has been turned has been made visible by Paystand’s product engineering and development team. “After having deployed AI tools and generative AI, we’re able to actually see a 4x increase in productivity by our product and engineering teams so far,” reports Bennion, who minces no words when asked about AI's impact on company finances. He continues: “From a finance perspective, I see a massive opportunity for improved ROI through doing more with less. From a legal perspective, I see that we need to be making sure that we do this in a smart way so that we don't accidentally hit any legal third rails.” Bennion believes that the adoption of AI tools within SaaS organizations is not unlike what he previously observed firsthand in the open-source software environment. “New tech is often a developer-led initiative that comes into the organization through the side door, but once it's in, you need to embrace it,” observes Bennion, whose resume includes a stint as CFO of an open-source software company. Moreover, when it comes to some of the legal concerns associated with AI, Bennion suggests that just as happened in the open-source world, commercial licensing will be used to address some of the go-to-market concerns related to potential software infringement. As far as Bennion is concerned, when it comes to AI, the hands of time have already begun to move. “You need to embrace it," he advises. "You can’t embrace it."
* Of all of the career experiences that Robert Goldenberg has acquired on his way to the CFO office, you would think that his stint with a bankrupt landscaping company would not be apt to make his list of all-time opportunity door-openers. Still, when we asked Goldenberg to look back to share the experiences that first propelled him into the C-suite, the landscaping business came to his mind. To wit: It was back in 2015, when software developer 6sense was interviewing to hire its first full-time CFO, that Goldenberg—a career investment banker—nabbed an interview spot with the firm’s part-time finance leader. “He told me that my investment banking background was great, but that 6sense needed someone who could start at Ground Zero and had more tactical accounting experience,” recalls Goldenberg, who assured the executive that he completely understood—before suggesting that they dedicate the interview’s remaining time to accounting questions. “He grilled me for 20 minutes and then said, ‘You’re great!—I’m going schedule your next six interviews,’” continues Goldenberg, who was soon hired after having made the rounds with five senior executives and one board member. When it came to accounting practices, the part-time finance leader no doubt had anticipated that the seasoned banker sitting across the table may have had a blind spot—an addressable affliction, but certainly one that can frequently lengthen the path to the CFO office. “In this instance, it was an objective fact that I was better than the average investment banker when it came to accounting,” explains Goldenberg, who credits one banking deal more than any other with sharpening his accounting knowledge—which brings us back to the bankrupt landscaping company that he had been tasked with selling whose books had been susceptible to recurring chaos. “In my experience, very small landscaping companies in bankruptcy are not known to have solid internal accounting functions,” observes Goldenberg, who adds that for a span of 3 months he had made the company’s dated accounting systems the center of his world. In fact, Goldenberg himself would make journal entries and seek solutions to reconcile old accounts. Consequently, his deep dive into the company’s books provided him with a base of accounting knowledge that he has continued to retain and build on to this day. “When you get exposure to something and it’s critical that you learn it with some measure of competency,” Goldenberg reports, “I find that the resulting learning compounds over time—even when it’s not related to your day-to-day job.”
The big-city addresses that frequently prettify the office locations of esteemed accounting houses have continued to be a reliable draw for 20-something-year-old accounting grads eager to be counted among urban professionals. Thus we would not have been surprised to learn that back in the late 1980s, when recent grad Jim Caci was assigned to Arthur Andersen’s Roseland, New Jersey, office, he experienced what might have been called a “ho-hum” moment. Not so! Unlike the real estate occupied by his big-city peers, Caci notes, “Roseland” afforded him more access to Andersen partners, who were arguably more approachable outside the accounting house’s big-city confines. What’s more, the New Jersey site tended to operate in a more independent fashion than AA’s marquee offices, a cultural attribute that perhaps made it an ideal location from which to spearhead a pilot program to provide a unique menu of services to small technology companies. “The idea was that from among these small companies would ultimately come the next Microsoft, but we would have already begun working with them when they were at only $5 million in revenue,” explains Caci, who reports that Roseland became one of only a handful of AA offices to test the program. At the same time, the Roseland office had some plus-size neighbors, including AT&T Corp., whose headquarters at the time were a mere 25-minute drive away in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. Caci tells us that this is when his career benefited from both geography and timing. At the time, Arthur Andersen had been engaged by AT&T to help with the formidable task of splitting up the firm into its Baby Bell operating companies, per its historic agreement with the U.S. government. The multi-step nature of this undertaking and regular management updates that it demanded led Caci and other Roseland denizens to frequently commute to Basking Ridge. Says Caci: “Here I was at the beginning of my second year out of school, and I was being asked to help present to the senior leadership of AT&T.”
