In The Pressure Cooker



As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q3 2015 Issue Cover Story



For anyone who works at Pinnacle Foods, the six weeks that began on May 12, 2014, are unforgettable. During this stretch, the future of the company hung in the balance, as the fate of the Parsippany, NJ–based producer, marketer, and distributor of such American dining staples as Birds Eye frozen vegetables, Duncan Hines baking products, and Log Cabin syrup was kicked around far off in Chicago. It started with an unsolicited offer from Hillshire Brands, a Chicago-based food company, to acquire Pinnacle. “That was a really dark day in Pinnacle history,” says Craig Steeneck, Pinnacle’s 57-year-old chief financial officer. Fourteen months earlier, Steeneck and his finance team had borne the lead role in taking Pinnacle public. The takeover news ate at his sense of accomplishment. “It felt a bit like being a victim of our own success,” he says.

Now asked to lead the integration with Hillshire (whose brands include Jimmy Dean sausage and Ball Park franks), Steeneck believed that would be his last act for Pinnacle Foods. Conventional wisdom has it that CEOs and CFOs don’t usually hang around after an acquisition. “The prospect of leaving behind all that the Pinnacle team built was unsettling,” he says. For nine years, he’d put his considerable talent into helping shape, grow, and define the business. Disheartened, he made the trip to Chicago to “lay out the shell of what the integration plan would look like.”

Two weeks later, everything changed. Pilgrim’s Pride (a chicken producer, processor, marketer, and distributor) announced a bid to buy Hillshire. A couple of days after that, another shift occurred, when Tyson Foods (a global chicken, beef, and pork producer) topped Pilgrim’s offer for Hillshire—and a bidding war ensued. It soon became clear that the sausage maker, Hillshire, would be bought out by the highest bidder, which ended up being Tyson, and that Hillshire would not acquire Pinnacle.

Still, Pinnacle had accepted a legally binding offer that had not been officially withdrawn by the Hillshire Board, so the company was bound to the deal and continued to play along, so as not to jeopardize a significant break-up fee. “It was very disruptive,” says Steeneck. “We had to keep people focused on continuing to deliver the business. We carved out all the Hillshire activity and noise to a small group of people, so we weren’t distracting the rest of the team.” But the Wall Street Journal, the Star-Ledger, and CNBC, not to mention online news sources, kept the story alive throughout the six-week period.

Steeneck says that it wasn’t until July 1, 2014, when the Hillshire board voted in favor of taking the Tyson offer, and jettisoned plans to pursue acquiring Pinnacle, that the over 4,000 employees could raise a cheer for their independence and return to business as usual. Also, Pinnacle could then collect the $163 million break-up fee.

Why Pinnacle Was a Target

Pinnacle Foods manufactures products at 13 plants that it owns. Its brands hold the No. 1 or No. 2 market position in 10 of the 14 major categories where they compete. And, Pinnacle generates significant cash flow. “Our cash-to-earnings ratio is enormously high,” says Steeneck: 90 percent at year-end 2014. “That’s one of the characteristics of the Pinnacle portfolio that differentiates us from our peers. We’re able to convert earnings into cash at a very high percentage,” he says.

The Pinnacle business was created from a number of acquisitions (see Sidebar, this page). And the company continued to grow by buying brands that the nation’s large food companies deemed to be non-strategic. As a mid-cap company, with lower overhead, Pinnacle was able to put more attention into the brands it acquired, says Steeneck. Importantly, the brands were charged lower overhead than they’d been saddled with under prior owners.

In order to make those acquisitions and get solid returns from them, Pinnacle relied on tight financial controls and Steeneck’s oversight. In 2007, Pinnacle was acquired by The Blackstone Group and the focus shifted to building a company that could someday go public. Toward that end, in 2009 Pinnacle recruited Bob Gamgort as CEO and made its most significant acquisition, purchasing Birds Eye Foods. “That transaction was transformative for Pinnacle, as it virtually doubled our size,” says Steeneck.

When Pinnacle Foods created the prospectus, the S-1, that was filed with the SEC in connection with its March 2013 IPO, it was Steeneck’s finance team that took the lead, coordinating the efforts of in-house counsel and outside banking and legal advisors, to navigate the organization through this process. This grueling effort included compiling “a 250-page document containing extensive financial data, along with strategic and operational information that needed to be cleared by the SEC,” says Steeneck. Once cleared and with a compelling investor presentation in hand, he, Gamgort and Maria Sceppaguercio, who was brought in at that time to head up a new Investor Relations function, then articulated the story for investors during a 10-day investor road show.

