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.
743: Winning With Employee Success | Michael Rosen, CFO, Power Digital Marketing
45:30CFOTL: Tell us about Power Digital Marketing. What does it do and what are its offerings today? Rosen: Well, I’ve been with the company for just under a year. I’m 35 years into my career, and I think that this is the most exciting assignment that I’ve had. Power Digital Marketing is a tech-enabled marketing services business. Our propriety technology is called Nova. It’s at the core of everything that we do both internally and in how we engage with our clients. Essentially, we provide performance marketing services to leading e-commerce brands. This is everything from technical services like search engine optimization and conversion rate optimization to full-performance creative services. We do Amazon services. We do all social services. We do Facebook and Instagram, and we do influencers—really, the whole range. One of the things that’s unique about us is that Nova enables us to take one of our clients or prospective clients—take all of their first party data—and run it through Nova, which analyzes everything by channel. It finds gaps and shows us where the performance could be better and where the performance is already good. We then use our strategies to review all of this, and we put a road map together, which we call our Nova Blueprint. We create a marketing strategy and a forecast that we can then implement with our expertise to bring additional sales to our clients. Nova also provides real-time dashboards and other data that our clients can monitor. What I really like about this company and why I joined the team is that it has a great mission and a really strong culture. Read More The founder and CEO, Grayson Lafrenz, is still very active in the company. He’s a really smart guy and just really good at building strong, motivated, and loyal team members. I first met him on the phone, and I immediately knew that I wanted to work at this company. I felt very aligned with his vision. I’ve felt very aligned with the rest of the executive team. The mission is very simple: To be the most valued and respected digital marketing firm. In order to achieve this, Grayson created eight rules that everyone should live by. I’m not going to go over all of them, but it’s things like integrity, loyalty, and trust, above all. Challenge yourself. Don’t wait to be challenged. Embrace change. Always innovate. And, above all, have fun — don’t take yourself too seriously. These are things that really resonated with me. I think that these are things that drive us to be the best at our jobs. The company’s doing really well, and I think that this is a good reason why. I’m also again working with a PE firm, which I love. The company was bought in 2019. Our majority ownership is now with this PE firm in Chicago. Believe it or not, this was something that really astounded me. Throughout COVID, we bolted on two acquisitions. Prior to COVID, they had had another acquisition. So, in the 2 years or so that we’ve been involved with the PE firm, we’ve had three acquisitions and the company’s grown fourfold. We’ve gone from a pre-COVID 110 or so employees to about 450 employees now. We’re just growing really strong, and everything is really going in the right direction for us.
742: When a SPAC Unlocks Quantum Possibilities | Thomas Kramer, CFO, IonQ
36:01When Thomas Kramer recalls his decision to leave his job with a prestigious consulting firm to start up a tech firm in the final hours of the dotcom boom, he doesn’t hesitate to underscore his decision’s questionable timing. “This was when I realized that I would be getting out of consulting at what potentially would have been the worst possible point in time. Everyone could see that the Internet boom was closing, and smart people do what smart people do: They run in the other direction,” recalls Kramer, now some 20 years later. Whether it’s quantum bits, IPOs, or even SPACs, the exciting developments surrounding IonQ are no match for CFO Kramer’s insightful personal advice and often biting self-reflection. “Travel is something that you do when you can,” explains Kramer, who tells us that during those times when his career has dispatched him to different parts of the world, he has frequently combined work and leisure trips. At one point back in the early 2000s, when he discovered that he was not required to be in Delhi, India, for another 48 hours, the avid traveler made a pit stop in the United Arab Emirates. “I stopped off in Dubai and then I drove to Oman,” he reports, “because, hey, when else are you going to get to go to Oman?” –Jack Sweeney CFOTL: Tell us about IonQ … what type of company is this? Kramer: This is one that I love to get at cocktail parties because we actually shoot lasers at individual atoms and use these as building blocks to create the computer of the future. And I’m not kidding about the lasers or the atoms—this is what we do. We literally manipulate the smallest entities in the universe to create the largest-capacity supercomputers in the world. Why is this important, because who cares about computers? You can go to Best Buy and buy another one every day. But the problem with computing is that “more slow” hasn’t been working for a while now. There are just physical limits to how many transistors you can put into a chip, and transistors are the basic building blocks of traditional computers. Transistors or bits are pretty limited in their function, though. They’ll assume the value of only zero or one, and to paraphrase Katy Perry, they’re off or they’re on. Famously, quantum bits can be both zero and one at the same time—and also any value in between. This means that they can hold much richer information and therefore be used to compute much, much more complicated problem sets. I’ll give you an example. Most UPS drivers can make about 120 deliveries per day. The potential combination of stops is expressed as a mathematical function by multiplying 120 by 119 by 118, and so on. The result far exceeds the age of Earth in nanoseconds. The practical implication of this is that if UPS or FedEx tried to calculate the optimal world for each of their more than 100,000 drivers every morning, all packages would’ve been delivered weeks ago, before the fastest supercomputer could ever give you the answer. This is where quantum computers come in. They can handle a much larger data set simultaneously than your traditional computer can. When you go public, it’s a moment of profound commitment because now you’re really stuck, now you have to make it work. And that’s what I want to see happen here. We can go public. We will be trading. But what’s important is that we can bring out the best computers in the market for decades to come. And we as a finance function can help to make this happen.