* Among the learnings that Dev Ahuja has gleaned from his three-decade-long, globe-hopping finance career, perhaps none has delivered a more enduring instruction than that which followed his very first hop. By his own account, after Ahuja had reached the summit of Novartis’s finance executive ranks in India, the drug giant invited him to occupy an office at its Basel, Switzerland, headquarters. Here, Ahuja was promised, he would be able to apply his flourishing financial acumen on a more global scale. “I thought that I knew what it took—I came with a lot of confidence rather than in a mode of humbleness and wanting to learn,” comments Ahuja, who let us know that his first years at headquarters did not always go as planned. Ahuja reports: “The Swiss don’t mince words." Confronted with his shortcomings, Ahuja set out to get things back on track—beginning with a hefty dose of self-scrutiny. * “I had done a miserable job because I really had not made the effort to build relationships and take the time and make the effort to understand the cultural nuances,” remarks Ahuja, whose track change paid off with a Swiss stint in the roles of group controller and head of Basel’s finance operations that stretched to 5 years. Still, Ahuja’s Swiss experiences would prove to grow even more valuable in the years ahead, as he would come to occupy the CFO offices of Novartis Korea (3 years) and Novartis Japan (2 years). “Novartis was very active when it came to developing people across geographies, but my case—where I would end up living in five different countries—was not very normal,” observes Ahuja, whose fifth nation became the U.S. after the drugmaker’s $46 billion acquisition of Alcon opened the door to a number of opportunities for him. Announced in 2010, the Alcon deal was to present post-merger integration challenges that in part led Novartis to relocate Ahuja from Korea to Japan, where the Alcon integration tasks were more pressing. “We accomplished a lot in Japan in a short period of time, and it seems that Alcon U.S.—which was twice the size of Alcon Japan—was in need of some of what we had learned,” recalls Ahuja, who tells us that at the time, a son had recently relocated to the U.S. for studies. With little delay, it seems, Ahuja was headed to Fort Worth, Texas, to serve as CFO North America for the drug giant’s Alcon division—a business that years later would nab business headlines when Novartis opted to spin it off. According to Ahuja, he has been able to apply his Swiss “lessons” at each career move, including his change when he departed from Novartis in 2016 to accept the CFO position at aluminum products giant Novelis. It seems that regardless of whether a move has involved geographies or industries, Ahuja has been able to apply the benefits of his time in Switzerland. Says Ahuja: “When you fail, you must make up your mind to take every lesson from that failure and act on it.”
