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.
825: The Leader's Intent: Helping Others | Bona Allen, CFO, KBD Group
Bona Allen was never a country doctor—but he recollects feeling like one at one point in his finance career. Or, rather, being paid like one.
By the early 2000s, Allen had served in multiple CFO/controller roles, a series of consecutive appointments that from time to time had led different Georgia business owners to seek out his financial advice.
These discussions—which frequently focused on raising debt—opened his eyes to opportunities in the realm of financial consulting.
“Often, I’d be engaged to raise debt for specific deals—a couple of clients were in the renewable energy sector, and then there were other deals involving big equipment,” recalls Allen, who notes that it was not uncommon to have his consulting fees structured as a “success fee” or a fee contingent on the success of the deal.
Still, the owner was always expected to pay a small fee up front to cover some expenses, explains Allen, whose portfolio of clients would geographically grow beyond the greater Atlanta metro region to frequently send him to the state’s outer reaches to meet clients.
It was from one such client visit in northeast Georgia that Allen returned home with a couple of cartons of fresh eggs.
“My wife was like, ‘So now you’re getting paid in eggs?,’” remembers Allen, who recounts the story when asked to identify experiences that have influenced his mind-set as a finance leader.
He observes that the experience of being face-to-face outside of a traditional business environment with people tackling debt and other business challenges left a lasting impression.
Says Allen: “The lesson that I learned there was stay humble because it’s the chicken farmers and the manufacturers and the people who often don’t work in a high rise who keep this country going.”
It’s mind-set that certainly any country doctor would understand. –Jack Sweeney
824: An Appetite for Change | Rajesh Gupta, CFO, OakNorth Bank
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.” –Jack Sweeney
823: Courtside with a CFO All-Star | Larry Angelilli, CFO, MoneyGram
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.” –Jack Sweeney
822: CFO Trifecta: Finance, Strategy & Leadership | Peter Walker CFO, Sterling
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. Other promotions followed and in 2014 Walker was named Assurant's CFO, followed by a stint as 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.” –Jack Sweeney
821: When Leaders Want More | Michael Sumruld, CFO, Parker Wellbore
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.” –Jack Sweeney
Keeping Leadership in Step with Workforce Priorities | A Workplace Champions Episode
Brett & Jack discuss how the economy's is sending the hiring environment mixed signals and how the inefficiencies of the recruitment function continue to be a drag on industry aspirations for building a more productive workforce.
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
Relatable and applicable
This podcast truly marries useful finance tips and insights with human stories about finance professionals. It’s such a great mix of information any company can apply today and the characters and personal stories behind that info. The combination makes each episode memorable and valuable.
Good information, obnoxious host
It’s hard to listen to the host, especially the advertisements. His tone is incredibly obnoxious that I cringe at times. Still good material to listen to if you’re in accounting or finance.
Super informative and thought provoking
I have an MBA and I really enjoy this show. Jack asks probing questions that get into the mind of his guest. I feel like I’m a fly on the wall listening to a couple of intelligent movers and shakers sharing their most important business secrets. This show is a must-listen for anyone who aspires to be a leader in the business world.