741: One Step Ahead | Kurt Shintaffer, CFO, Apptio
41:20In the wake of an economic downturn, a company’s door of opportunity swings open to a finance up-and-comer. This is a familiar early career chapter for many finance leaders, and few have revealed to us the uncertainty surrounding the moment better than Apptio CFO Kurt Shintaffer “The CEO came to me and said, ‘Do you think that you have what it takes?’ I said, ‘Well, sure!,’ without really knowing what I was signing up for,” explains Shintaffer, who back in 2002 was a senior finance executive for Pacific Edge Software when the company’s then-CFO exited. Until this moment, Shintaffer’s resume arguably had resembled those of thousands of other finance career builders stationed along the different rungs of finance’s corporate ladder, and like Shintaffer, may have completed a stint in public accounting. (Shintaffer spent three years with Ernst & Young). Still, at 28 years of age, Shintaffer was already aware that his technical knowledge was not what would make the difference in the days ahead. “I had to rely on all of the relationships that I had built to help me find my way. I was super-open about what I didn’t know, and I tried to learn from other people. I think that when you sort of make yourself vulnerable like this, people lean in for you,” remarks Shintaffer, while recalling the mind-set that he quickly acquired to meet the challenges ahead. Meanwhile, his ability to be calm under pressure began to become evident as his appetite for multitasking grew, and he found his relationship with the business changing. Says Shintaffer: “I was able to stay just far enough ahead of all of the things that were coming at me so that I could at least create this illusion of control, and I think that even to this day there are still some times when you just have to stay one step ahead.” –Jack Sweeney
740: Illuminating the Home of the Future with a Brand from the Past | Roy Simmons, CFO, GE Lighting, a Savant company
53:34Twenty years ago, when Roy Simmons first joined General Electric Company as a rookie financial analyst, it likely would have been difficult to imagine that he would someday occupy the CFO office of GE Lighting. Of course, occupying the CFO office of “GE Lighting, a Savant company” would have required the young analyst to be endowed with not just imagination – but a crystal ball. This being said, in 2019, when a more seasoned Simmons joined the former GE business (now owned by Savant Systems, Inc.) as CFO, he had little trouble imagining a list of finance leader priorities for the coming year. Read More “We’ve been together for the last 14 months and we together have a vision to bring that brighter life to the people,” explains Simmons, who spent a combined 18 years at GE, a span of time during which he served in a number of senior FP&A roles including one with GE Lighting. “Back in the lighting days, we realized that our customers who bought lights for their businesses were also finance professionals and operating professionals who had goals, so we asked ourselves, ‘How do we sell lights better than anyone else?’ and ‘How do we actually create a meaningful opportunity to provide value to the customer?,’” recalls Simmons, as he begins to outline the thinking behind a strategic pivot from GE’s past. Says Simmons: “Normally, a customer would say, ‘We’re just going to go buy a series of new lighting fixtures for our parking lot, and this will cost me $100,000.’ However, what if instead we went to a customer and said, ‘Rather than spend $100,000 on lights, how about a solution that means that you’re going to save $40,000 a year in energy consumption?’” According to Simmons, the GE team narrowed its lens in order to target CFOs and other operationally minded executives with a commitment to deliver the customer savings within two and a half years. “Sometimes we could get it down to less than a year. Sometimes it was a bit longer, but by doing it this way, we changed the paradigm on selling,” comments Simmons, who credits the solutions approach with helping GE to land a landmark deal valued at $180 million¾a hefty price tag for what Simmons describes as “the largest lighting deal ever closed.” Looking back on the approach Simmons says: “It really brought to life a solution for customers that has survived past those days and which has now gone on to morph into a company that’s today outside of General Electric Company in a different capacity, and it set a paradigm in an industry that had been thinking of things in a singularly focused way and changed them.” – Jack Sweeney