It’s perhaps no secret that this podcast can be rather rigid when it comes to our policy for welcoming guests: Invitations are reserved for CFOs and CFOs alone. In fact, we regularly turn away book authors, consultants, and even CEOs. Such was the case for David Pennino, CEO of LogicSource, who recently was “pitched” to us as a potential guest. As always, we issued a templated email reply specially crafted to politely inform a dutiful communication professional of our “CFOs-only” mantra. This being said, LogicSource’s CEO has arguably nabbed a plus-size supporting role on our latest episode without having recorded a single word. Although unexpected, this was perhaps an eminently understandable development, given the central role that Pennino has played in the career of Niki Heim, LogicSource’s CFO, who easily met our necessary criteria and subsequently accepted our invitation. Still, when it comes to Pennino, CFO Heim does not serve up the familiar cadence of CEO kudos, any more than she attempts to tell us that Pennino is some kind of all-knowing C-suite Yoda forever imparting career wisdom. Instead, she swings open the door to a conference room of the past. The year is 2014, and Heim, a newly hired controller, is fielding questions from LogicSource’s private equity investors. Pennino is confident that she has the makings to be the company’s next CFO, but not all those gathered feel as certain—including Heim, who now tells us that at the time, she felt that she was not yet ready. “I’m very grateful that I had Dave Pennino, who was honest and open with me—he’d say, ‘Listen, here’s what I’m hearing—I believe in you, but you have to believe in yourself and you have to keep going,’” explains Heim, who adds that the company’s CFO had exited the company only days before her arrival, prompting the company’s investors to scrutinize the firm’s recent finance hire all the more. “During every single presentation that I gave to the board and to investor meetings, I was on edge—I needed to prove myself but always make sure that I was doing what Dave believed that I could do,” remarks Heim, who would shortly begin serving in an interim CFO role despite having her own misgivings about her CFO readiness. “Along the way, I would hear people say, ‘The work is going to come before the belief in yourself,’ and that was me—it was almost like my self-confidence wasn’t fully there yet,” comments Heim, who besides receiving confidence-boosting support from her CEO also began to extract feelings of self-worth from each new board encounter. “The board would be asking me to do something, and I would need to just go and figure out how to do it—I always found a way, and there were a lot of times early on when I was in the office at [6:00] in the morning and left at midnight,” recalls Heim, who tells us that once the work came, her confidence began to arrive soon thereafter. Says Heim: “More and more people and investors would call me up personally, and I’d be able to answer their questions.”
For many professionals, the period stretching roughly from March 2020 to December 2022 will forever be known simply as “COVID,” as in “I changed jobs during COVID.” Thus it was for Erin Colgan, who in July 2020—after having invested 9 years within the finance rank-and-file of pharma giant Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and 8 years with PwC—opted to become the 20th employee of a promising biotech start-up. Still, Colgan’s game change was prompted not by COVID’s well-earned reputation for employment displacement nor by the allure of start-up dreams but by what recruiters have long referred to as “the call to leadership.” For Colgan, this meant joining Boston-based Sensei Bio as senior vice president of finance, a title that guaranteed her the status of being the firm’s senior most finance executive. At the time of her appointment, the pandemic had already begun to be recognized as having certain accelerant qualities for business, which were perhaps nowhere on display more than inside the biotech realm, an industry that was experiencing a COVID-fueled adrenaline rush. “It was only about 6 weeks after I joined the company that we found ourselves meeting with banks to talk about how we could go public to capitalize on the market being especially hot for biotechs,” explains Colgan, who alongside her CEO spearheaded an IPO process that ultimately raised $152 million for Sensei Bio in February 2021. However, as Colgan was to learn, a more formidable leadership challenge still lay ahead, as a Phase 2 drug trial rendered disappointing results and the biotech market at large suddenly began to cool. “Six months past our IPO, some data on a Phase 2 program came in that wasn’t what we had hoped for, so we huddled,” recalls Colgan, who reports that the company’s cash runway then became top-of-mind as management debated whether the capital markets for small-cap biotech firms might turn around in 6 to 9 months. “I said, ‘Let’s assume that this period lasts a lot longer and see how long we can stretch our cash while still enabling ourselves to achieve what we feel is most important,’” continues Colgan, who tells us that Sensei Bio ultimately advanced down her preferred path, which allowed the firm to extend its cash reach by a year and a half. In the 6 months that followed, Colgan remarks, the finance, science, and medical areas of the business achieved a shared mind-set that allowed them to work together in the new, capital-constrained biotech environment. In January 2022, nearly a year after Sensei Bio’s IPO and 6 months after Colgan had made her compelling argument to extend the firm’s cash coverage calendar, she was named CFO—an appointment that we would wager she had sealed up a half-year earlier when certain hard decisions had been called for. Colgan observes: “You can’t make those types of decisions ‘later.’ You have to make them early and often.”
