There’s not much we like better at CFO than having finance chiefs tell us directly what they’ve found to work and not work, including anecdotes detailing how they approached problematic scenarios.
But are they the only credible sources of such information? Are they even the most objective sources? Based on what I heard at a recent forum for finance executives I attended, called “The Habits of Successful CFOs,” the answers are “no” and “maybe not.”
The format of the forum was a panel discussion. On the panel were people who have been serial entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and board members, as well as an executive recruiter. Before the session began, one CFO, who asked not to be named, told me he was looking forward to hearing what these folks had to say. “Sometimes it’s hard for CFOs to tell if what our own CEOs, owners and board members say they think about us is what they really think about us,” he said.
The program was hosted by The CFO Roundtable, which has offered periodic forums in the Boston area and was making its first foray into New York. The moderator was Jen Gabler, a former CFO who’s now a partner at Marlborough Street Partners, a provider of strategic and operational services for venture-funded companies, investors and entrepreneurs.
An edited transcript of the session follows.
What should CFOs be doing during the early stages of a startup company?
Ken Marshall (a serial entrepreneur and currently CEO of Israeli software company CorrelSense): The early stage of a company is all about managing cash. If you don’t do that well, you probably won’t make it to the next funding round. So, using a driving metaphor, the first thing the CFO should do is make sure we’re not driving an extravagant automobile. Few extras, not a gas guzzler.
Also, as we all know, whether driving a car or running a company, things don’t always go as planned. It’s important that the CFO is part of the process of identifying what to do in case things don’t work out according to the original plan.
And it’s important that the CFO keep an eye on the speedometer to make sure the CEO isn’t driving too fast. A lot of CEOs, particularly those who invented the company’s product, don’t see the obstacles. They don’t always deal with reality. They’re in love with the product and don’t understand why people don’t get it. The CFO needs to provide a reality check when the CEO gets into that mode.
Kevin Rakin (a former CFO and longtime CEO, currently a member of several boards and a private investor): There’s a role for a CFO to think about the vision for the company and the culture that’s going to be built. Many start-ups can’t tell you, in a clear CFO type of way, what they intend to be in three or four years or what success will look like. In the early stages you’re trying to survive and raise a little money, and that’s success. But if you don’t set the foundation for the true long-term goal, you’ll blow up at some point.
James Robinson (co-founder and managing partner of venture-capital firm RRE Ventures): In raising the money for an investment, one of the things that folks like me spend a lot of time is how well the CFO and the other executives work together. In the several meetings I may have with them, I’m looking to see who leads, who trails, whether they’re cutting each other off. Even if they’re not, have they figured out a way to complement each other rather than just repeat each other? These are incredibly important “tells” as to whether one of them will be marginalized over time.
Rakin: That’s an important point and a hard one, because how do you measure that? But it really is all about teams. Certainly in the med-tech and biotech world, the first technology is not often the winning technology. The team has to adjust to that.
For a start-up company, there will come a day when the venture capitalists, or whomever, will want to find their exit, and soon. The CFO is the one who has to say, “Yeah, but the systems I put in place were to keep us from blowing up before we go public. What happens six months later?”
What do you expect of a top-performing CFO in terms of internal and external relationship-building?
Dawn Fay (New York/New Jersey District president for recruiting firm Robert Half International): One of the biggest keys we see in successful CFOs is an ability to communicate. You have to communicate technical financial information to non-technical people, which in some cases is the CEO or the founder, as well as board members and investors.
You’ve also got to network and build relationships in the marketplace with your peer group, with other people in your industry, and with technology people, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen [in that area]. As your organization grows you should make relationships in the marketplace long before you actually need them.
Rakin: Among all the companies whose boards I’ve been on, one CFO stands out. You get a monthly report that has corralled all the other leaders in the business and puts their opinions into one written communication. When there’s just a board meeting once every three months where you’re touching base on the phone, you don’t always get a holistic sense of things.
The finance group should partner with each part of the organization in order to get the information it needs. For instance, you could embed a finance person in the sales and marketing group so you can really understand forecasting. Otherwise you may build a forecast that’s what your venture investors want to hear but you never quite meet your numbers, and everybody’s unhappy.
When a company is raising an early round of funding, what should the CFO be doing?
Robinson: There’s the obvious stuff with modeling and the ability to articulate a combination of what the model says and what the story is. But that’s a threshold requirement. If someone can’t do that, why are they there? Also like that is network value – knowing financiers and having raised money before.