739: The Rules of Play | Craig Abrahams, CFO, Playtika
40:55It was after he had worked 3 years as an investment analyst with Bear Stearns and spent more than 2 years inside the corporate strategy bullpen of The Walt Disney Company that Craig Abrahams decided to head to business school. However, Abrahams says that unlike many of his future classmates, he had made up his mind that hedge funds, investment banks, and strategy consulting firms would not be on his preferred menu of postgraduation career opportunities. “I wanted an opportunity to work really hard and stand out but also to go somewhere a little bit different, where I wasn’t competing with 10 versions of myself,” explains Abrahams, whose earlier experiences at Bear Stearns and Disney had left the MBA student searching for a less traditional route to career success. Observes Abrahams: “I was looking for a place where I personally could have an impact.” That place became Las Vegas, where upon graduation Abrahams joined Caesars Entertainment as a director of broadcasting and new media. “This was about putting myself in a position where I would be in the right place if an opportunity came along,” comments Abrahams, who within 6 months of joining the gaming giant was tapped to help launch Caesars Interactive Entertainment. “I remember when Gary Loveman, the CEO of Caesars at the time, said to me, ‘There’s an opportunity to work on a business plan to create a new entity,’ so that opportunity fell into my lap,” remarks Abrahams, who had served in a number of corporate development roles before advancing into the new entity’s CFO office. It was as CFO of Caesars Interactive that Abrahams first became acquainted with a small Israeli company that had a megahit mobile game known as Slotomania. Caesars was smitten and in 2011 acquired the Israeli firm, Playtika. Over the next 5 years, Caesars Interactive invested more than $300 million into the business, which allowed Playtika to complete a series of acquisitions that led to the sale of the company for $4.4 billion in 2016. “This was just the first step in the evolution of Playtika,” explains Abrahams, who joined the newly private firm as CFO in 2019 and subsequently spearheaded a debt raise of $2.5 billion. The company was able to pay investors a dividend before management became focused on taking the company public, a goal that would be realized early in 2021. –Jack Sweeney
738: Using Digital Insight to Unlock Business Value | Sameer Ralhan, CFO, The Chemours Company
48:54Unlike many of the up-and-comers who populate the corridors of The Chemours Company, CFO Sameer Ralhan spent the balance of his career building years with the company inside its manufacturing plants. It was there where Ralhan says that he observed everyday executives making decisions that routinely impacted the business, and it was there where his M&A activities allowed him to imagine new avenues for value creation. Says Ralhan: “The heart of this company beats at the plants.” Still, the many hours that Chemours’s future CFO spent there made him aware of a growing disconnect between finance and the plant’s decision-makers. According to Ralhan, Chemours, not unlike many U.S. manufacturers, had undergone decades of reorganizations designed to streamline and centralize its operations. However, one consequence of this was that the bond between the plants and the Chemours finance team had become weakened. “It was really limiting the finance support at the site and undermining decision support that could really drive the right financial outcomes,” recalls Ralhan, who after stepping into the CFO role made reallocating finance resources to support plant decision-making a priority. Ralhan reports that one of a number of Chemours businesses that have benefited from the reallocation has been the chemical company’s Advanced Performance Materials (APM) business, where the finance and the operations teams came together to build new decision-making models as well as return-on-capital models for each manufacturing site. Observes Ralhan: “These models really provided the insights to drive the right decisions, and this is evident in the margin improvement that we're seeing today in the APM business.” Meanwhile, the Chemours manufacturing sites, as well as their bottom lines, are expected to benefit in the coming years from different digital tools and applications that promise to build on APM's recent margin improvement success. Comments Ralhan: “Once you achieve this, you earn the right to do more things, and that's what I'm really excited about.” -Jack Sweeney