This episode of Planning Aces features the FP&A insights and commentary of CFO Dev Ahuja of Novelis, CFO Alex Triplett of Appfire and CFO Rick Rosenthal of Clara Analytics. One of the key topics co host Brett Knowles drills down on is the difference between complicated and complex problems. Brett uses the examples of manufacturing a car, which is complicated, and raising a child, which is complex. The distinction is crucial in understanding how to approach problem-solving in an organization. While complicated problems can be solved with the right formulas or spreadsheets, complex problems require more. They demand strong interpersonal relationships and effective communication. It’s not just about having the right tools or processes, but also about having the right people who can use these tools effectively. Planning Ace CFO Dev Ahuja brings some perspective on the role of people in finance transformation. CFO Ahuja shared insights into the structure of his finance organization at Novelis. Despite being well-established, the organization needed a renewed focus on the role of finance in driving decisions and adding value. Dev emphasized the importance of finance being a thought partner and actively shaping strategy. He also highlighted the need for a strong talent pipeline and succession planning. This ensures the organization has the necessary depth of talent to drive its vision forward.
Among the different career highlights that Chris Kramer shares with us, perhaps none is as memorable as what might be called his “Indiana Jones moment.” Having distinguished himself as a “technical accountant” during the first half of his career, Kramer was often dispatched to observe and scrutinize the accounting practices of prospective acquisition targets in foreign lands—a succession of deployments that led him to frequently encounter unexpected circumstances. Such was the case one time in the mid-2000s, when he entered the UK corporate offices of an acquisition prospect and found himself casting his eyes upon something that he “had never seen before.” Somehow, in doing his due diligence, Kramer had found a big bound book: a company ledger. Given that few details populate this ledger tale, we’ll assume that he may have been engaged in some polite conversation with the UK office’s accounting team when it occurred to him that he needed a network login code. This request led to one UK accountant subsequently winking at another, who from what seemed like out of nowhere produced a large brown volume—or perhaps it was black, or maybe blue, and perhaps the company was mostly using QuickBooks but had relied on bound ledgers prior to 2004. Kramer doesn’t tell us. However, the words that he uses to illustrate his “find” arguably echo the tone and sentiments of an archaeologist making a heroic discovery. “It was incredible—a physical ledger, which I then had to ‘translate’ before taking it back to corporate!,” exclaims Kramer, whose depth of technical accounting knowledge and range of M&A experiences had made him an invaluable asset for deal-minded CFOs. However, Kramer tells us, he would have appreciated having a broader view of finance earlier in his career, which would have allowed him to see beyond accounting and position himself to acquire more acumen across different finance disciplines such as IR and FP&A. “I was very far down the accounting track in the realm of chief accounting officers before I began speaking to CFOs and CFO recruiters and spending time inside these other disciplines,” reports Kramer, who tells us that his deliberate push to acquire a wider view of finance didn’t always feel like an upward climb. He continues: “I went from having this massive team as a chief accounting officer to being an SVP of FP&A with only a fraction of the number of people who previously reported to me.”
