CFOs Turned CEOs Provide Savvy Career Advice

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CFO Studio Magazine, 1st Quarter 2012

CFOs who aspire to move up the career ladder must think strategically – and be engaged in reinventing their companies.

THE CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER, especially in smaller organizations, likely has his or her hand in daily accounting duties, quarterly analysis and annual reporting. The CFO often heads up audits and takes the financial lead on mergers, acquisitions and other similar endeavors. However, not every CFO has the vision – or even the interest – in going beyond the call of financial duty.

Those CFOs with the desire and drive to exceed expectations in their respective companies must think and act like other more advanced C-Level executives in the firm. They must become a proactive voice when it comes to day-to-day business functions, as well as promote growth strategies that aim to take the company to the next level. When done successfully, the CFO can – and often will – move up the next rung of the ladder.

As four CFOs turned CEOs can attest, there is a huge difference between a number-crunching, calculator-clutching accountant and a strategic-thinking operations executive. The executive must be able to strike a balance between where the company has been and where it’s headed.

AT AST, MICHAEL ELDREDGE wears many hats. Officially, he is the chairman of the board, executive vice president, COO, CFO and even enjoys his self-appointed role as secretary of the board of directors. However, Eldredge is quick to say that titles are meaningless.

“As a company executive, especially one with a financial role, you must engage yourself with the business,” Eldredge advises. “Don’t just be a financial reporter, but become a member of the entrepreneurial group. Become the leader that helps drive the car instead of being the passenger who sits in the back reading the map. The terms ‘passive‘ and ‘CEO‘ don’t mix. Be proactive when it comes to helping to grow your company.”

Prior to AST, Eldredge was the vice president of finance/CFO at Townley Inc., a manufacturer and distributor of consumer products. Prior to that, he served as corporate controller of Measurement Specialties Inc., a developer and manufacturer of consumer and industrial electronic devices. He was chosen as CFO of the Year by the New Jersey Technology Council and as CFO of the Year finalist for 2011 by NJBiz.

While he is a lot of things to a lot of people, Eldredge isn’t a certified public accountant. By choice.

Though he graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in finance and accounting, Eldredge knew he wanted to be something more than a number cruncher. He got his chance in 1997 when he and two partners launched AST. They got first round funding and hit the ground running. Eldredge brought the financial brains to the business while his colleagues served as president/chief technologist and sales and marketing experts.

“We ran this company as a public company from the start. We looked at the way business was being run and put in place an organizational structure that allowed us to hold and build market position,” Eldredge says. “We have always searched for and hired great talent – making sure that everyone on our team has the global best interest of the company at heart. That’s the secret of our success. Treat people fairly, like family. They will grow and blossom, and so will your company.”

SOMETIMES IT’S FUNNY HOW things happen to go your way. Call it serendipity, perhaps, but when opportunity knocks, only a fool fails to open the door.

Ron Gaboury had been working as a consultant for a CPA firm prior to doing consulting for York Telecom – putting financial systems in place and working on government contract proposals for two years. It was labor-intensive, nose-to- the-grindstone financial work.

York was a $4 million company at the time with less than 30 people on staff. It was all-hands-on-deck, mostly in-house, as Gaboury recalls, until they landed a $19 million contract for video conferencing work from the U.S. government.

All of a sudden, York Telecom needed a CFO, and Gaboury was in the right place at the right time. He joined the company full-time as CFO in 1995; two other executives were in charge of technology and sales, and the company was led by its founder Dr. York Wang. He explains that York Telecom was typical of many technology companies: the techies had less of a business perspective on things and thought more about developing and selling the greatest new thing on the market.

After Gaboury joined York, the company started growing quickly. In fact, within a few years, value jumped to $18 million. The company fully organized and brought in a full management team.

He became president and COO in 1999 and, under his guidance, Gaboury made its first acquisition in 2000, with another following quickly a year later. Through M&A and other growth, the company moved to expand its sales team, broke into the enterprise market and started to attract Fortune 100 companies as clients. Disney, Amgen, Novartis, Google, BMS and CitiGroup were among them.

In March 2011, Gaboury replaced himself by hiring David Phillips as president and COO. Now, as CEO, he is busier than ever, keeping an eye on new acquisition opportunities all the time.

“For CFOs to succeed,“ he says, “they need to know what the company does, how the company does it and the company’s strategy for growth – not only how much it costs to do business or how to save money. If you are the kind of financial person who can sit in the room with a bunch of financial people holding calculators and be the one guy who is three pages ahead waiting for the others to catch up, you may have the ability to be in the top spot.”
DAVE MUDRICK KNOWS THAT opportunity comes when you least expect it. However, he observes that it has little to do with luck and much more to do with drive, dedication and a whole lot of desire.