To me the real value actually happens before that. What are the pushbacks on assumptions that folks make? What’s sales saying? What are the marketing folks looking for? Maybe even HR. Certainly there’s the CEO’s vision. By the time you get to the modeling piece, you need to have had a large number of conversations. And a good CFO is able to play devil’s advocate and make those people better in how they think about their businesses or their visions or their departments.
What have you seen CFOs do to manage a rapid expansion of the business?
Robinson: Unexpected, non-linear growth can be as scary as its evil twin – it can kill you quickly in a variety of ways. A CFO can save the day. I’m thinking of one company we had that in the telecommunications business and was on the verge of launching a product. The microeconomics of that product made no sense, but that didn’t matter – the buyer was happy to look beyond that.
As the sellers, we were happy to look beyond that too, as were pretty much everybody who had touched the product. But it was the CFO who said it would be great for six months and then people would figure out that they were not prepared to serve and support that product.
The company then had a tough quarter based on the CFO convincing us not to pursue the opportunity so quickly, but it probably saved the company. It was the voice of reason. Nine months later we were better positioned to offer the product. So CFOs can be incredibly important not just in tactics but in strategy.
What are some great things you’ve seen CFOs do in situations where there’s a lack of cash resources and you’re laying off staff, just trying to hang on?
Marshall: We had a private company that was in a bit of a squeeze. They had decided to start a process to sell the business, but the cash balance was dwindling. Fortunately the company had put some venture debt in place on top of the last financing round, which was a ways back. But the venture guys made it very clear they were not going to put in any more money.
The CFO explained the situation to the company’s lender, with whom he had maintained regular communication: we’ve received this much in capital; the company is going to be sold somewhere in this range; we need a little more breathing room to get through a tough period – the early part of the year is typically the slowest. And without a lot of involvement from the CEO and virtually none from the board, the CFO was able to renegotiate the debt. It cost something, but it happened because he had been so communicative with the lender over a period of a couple of years.
Fay: Most people that join start-up organizations understand the risks involved, and they can be amazing when you tell them the truth about what’s going on. We’ve seen situations where people have cut their salaries so they could stay part of a team and done all sorts of things you would think they wouldn’t want to do from a job standpoint in order to get the organization through a tough time.
You’re looking for an exit, either an IPO or an M&A event. What are you expecting from your CFO now?
Marshall: M&A is really tricky, particularly when you’re the one who’s being acquired, and the CFO is in a really difficult position because he’s most likely not going to be hired [by the acquiring company]. It’s hard not to think about and the fact that the people who work for you may not be employed either.
But I’ve seen CFOs either make or ruin their careers in the way they handled that. The ones who put their personal interest aside and got the deal done have no problem getting a job the next time around, particularly in the venture community, which is a small community. The ones who get in the way of the deal and start miscommunicating internally find it difficult to get another job in the industry.
What have you seen CFOs do to successfully manage a globalization process?
Marshall: That’s where a CFO’s network comes in handy, because you’re not the first company to open an office in Japan, develop a tax strategy in Europe or repatriate cash from Brazil. The best CFOs have folks they can ask those questions and get referrals to local accounting firms, banks or whatever they need. It’s so much easier doing what somebody else has always done than reinventing the wheel.
What are some of the biggest missteps you’ve seen CFOs make?
Marshall: The worst thing I’ve seen a CFO do is run out of cash. That happened to a company where I was on the board. It gets back to advance warning systems and understanding the risk in a forecast. CFOs, like salespeople, are typically optimistic about their ability to sell their way out of a problem. But in this case the CFO didn’t challenge the sales vice president’s forecast even though he knew it was shaky, and he overestimated his ability to make collections.
Robinson: If the company is close to running out of cash to pay creditors and a few weeks away from missing payroll, the first person to see that on their early-warning radar should be the CFO. That should never happen, but if you’re actually approaching that event horizon you’ve got liability, and you’ve got to tell the CEO even if it’s hard to hear.
What else makes a CFO great?
Robinson: Here’s one that I occasionally get into arguments about with other board members and CEOs. A typical refrain when people are thinking about recruiting a CFO is about domain expertise. Wouldn’t it be nice if we got somebody who understands our industry?
Of course it would. But even though I’m in the technology business, on my list of let’s say the five top things I look for in a CFO, domain expertise is maybe fifth, if it even makes the list. The person has to have a personality fit with a particular company and its CEO. Another thing, and you can’t train it, is an innate desire to be in command of the facts.
Rakin: You want a CFO and a CEO who be able to call each other on a Sunday night, talk honestly and hash something through. Investors pick up on that. When you go out on a roadshow they can see whether these guys are a team or are going to have ego fights over whatever’s going on.