Back in 2001, the new finance recruits roaming the corridors of General Electric Company prodded themselves along as they confronted the everyday challenges of orienting themselves inside GE’s hard-shell corporate culture. This was perhaps especially true for financial analyst Ken Bowles, whose cultural trial was somewhat more daunting, considering whence he had come. Turn back the clock only a year or two, and you would have found Bowles based in South Korea as a member of the U.S. Army’s 177th Finance Battalion, which was tasked with supporting the army’s 2nd Infantry Division. “It’s always a shock when you go from the military into a corporate job—anyone who talks to you about it will tell you that there’s definitely a transition,” explains Bowles, who during his 5-year stint with the military served within the Army’s Finance Corps, a combat service and support branch that at the time was made of only about 300 officers. * During his college years, Bowles had completed the U.S. Army’s ROTC program with distinction, which allowed him to choose from a menu of branch options upon graduation. Thus, with an undergraduate degree in hand, he enrolled in the United States Army Financial Management School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Using his stateside time wisely, Bowles enrolled at the University of South Carolina, where he was able to allot some of his off-base hours to completing an MBA. Along the way, came a deployment to South Korea. “We were there to support the organization and the base by doing any number of typical finance activities, such as all of the funding and budgeting and payroll and allocations,” recalls Bowles, whose transition to corporate life appears to have been a success by any measure when you consider that his GE career would span 15 years and include multiple unit CFO roles. Still, Bowles points out that the transition challenge for former military members often begins on Day One of their job search. “When you’re going out to try to find a new opportunity, the transition can be difficult because a lot of the skills that you learn in the military don’t seem as though they’re transferable,” remarks Bowles, who notes that during his initial transition period he was fortunate enough to be able to engage with a GE unit CFO who was “willing to take a chance” on him. “So, you have to do a lot of explaining with regard to exactly what you did in the service and how it can be applied to different types of jobs—and this is particularly true when you get into something like finance.” Of course, while most of the skills and experience of finance professionals are transferrable, Bowles doesn’t hesitate to point out that certain management practices are not. Outside the military, he says, “you have to ask people to do things, not tell them.” –
While the 2008 financial crash turned out to be a reliable source of career lessons for many of our finance leader guests, Joel Campbell may be the first CFO to share with us a customer support lesson learned from the crisis. Back in 2006, Campbell, a seasoned treasury executive, had been recruited to help to build a robust treasury function for Ameriprise Financial, the recently spun-off financial planning division of American Express. “Those first 2 years were really about finishing this spin-off process, but the day that’s burned infamously into my mind is September 16, 2008,” remembers Campbell, who reports that this was the day when a money market fund widely used by Ameriprise customers “broke the buck.” “It became the first money market fund in investing history to let its net asset value drop below a dollar—and this had just never happened before,” continues Campbell, who adds that the fund served more than 300,000 Ameriprise customers who had routinely deposited their excess cash into it with the intent of using the proceeds to pay a variety of expenses, from mortgages to college tuitions. Not more than 10 days after the fund “broke the buck,” Ameriprise’s management team committed $400 million from its own balance sheet to support those customers impacted by the fund’s sudden collapse. Besides underlining the prioritization of customer care, Campbell notes, the experience also shaped his perspectives on treasury and finance. “It helped me to think about how to look forward,’ remarks Campbell, who continues to laud Ameriprise’s response, “and I’m saying ‘look forward’ with regard not just to what’s happening in a business but also to trying to understand where the market is headed. It’s all about reading the signs so that you can step back and make sure that you’re making the right decisions from a risk or liquidity standpoint to be able to both run your business and support your customers in the right way.” Says Campbell: “It’s the response that sticks with me. It was how the executive team quickly pivoted and said, ‘We need to take care of the customer, period. Full stop.’”