Mudrick joined Topcon America in 1993 as a financial analyst. He had wanted to work at an international company and was willing to work hard to get ahead. He took on a junior position with vigor, understanding that for several years it would likely keep him in the back office performing day-to-day financial work. But that was fine with Mudrick. He was working on mergers and acquisitions at an international company, gaining more experience every day. He played an integral part in forging two major deals.

Though smart and eager, Mudrick was young. In the eyes of Topcon’s traditional Japanese management, age was a critical component of success. The junior employees were required to “know their place,” Mudrick says, noting, “If you were junior, you were junior. There was only a certain amount of exposure a young guy would get to the inner sanctum.”

Regardless of past history, the executives in Japan clearly had their eyes on Mudrick. Hard work was paying off. By 1999, he was the No. 2 guy in the company’s U.S. financial operations and was offered the CFO position when the then-CFO left. “I knew I was young, but I also knew I was ready. The company executives told me I was the logical choice and that it was my time,” he says.

Mudrick took on the role with gusto. He led a proposal to reorganize U.S. operations to reduce redundancy. Topcon America became a holding company with three subsidiaries, and Mudrick took the position of CFO at the holding company.

The companies run independently, but the reorganization eliminated triplicate services; there is now one administrative strategy that includes finance, HR, legal and more. Banking relationships are managed at the holding company level, and all 1,100 employees share one 401K plan, for example.

Mudrick was more than content in his new role. He loved working at Topcon and never really gave thought to the idea of rising up through the ranks any further than CFO. But, once again, the Japanese executives had other plans. When the then president of U.S. operations was called back to headquarters in 2006, Mudrick was chosen, out of four candidates, to be the next president and CEO of Topcon America.

“Topcon is truly an international company,” he says. “Whoever has the right stuff can and will get ahead. It’s about performance, commitment to the company and work ethic. I live that and instill that in my team each and every day.”

JAMES HUGHES CAN’T BELIEVE there are many kids who offer up “accountant” when asked what they want to be when they grow up. Certainly, accountant wasn’t his life’s calling. However, when Hughes headed off to college, he didn’t want to pursue the sciences and believed a general business degree was much too broad. “The universal language is numbers, so I figured an accounting degree would serve me well, no matter which avenue I selected,” he says.

So, armed with his undergrad degree in accounting in 1980, he took an assistant controller position at a small manufacturing company making a whopping $12K a year.

That’s when he realized he needed to get serious about a career path. A few years later, MBA in finance in hand, he secured a job at Pete Marwick, now KPMG, as an auditor. As luck would have it, he started working with financial institutions from the start.

“At the time, if you joined a firm like that, they put you into healthcare or manufacturing. So, while I was assigned to financial services, it turned out to be the best thing that could have happened because most of my clients were banks. By doing audits, I learned how the industry worked and came to understand the risks.”

He also met the right people. One of his “clients” was United Jersey Bank (UJB). When it offered him the position as CFO of UJB Financial’s mortgage division in 1989, he jumped at the chance to get out of the back office.

In the 1990s, when news of bank mergers were a dime a dozen, Hughes found himself cruising up his career ladder. After 11 years at UJB serving in various organizational roles, he moved on to Summit Bank Corp. in 2000, after Summit bought UJB. As senior vice president running the bank’s accounting division, he was well-positioned and happy with his success.

However, market forces stepped in once again. This time, Fleet purchased some of Summit’s holdings, and Hughes knew he would be relocated – not something he wanted for himself or his family. That’s when another KPMG client, Unity Bank, offered him the opportunity to be CFO at a community bank. “I wanted to try being a big fish in a small pond,” he recalls.

Three years later, in 2003, Unity’s existing CEO/president retired, and Hughes advanced to the top spot. “It’s an old adage, but your social IQ is more valuable than anything else,” he explains. “I’ve worked very hard to make my management style really count. I sit down with my direct reports every week.

We discuss strategy about what we need to get done. I foster an environment where everyone is working toward the good of the organization. I’m looking for overachievers, morale builders and people with great attitude. And I’m always aware of where I’ve been and how I got here.”

Conclusion

Some financial executives, in love with numbers and forecasting, are happy to keep their eyes on the prize – annual reports and the like. Others have their sites set on the corner office. Experts who have been there, done that and succeeded on moving from CFO to the top spot in their organization say the key to success is to get out of your office and talk to others in the organization. Find out how you can help them be more successful – and the answer may very well stop at your very desk.

It may feel like the only way to get ahead is to interact with the higher-ups, but the truth is that it is critically important to manage relationships at all levels of the organization.

Bottom line: For a CFO to stay relevant and grow profitably – both personally and professionally — he or she needs to be a part of reinventing the company at all times. Stay on top of the market. Watch the competition. Follow the economy. And, never take your eye off your crystal ball.

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