Creating value by “Reinvigorating Iconic Brands” became the company’s mission, with a focus on prioritizing investment spending across the portfolio, expanding margins through productivity, maintaining a lean and efficient organization structure, and driving strong cash flow to create significant shareholder returns. Pinnacle emphasized during the IPO that acquisitions represented upside to the value creation the base business would generate.

“We operate in an industry and categories that are low-growth, but we’re able to create value by investing differentially in the highest-return brands in our portfolio, continuing to reduce our supply chain costs, and maintaining very lean SG&A overhead that minimizes the tax on our brands,” says Steeneck.

Investors responded well. The company priced the IPO at $20 per share. On March 28, 2013, the first day of trading, the stock (NYSE: PF) opened above that price and ended the day up more than 11 percent. Blackstone didn’t sell any of its shares at the IPO, instead choosing to hold for the significant value-creation potential it believed the company would — and ultimately did — realize.

A CFO With Good Chops

Until Blackstone became Pinnacle’s owner in 2007, Steeneck had spent considerable time fixing non-performing areas of the company with better systems and talent. In 2007, the focus changed to investing in the business so as to build a world-class food company.

His prior experience was extremely useful. Early in his career, he worked 13 years at Reckitt & Colman (now Reckitt Benckiser), becoming CFO of its North American operations. There he was involved in acquisitions of such brands as Woolite and Lysol to grow the company’s portfolio (and it was there that he met his wife, Sandra). He held his first public company CFO position at International Home Foods (Chef Boyardee, Gulden’s Mustard, Bumble Bee) and later joined Pinnacle Foods as executive vice president of finance, overseeing supply chain and IT.

Pinnacle had bought Aurora Foods a year prior, and was experiencing problems with customer service. Also, the logistics network was costing significantly more than industry benchmarks indicated necessary. “We had to put much better tools and processes in place, which we ultimately did,” he says. These tools and processes were critical in 2009 as the company embarked on the integration of the Birds Eye Foods acquisition, and in 2013 integrating the Wish-Bone business. “We fully integrated Birds Eye within six months and exceeded the acquisition plan on all key metrics. We had similar success with Wish-Bone.”

Today, two years after proving the company’s value with its successful IPO, Steeneck is still excited by the position he holds and the issues that come up. “I think the best part of my job is being a trusted advisor to the management team and having to be on my game day in and day out,” he says. “We are fighting for market share, we’re fighting for share of shelf, we’re fighting for quality employees, and we’re fighting for investor dollars. So there’s not much room for error. But we’re faster, we’re nimbler, we’re less bureaucratic. By making decisions faster in this world, we’re able to outmaneuver our competition.” Screenshot (75)

Looking Forward

When Pinnacle received the $163 million break-up fee, the company used most of that money to pay down debt. It also needed to ensure retention, so the company sweetened its bonus plan for the year and granted stock to all salaried employees who did not receive equity as part of their compensation. “One important lesson from the Hillshire event was how important it is for employees to be owners and have a direct stake in the company’s future,” says Steeneck.

The acquisitions that defined Pinnacle Foods’ growth over the course of the company’s first decade are harder to come by now. But it’s possible to improve margins by reinvigorating, for example, the male-focused TV dinner Hungry-Man with new flavors and combinations that can raise the price point: Fried Chicken and Waffles, anyone?

Steeneck’s finance team plays an active role in this sort of product innovation. Senior-level finance staff members are integrated into the business units in sales, marketing, and supply chain, with dual reporting responsibilities. Beyond costing out and evaluating new products, says Steeneck, “They’re involved in the development of the marketing and sales plans, and linking those plans to the supply chain.”

Finance team members are thus in a position to influence the brand teams to make better decisions, whether it’s forecasting sales or determining a future path. “You don’t want your finance team just looking in the rearview mirror. You want them working as cross-functional business partners to support better decision-making,” he says.

And Steeneck’s choice of people to support the commercial side of the business and help in the decision-making process gives him a maestro’s role in Reinvigorating Iconic Brands.

A Formula for Success


As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q4 2015 Issue

By James Emmerson Chief Financial Officer, Huntington Learning Center


Your responsibilities as a chief financial officer are probably much like mine: overseeing day-to-day activities regarding accounting, budgeting, tax management, cash management, banking activities, information technology, telecommunication systems, human resources, payroll, employee benefits, legal matters, risk management, facilities, property management, and purchasing. I think of myself as a well-rounded senior financial manager, but I depend heavily on my team.