CFO Michael Cox says that it was near the end of 2022 when the IRIS Software Group began to realize that the guiding philosophy that had motivated and incentivized the UK-based software company to complete 30 acquisitions within 6 years needed an upgrade. Cox tells us that the IRIS management team was discussing the business cases for yet more acquisitions when the group began to banter about the same deal-making “multiples” that had successfully guided the company prior to the pandemic. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘Hang on a minute! These multiples would have us potentially spending as much on these businesses as we did pre-COVID—but in fact the cost of debt has doubled,’” recalls Cox, who adds that while IRIS management was certainly aware of the various factors (inflation, a sudden rotation of UK prime ministers, Russia’s war on Ukraine) that had contributed to the UK’s tepid business climate, there was not yet consensus around how to incorporate them and the resulting increased cost of debt into the firm’s business-case decision-making. In the past, Cox tells us, a typical business-case meeting might have involved a discussion around whether IRIS could continue to invest in an acquired company in order to allow it to achieve new growth—which would make it a worthwhile target. However, it had become clear that such deliberations now needed to consider speed to value as a key contributor to future M&A success. According to Cox, “We needed to be thinking about how quickly we could generate the value that we wanted to create from these acquisitions.” While revenue synergies and cross-selling opportunities between IRIS and potential acquisition targets would remain key selling points for any executive advancing the business case for a particular deal, Cox would ask the room to study the prospective acquisition over an 18- to 24-month time span and prod executives for ideas or suggestions. “I’d ask, ‘How do we generate cross-selling more quickly or invest in this company in a way that makes the business more successful more quickly?,’” remarks Cox, who notes that one trait that might distinguish his post-COVID vs. pre-COVID finance leadership is a willingness to push back. Says Cox: “Sometimes you’ve got to be that unpopular voice in the room and that sort of glass-half-empty person because it’s important to understand the overall impact of the cost of capital on the value of IRIS as a business.”
When David Parsons tells us that he remains concerned about the whereabouts of his 20-something-year-old self, we realize that our talk with Zuto’s CFO is going to be different from most of those that we undertake with today’s finance leaders. According to him, “Thirty-nine-year-old Dave is looking at mid-20s Dave and asking, are you ‘” Some further probing on our part reveals that “mid-20s Dave” was roaming the English countryside on weekends as part of a wedding band, as well as a member of other assembles—including a popular Michael Jackson tribute act. “I just went down this rabbit hole where I was working weekends as a musician and doing studio work in the evenings,” explains Parsons, who adds that his weekend music tours would often book-end 70-hour workweeks in corporate finance. “I don’t mind working the hours, if I get to do what I love doing,” continues Parsons, who began serving in a succession of FP&A roles once he was safely beyond his 20s. “I have not necessarily built my career by trying to fill niches and gaps on my c.v., which is, by the way, a good way of going about things—but it’s just not for me,” remarks Parsons, who notes that he began to find his work increasingly satisfying as he moved into a number of commercial finance roles, which eventually led him to accept a position with UK-based automobile finance and loan company Zuto. “Basically, we begin by placing a customer with a lender and a preapproval, which means that we can tell them with a very high degree of accuracy whether the lender is going to accept them,” reports Parsons, who points out that Zuto deploys a sizable team of car-buying experts who can offer customers one-on-one service for vehicle history checks, free vehicle valuation checks, and the like. Parsons recalls that at the time that the CFO role opened up at Zuto roughly 5 years ago, he was overseeing FP&A. Nonetheless, although the company was evaluating other CFO candidates, he knew that in the end he was a good fit—and not necessarily because of his familiarity with the business. Says Parsons: “It really comes down to being a cultural fit, and for me, I found that this business is doing something that I believe in.”
When OpenAI, the creator of ChatGPT, recently announced that it would be opening its first office outside the U.S., few who were roaming the tech corridors of Silicon Valley likely were surprised that the generative AI company chose London for its new outpost. As a backdrop to the decision, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has been energetically pitching the UK as the intellectual and geographical “home” of AI, at the same time that UK executive recruiters have been busy compiling evidence to convince tech prospects that the UK is on the verge of becoming the next Silicon Valley. Such claims are bold moves indeed, but ones for which a resume such as that of American Michael Bannon might serve the recruiting community as “Exhibit A.” A quick glance at Bannon’s bio reveals a familiar professional trajectory, from his 11 years as an investor with TPG Global of San Francisco to the operations side, where to date he has occupied the CFO office at three different tech firms. Other noted Bay Area laurels have included an MBA from Stanford and board seat with Meals on Wheels, San Francisco (2013 to 2017). Bannon’s resume is one that any aspiring Silicon Valley CFO might hope to someday replicate, although any peruser of it would also note that his professional journey has also been a geographic one. “My assumption was that I would end up in the Bay Area, but one of the conversations that I had was with a London-based company—and you know how one conversation can quickly lead to two or three,” explains Bannon, who after 6 years in the UK recently opened his third CFO chapter with SaaS software developer Typeform. Still, based in London, Bannon points out that as the UK’s tech community has expanded, so too has the “weight class” of tech companies that he now prefers as a finance leader. “I love this size of company because I think that there really is an opportunity for each of us here as an individual to have an impact,” he notes, going on to give little to no mention of his geographically nomadic professional path. “I love building teams and building organizations—and so far, the companies of which I’ve been a part have grown significantly over the periods of time when I have been with them.” Says Bannon: “As an American who was based out in the Bay Area for close to 15 years, to now get to see the tech scene over here in Europe is a pretty special thing—it’s where I feel that I can be additive, given my previous experience.”