737: The Future Before Us | Chris Kuehn, CFO, Trane Technologies
41:01It was a complicated transaction that Ingersoll Rand’s then-CEO Mike Lamach challenged his finance and operations people to address by “turning over every rock in the company” to nullify the possibility of unforeseen snags. Recalls Chris Kuehn, who at the time served as Ingersoll Rand’s chief accounting officer: “I remember Mike coming back and telling us that he had never been through an IPO in his career, but this transaction was likely going to be the closest he ever got to one.” Today, Kuehn is CFO of Trane Technologies, the spinoff and resulting offspring of the transaction that involved the merger of Ingersoll Rand’s industrial business, Milwaukee-based Gardner Denver. “Mike didn’t want us to accept the status quo. He wanted us to review every one of the 600 cost centers and every organizational chart and function,” continues Kuehn, who adds that the exhaustive process spanned between six and nine months. Part of engineering the spinoff’s early success, Kuehn explains, involved proactively moving processes that had been managed centrally to regional locations where they would be better suited for the management of the entity’s future operations. Still, putting a reorganization in motion on the eve of a defining transaction is no doubt a tricky management feat, especially when the dimensions of the proposed spinoff are not yet fully visible to the company’s incumbent employees. According to Kuehn, the approaching transaction deadlines brought an operational opportunity into view. He comments: “We said, ‘Let’s be courageous enough to change what has not been working, with a bias to moving those processes that are centrally led.’” For Kuehn, the reorganization and eventual 2019 transaction swung open the door to Trane’s CFO office, where the finance and operational opportunity remains front-and-center. “We’re still on the journey today,” he points out. “We’re not done, but this has certainly allowed me to get inside the finance function as well as our other global functions and see what is working well and what we need to change.” –Jack Sweeney
ON LOCATION with Planful CEO Grant Halloran and Trintech President Darren Heffernan
50:08Eighteen months after COVID microbes first began marching across the 50 states, business planning software developers have no shortage of business case examples to better expose the relevancy of their offerings. Still, not every customer door that swings open leads to an avenue for success, according to Grant Halloran, CEO of FP&A developer Planful of Redwood City, Calif. “We love the word “focus” in our organization, and we believe that there have been lots of software companies over the years that have lost their focus and gotten caught up in their returns,” explains Halloran, who—along with Darren Heffernan of accounting software company Trintech—sat down for an in-person interview with CFO Thought Leader host Jack Sweeney to discuss the two companies’ budding partnership amid COVID’s stubborn residency. Halloran believes that software developers in the finance space too often stray from their finance office customers as they seek out relationships with the leaders of different functional areas. “We stay very close to the office of the CFO because we want to drive change from them in the center,” comments Halloran, who tells us that even Planful’s recent partnership with Trintech was in part driven by Planful’s mantra to stay focused. “The reason that we partnered with Trintech was that the financial close is such a specialization for accounting teams that when we evaluated things, we felt that it would take us way too long to build such an offering ourselves since it’s so specialized,” notes Halloran. At Trintech, Heffernan says that the office of the CFO has never been more central to a business’s operations. Observes Heffernan: “During the pandemic, people ran to the CFO for guidance and to restore confidence due to all of the challenges that were happening. The demands on the office of the CFO and the position of the CFO have dramatically changed forever.” Now Listen | This leadership interview was recorded on Sept. 19, 2021, at Planful’s Perform 2021 Customer Conference, Redwood City, Calif.. In addition, the podcast features exclusive customer interviews with Johann Cabe, FP&A leader, Imperial Dade; Glenn Snyder, FP&A leader; and Noah Pieper, director of FP&A, LifeStance Health.