When you get to a C-level position — and even before that — it is important to surround yourself with expert business partners, either as part of your internal team or your third-party advisors.

The most important role I have, beyond making sure that the company is performing well in all of the above-noted areas, is ensuring that the strategic posture of the company is aimed at growing our targeted product lines or services so the company can achieve the financial and market-share expectations of the shareholders. That means I need data that is accurate and detailed.

In order to ensure access to the data that allows each of us to perform our role as a CFO, we need current financial and operational information. You cannot project tomorrow if you really don’t know where the company was yesterday or is today.

Hire the best staff that you can and ensure that internal controls and auditing are in place to prevent things going off course.

Managing the Team

You need to be able to sleep at night knowing processes are working as they are supposed to.

• If you are not 100 percent sure that you have the right staff, replace them. To make do instead would cost you more in the long run —much more.

• Encourage your staff to attend webinars, seminars, and conferences. There is also a tremendous amount of valuable information on new products, services, and regulations available on the Internet.

• Challenge your staff to find better, more efficient ways to improve your bottom line. Be sure to reward this behavior accordingly.

The same approach goes for third-party advisors. You need to be 100 percent sure that you are being advised on the best and latest trends in the marketplace. It is great to be loyal to those advisors with whom you may have a long relationship. But don’t be afraid to challenge them by getting competitive bids.

We all know service has a value, but don’t throw away an opportunity to improve the bottom line. Just do your homework and make sure that the lower-priced vendor is not going to cost you by providing poor service or products.

Work with your advisors on programs that will provide financial benefits to both parties if you reach or exceed predetermined milestones.

If you don’t ask for better pricing or service levels, the opportunities will not present themselves. Periodically renegotiate your leases, agreements, and contracts. You should usually end up in a better financial position.

Remember to surround yourself with the best talent available. Challenge them, but also, reward them.

Leading by Example


As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q4 2015 Issue


“To Lead, or Not to Lead,” that was the question, during a CFO Studio Small Markets and Emerging Growth Companies Executive Dinner, held recently at Red Knot at Galloping Hill in Kenilworth, NJ. Bill Craig, Chief Executive and CFO of Tarantin Industries, a wholesale distributor of propane equipment, heaters, and hearth products, was discussion leader, and Andrew Zezas, Publisher of CFO Studio magazine, and Host of CFO Studio, facilitated the conversation.

Mr. Craig’s perspective is an interesting one as he is both a CEO and CFO at Tarantin Industries. “As a CEO, your foot’s on the gas; as CFO, it’s on the brakes,” said Mr. Craig. “The challenge has been to try and balance those two things in terms of motivating people. Everyone wants to do well. They want to be appreciated. They want to be taught. They want to be led. Leading is about resolving uncertainty. … As the CFO, you’re the risk manager. …As a CEO, you’re leading the way.”

Leadership for CFOs at middle-market companies presents added challenges, as the CEO is setting the agenda, but, said Mr. Craig, “You’ve got to figure out how to lead and also do your job.”

The 22 CFOs in attendance offered their tried-and-true strategies for becoming successful leaders, with a few rejecting the premise that certain people are born leaders and others are not. What successful leaders have in common, the group agreed, is substance, integrity, and a vision — not just style and image. Leaders establish connected relationships and inspire colleagues. They bring teams together around a shared purpose and a common set of values. When you look at great leaders, whether in the military or in business, they are willing to put themselves at risk, if necessary, and to lead by example.

Effective leaders are transparent. “I start my day by saying good morning to everybody. That’s important because it’s my opportunity to say, ‘How’s it going? What do you have to do today? Any problems that you had yesterday? Do we need to talk about anything?’ It’s my first chance to interact with everyone. I lead with communication,” said Ron Tassello, CFO of Bardwil Industries, based in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ, a textile manufacturer of fine kitchen and bath products and linens.

Leadership is not static; it is constantly evolving. “I’m required to demonstrate multiple types of leadership, because if I’m dealing with the factory workers and managers, they need one type of leadership. When I deal with IT, they require a different type of leadership,” said Eric Wukitsch, COO and CFO, Vantage Custom Classics, an Avenel, NJ–based manufacturer of identity apparel.