When Jeff Noto is asked to reflect back on his 35 years with Verizon, he tells us that his earliest years with the company were spent scoring quick returns on investments that Verizon had made inside its fledgling wireless business. “I always have to chuckle when I think back to how certain people thought that wireless would not be a product for very long,” comments Noto, who notes that being able to demonstrate speedy returns on investments became critical to securing future investments and for building the business case that wireless would someday soon be a viable alternative to “wire line” services. “Now, look at things from where we sit today, when everything has been reversed and wireless now provides the main means for communication—that is, at least from the perspective of from the handset to the tower,” observes Noto, who would climb the ranks at Verizon as an FP&A executive to eventually serve in steady succession of business unit CFO roles. * Asked why—after 35 years with other duties—2023 became the right time to step into a CFO role, Noto replies: “It was just a funny intersection where all things came together after the world had turned during my very long career with Verizon.” For Noto, it was time to look beyond the “handset to tower” space and all of the other familiar communications pathways. “From there, it becomes all about fiber-optics—and that’s what we do at Zayo,’ continues Noto, drawing our attention to his recent CFO appointment at the fiber-optics and network infrastructure company. Says Noto: “I don’t know that there could have been a company other than Zayo that I would have left Verizon for—this is a great opportunity.” No doubt this is a blush-worthy compliment, yet—coming from someone with 35 years at a single company—many of us are inclined to take Noto at his word.
Among global management consulting firms, Boston Consulting Group—long recognized as one of the world’s top three “strategy houses” (along with McKinsey and Bain)—has remained an attractive early career chapter for many executives who wish to accelerate their learning by consulting to senior corporate leaders. Such was the path taken by Sapna Kapur, who in 2007—after 4 years with Kurt Salmon and then 4 with BCG—exited management consulting in search of a corporate operations role that would allow her to apply the expertise that she had gleaned from years of serving a variety of corporate clients. At the time, Kapur could not have known that she was about to make what will more than likely be her professional life’s biggest investment of career years with a single company—nor could she have realized that upon completion of this 12-year stint, she would in short order become a CFO. Kapur’s sizable investment of career years with a single company is not unlike similar sojourns made many of the finance leaders who have shared their career journeys with us. However, what intrigues us is that she established this track record and fed her budding CFO ambitions while an employee of Google from 2007 to 2019, a span of time during which the company grew from $20 billion to $182 billion. “I joined Google when it was just starting to take a bit of a breather in order to better think about the ways in which it could grow to the next level and explore questions like, ‘Should we go for growth by 2X or by 5X?,’” recalls Kapur, who notes that the original Google operations team that she joined was made up of executives with consulting roots just like her own. “We were needed to really drive some of these types of growth explorations to better inform the leadership team at Google,” explains Kapur, who within 3 years of joining the company had begun to serve in a succession of finance roles. Listeners will undoubtedly find Kapur’s insights into Google’s use of small teams of keen interest, as well as the collaborative nature that she regularly transmits—an attribute that she seems to take for granted. While time limitations may not have allowed us to track the roots of Kapur’s “collaborative skillset,” we suspect that professional peers might tell us that not unlike Lady Gaga, she was “Born This Way.”