CFO THOUGHT LEADER is a podcast featuring firsthand accounts of finance leaders who are driving change within their organizations.
We share the career journey of our spotlighted CFO guest: What do they struggle with? How do they persevere? What makes them successful CFOs? CFO THOUGHT LEADER is all about inspiring finance professionals to take a leadership leap. We know that by hearing about the successes — (and yes, also the failures) — of others, today’s CFOs can more confidently chart their own leadership paths across the enterprise and take inspired action.
757: The Workforce is Rising | Justin Judd, CFO, BambooHR
Ten years ago, when Adobe management finally made up its mind to enter the software-as-a-service (SaaS) realm and become part of the mass migration from selling boxed software to selling its software offerings via subscription, Adobe’s migratory undertaking might well have been compared to that of the arctic tern.
With by far the longest such treks known in the animal kingdom, the arctic tern has one of the most widely followed migrations on the planet—and such would be the case for Adobe, whose most dedicated observers were unquestionably its investors.
“How do we tell investors that this is a great thing for them, that the metrics on which they’re most reliant actually won’t have any validity for 2 or 3 years, and that they should look at other numbers instead?,” asks Justin Judd, who at the time—as a vice president in Adobe’s corporate legal group—became involved in the massive migration as the company’s finance and legal worlds converged to better address the transformation’s communication challenges.
To Judd, Adobe’s migration to SaaS was an inflection point not only for the company but also for his career, which—considering the legal complexities of the migration—would benefit from having direct involvement with Adobe’s executive team and board. What’s more, Judd found himself increasingly intertwined with the company’s finance teams and leaders.
“In communicating and developing the strategy and running through this process, I learned the value that finance can have in framing hard decisions for companies and the importance of business context because Adobe invested deeply in understanding what our customers needed,” explains Judd, who—although initially summoned for his legal guidance—seems to have savored the broader communications challenge that was being addressed by Adobe’s finance teams.
“’Here’s how our product offerings work. Here are the implications of decisions that we make.’ Let me bring this information back and present it in a way that can be influential and powerful in helping our decision-making to be successful,” remarks Judd, who would trade in his legal moniker in 2018 when he was named CFO of Adobe’s digital experience business—perhaps a less-than-surprise outcome in light of his previous multiyear entrenchment within the company’s finance leadership.
However, unlike with the arctic tern, for Judd there would be no turning back. –Jack Sweeney
756: Start-Ups, SPACs, and Street Fights | Michael Levine, CFO, Payoneer
Start early, stay late, be prepared, and don’t shy away from the street-fight environments surrounding start-up companies. These methods have helped Michael Levine to bound up an unconventional leadership ladder en route to the CFO office of Payoneer, the global B2B digital commerce company that he helped to take public in June of this year via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). According to Levine, Payoneer’s decision to go with a SPAC rather than a traditional IPO was influenced by his ability to share forecasts with prospective investors amid the pandemic’s digital commerce boom.
Levine followed an untraditional path to the CFO office, from his start as an investment banker to his swift rise up through the ranks in the commercial banking, telecommunications, and healthcare software sectors. Fresh from Wharton, Levine recalls, he would wait at the end of the line queued up outside the vice chairman’s office each evening in hope of a brief audience. On occasion, he might eventually snag a precious few minutes after 8:00 p.m. to chat with the senior leader about his day and the investment bank itself.
Now, a decade after joining Payoneer, Levine starts his work at [5:30] each morning with a breakfast of payments volumes, fee revenue, take rates, customer acquisition costs, and other KPIs. Thanks in part to his long days, rigorous preparation, and “beyond what?” focus on why the numbers are what they are, Payoneer has grown from 100 employees and $13 million in revenue in 2011 to approximately 2,600 employees and revenue north of $345 million today.
Before each board meeting, Levine preps by asking and answering every question that the board might ask. His hard work lets him skate to where the puck is going to be, which his board appreciates: At times, they’ve asked Levine to help CFOs at their other companies to sharpen their board communications skills.
755: Serving the Creators | Craig Foster, CFO, Picsart
During 2018, the very year Craig Foster joined Bright Machines, the San Francisco–based company was spun out from contract manufacturing firm Flex, raised a headline-grabbing $179 million in Series A funding, and shed its original moniker, AutoLab AI.
By all accounts, the manufacturing start-up, which promised to use a combination of robots and new software to perform manual labor, was open for business. However, like many start-ups, Bright Machines had yet to add some basic business functions.
“We had a sense of product, but we didn’t have any infrastructure whatsoever,” comments Foster, who notes that among the company’s most immediate needs was an HR executive hire—someone capable of populating the company with experienced managers.
Still, arguably more critical to future of the business were the remedies for certain flaws that had begun to become visible in the company’s maturing business model.
“I had been working there only a few months before I realized that the business model was simply not going to work,” explains Foster.