A common challenge is dealing with business owners, the attendees agreed. When leading a group where one has established authority, those whom you lead are compliant to a certain extent. Leading a leader creates a different set of challenges. “I don’t think anybody in this room will dispute that there are times when ownership has grandiose plans and we have to bring them back to reality,” said Mr. Wukitsch. It’s important to know when to push and when to back off, when to lead and when to serve.

“You’ve got to get them on the same wavelength, then you can lead. That is so important,” said Ed Schultz, Principal of Allendale, NJ–based Highland Business Group, a consulting firm.

Born to Lead

“Is one born with the capacity to lead or is it an acquired skill?” a question that has been debated for decades, became an important component of the conversation during this CFO Studio Executive Dinner.

“You are either born with it, or you’re not. If you don’t have it, you can develop it a bit, but you’re never going to be an effective leader,” said Walter Cirillo, Vice President, Treasurer of Edison, NJ–based AeroGroup International, which designs, imports, and distributes Aerosoles footwear. “Leadership traits are not learned in school. You are born with the ability to know when and how to get in front to rally your troops to victory,” added Robert Berkowitz, CFO of Pine Brook, NJ–based Wilmington Paper Corporation, specializing in recycling-management programs.

Creating an environment of empowerment is one of the ways successful leaders lead. Employees know they are being heard and respected and that the organization values their contributions.

Dancker, Sellew & Douglas (DS&D), a Somerville, NJ–based interior solutions firm, has been in business for more than 180 years. In 2012, the current CEO became the majority owner of the company and implemented a six-person leadership team from all different backgrounds with varied skill sets, said William Hendry, DS&D’s CFO. In order to ensure the leadership team is working as a cohesive unit, company leaders participate in leadership training every Wednesday for two hours and during two off-site events held every spring and fall.

“As an executive team, we’re really focusing on the customers first. Then, we are focusing on our employees — empowering them…” said Mr. Hendry. “We do whatever we can to build morale and inspire employees to enjoy coming to work and pulling together to do a better job for our customers.”

Employees who are engaged and feel good about the environment in which they work will be more productive. It’s important to remember that when it comes to employee engagement, a one-size-fits-all mindset can be an ineffective approach. “I have lived in many countries, and have learned that what worked in one part of the world would not necessarily work in another. For example, in Chile you have to be a very formal leader, because even the doorman wears a suit in the summer. In Puerto Rico, I would take my people to a bar for drinks some Friday evenings to build camaraderie and to get them engaged with each other,” said Javier Daly, CFO, TerraCycle, a Trenton, NJ–based recycler of post-consumer waste.

A successful leader is authentic, genuine, and recognizes the motivations of those he or she leads.

“Understanding the culture of an organization, either as it exists or as it should become, and then making sure that the style of leadership coincides with that culture, is essential,” said Mr. Zezas.

Genuineness and authenticity are important traits of a great leader, agreed Tobey Rumack, CFO, Universal Marine Medical Supply International, a Staten Island, NY–based maritime industry supplier. “One can be a great communicator, but if that person is not genuine, their followers will eventually become disenchanted. When there is not trust, followers will not go the extra mile,” said Ms. Rumack.


Another hallmark of successful leaders is that they have a clear and concise vision and are able to communScreenshot (61)icate that vision. “People will respond better if they understand why you’re changing what you’re changing, why you’re going where you’re going, and what the vision is,” said Eileen Black, Controller, Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, NJ. “A successful leader will lay out ‘Here’s why we’re taking this approach and heading in this direction. And then, it goes even deeper than that,” she added. “We’re the bridge between that vision and employees. Great leaders help their people overcome barriers that may stand in the way of achieving the objectives and succeeding.”

Discussion leader Bill Craig pointed out the nuances of leading in an institution like Stevens, versus a public company. “When I led a public-company turnaround, it was easy, because everybody saw the numbers and knew every quarter what we were doing. When you’re a leader, and specifically a CFO, in a private company, often ownership prefers not to share sensitive information, so it’s really important to be articulate and communicate well to get the buy-in.”

Gift cards, cash, merchandise, and travel as incentives are effective business tools that promote or encourage specific actions. Successful leaders understand the power of incentives; James Emmerson, CFO, Oradell, NJ–based Huntington Learning Corporation, is one of them. “Our company is privately owned. So, the only people who see an entire P&L are the owners, my controller, and me. Basically, we give each department its own P&L, and we incentivize them to achieve predetermined results. I learned a long time ago that if you incentivize somebody to do something important, that is what they will focus on.”