“Basically, we had a blueprint for how things were actually supposed to come together but only a semblance of one for what the business model was supposed to look like going forward,” continues Foster, who adds that over a period of months he worked with the CEO and the company’s board to “retool” the model to better facilitate customer recurring revenues and place less emphasis on the services aspect of the company’s offerings.
“We needed not a reset of the model but just a retooling in terms of how we thought about pricing, product, and development, and we needed to retool these things in concert,” observes Foster, who notes that the new mind-set kept the distinct value that Bright Machines offers its customers in sharper focus.
Says Foster: “It was a tough bandage to rip off, but I had great support from the board and everyone else at the time.” –Jack Sweeney
Planning's Longest Yard | A Planning Aces Episode
Steve and Jack discuss FP&A's 100-year march. Featuring commentary and FP&A insights from Planning Aces: CFO Kurt Shintaffer of Apptio CFO Jim Morgan of CallRail & CFO Daniel O'Shaughnessy of FormLabs.
Bonus Replay: Allocating Resources to Achieve the Right Outcomes | Inder Singh, CFO, Arm
Inder Singh started off his professional life as an engineer, only to learn that the large engineering projects that he aspired to someday lead often faced as many financial obstacles as they did engineering challenges.
So, Singh says, he went back to school and earned an MBA in finance, allowing him to redirect his career down a path populated with unique and imaginative financing deals to support engineering feats as well as business transformations.
One of the more innovative financing projects that Singh has helped to champion came along in the 1990s, when he was working as a business development executive for AT&T Corp. It seems that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was looking to upgrade its telecommunications infrastructure—to the tune of $4 billion.
“Other companies were just offering typical bank financing. In our case, we said, ‘Let’s do an oil barter agreement,’” explains Singh, who says that the proposal involved having Saudi Arabia supply $4 billion of oil to Chevron Corp., which then would pay $4 billion in cash to AT&T, which then would build Saudi Arabia a $4 billion telecommunications network.
“If you just think outside the box a little bit, bring your engineering skills, and bring some financial skills and common sense, you’ll see what makes sense for three different parties. And guess what? We actually won the deal,” comments Singh, who notes that the fact that Saudi Arabia may not have demanded such an imaginative financing solution is not important.
Says Singh: “The fact that we put it on the table made us stand apart.” And so it goes for Inder Singh, whose imaginative approach to financing deals over the years has routinely set him apart from his finance leadership peers. –Jack Sweeney
754: The Return to Earth | Tom Fitzgerald, CFO, Planet Fitness
Back in the mid-1990s, before email became widely used across corporate America, the executives of Frito-Lay’s northern California region suddenly found their mailboxes full.
“We were getting all of these letters from people asking, ‘What did you do? What’s going on in northern California?,’” explains Tom Fitzgerald, who at the time was finance director for the region, a geography known to be a sales laggard among Pepsico’s 24 business units, within which Frito-Lay itself was a particularly heavy bottom dweller.
Thus, as Fitzgerald relates, there was no shortage of intrigue concerning a sudden and steady sales climb inside Frito-Lay’s northern California business. Looking back, he observes that the explanation of the phenomenon was not necessarily pleasing to neighboring regions, which were known to be on a constant lookout for cunning new sales promotions or incentives.
“Northern California, oddly enough, was the only unionized market for Frito-Lay in the country. Meanwhile, we had a direct store delivery business, which meant that we went to every store at least once a week—and often every day—to merchandise and sell the inventory,” explains Fitzgerald, who notes that the “direct sales” approach afforded the region larger numbers of employees than other locales, which in turn allowed Frito-Lay to at times operate inside the region more like a “military organization.”
Like those of many of his peers, Fitzgerald’s Pepsi career routinely opened new chapters as the packaged goods company rotated its finance executives into new regions and business units. Fitzgerald’s arrival in the northern California region brought a new set of eyes to Frito-Lay’s local challenges and paired the finance executive with a divisional leader who was prepared to listen.
“I told the leader that too often the business had one answer one day and a different answer the following week. I said, ‘Let’s just pick three, and then we’re going to lock in and stay there,’” comments Fitzgerald, who credits a newfound focus and the regional leader’s willingness to collaborate with having propelled the snack maker to the top of the region’s 24 business units within 3 months.
As for the details behind Fitzgerald’s “three answer” prescription, the finance leader reports: “Two were top line–driven, operational metrics that we could measure. The other was related to how our team worked and coached the frontline salespeople.”
For Fitzgerald, the remedy was less about strategy and more about focus.
“It’s not necessarily about how good your strategy is,” he says. “Frankly, there may have been three better ideas along the way, but because they changed the strategy and moved to the next thing too quickly, they couldn’t get all of their people aligned to execute it well.”
Adds the finance leader: “I became a big believer in the notion that if you have an ‘A’ strategy but a ‘C’ execution, you’re going to miss your numbers every time.” –Jack Sweeney