Timothy O’Donnell, CFO of The Falk Group, a New York City–based marketing agency, also recognizes the importance of incentives. “One of the things that I found to be successful is when you create goals and incentives for employees, they have more of a buy-in. It’s also important to remove any barriers that may exist that may prevent them from reaching their goals.”

Leaders and Empathy

It has been proven that empathy goes a long way toward encouraging employees to perform at their best. “I care deeply about all the people that I oversee, and they know it. It’s genuine. I get to know the employees and get to know what makes them tick, and if they need to cut out at four o’clock, they know they can do so. I don’t overstep the employer/employee relationship, but they know I care,” said Darrin Shamosh, CFO of Newark, NJ–based Interport, a company that sells and rents intermodal shipping containers. “The other thing I have found to be successful is to give people some rope. Let them make a mistake. It’s okay, if … you don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Improving their own listening skills, decreasing conflict, and controlling impulsive reactions help leaders develop. These traits are often referred to as emotional intelligence. “There are three legs to success. One is your IQ that you are born with. Second is your acquired knowledge. The third leg is the one that I find so many people overlook. It’s probably the most important one — emotional intelligence — the ability to relate with people,” said Howard Reba, Finance Operations Group Director of California-based Marlin Equity Partners, a global investment firm.

Empathy is used day in and day out by Lisa Strassman, Director of Finance, CAO, for Orangeburg, NY–based Daikin America, which develops, manufactures, and sells fluoropolymers, fluoroelastomers, fluorochemicals, and fluorocoatings. “I focus on understanding the varying perspectives of all involved in a situation. I get in there and I figure out what really stresses them out, and work with them to improve their day-to-day life,” said Ms. Strassman. “I show them that management does care, that we do get it, that we can help them, and that we can improve technology. … I think that they respect me as their leader because I understand them and know what they’re doing.”

Mr. Craig asked Ms. Strassman if there has ever been a time when an employee took advantage of her help. “I make sure that they don’t use me as their assistant. I challenge them.…I don’t give them the answers all the time,” said Ms. Strassman. “There are folks in leadership positions who don’t agree with my methodology because they think I may be too much in the trenches. What they don’t understand is that I’m building team morale and I’m helping the day-to-day process, and I’m also working to prevent employees from quitting.”

“Your comment about leaders not being assistants is a brilliant statement,” said Mr. Zezas. “I see new leaders very often taking on too much responsibility, because they figure, ‘I’m going to do all the work.’ Leadership and doing all the work are two very different things that, with the right balance, have to come together.”

Ms. Strassman concurred. “I’ll take every criticism from the executive leader saying that I’m too much involved. I’ll take that any day over being so far removed that the team doesn’t appreciate me, doesn’t respect me or what I know. I need to be there for them. That’s how I lead.”

Rob Guerrera, Senior Vice President and CFO, Kline & Company, a Parsippany, NJ– based consulting company, joined in. “Lisa, what really resonates with me about your comment is that leadership grows; it needs to be opportunistic, yet you need the inherent skills and the comfort level of putting yourself out there and taking advantage of the opportunities. We need to do what Rudy Giuliani did and find what is easy to fix. Fixing the squeegee problem that existed on Manhattan’s streets is what he decided was his first order of business as mayor, and he built a path of success. The hard jobs become easier when the little jobs are taken care of.”

Not only are empathy and emotional intelligence important, but so is trust. You can have a clear-cut vision, an ironclad strategy, and successful communication skills. But if the team doesn’t trust you, you will not be effective. “When you build a relationship, that person will go the extra mile for you,” said Fred Guerra, Vice President, Finance of Rockleigh, NJ–based Takasago International Corporation, a flavor and fragrance company.

Screenshot (59)Talent Development

Employers are gearing up for millennials, a generation that is not afraid to move from one job to the next. “My dad worked 40 years in the same place. Our kids will be far different,” said Michael Roth, CFO, Beefeaters Holding Company, a North Bergen, NJ–based manufacturer of dog treats.

An effective leader must understand not just the millennial generation, but all those he or she leads. Glenn Turell, CFO of New York City–based Elias Arts Holdings, a music, sound, and audio branding collective, said, “My company is private equity–owned. We have two subsidiaries and two Boards of Directors. But we are a company made up of creative types who don’t necessarily respond to business communications, especially if coming from someone not seen as a creative. The way I communicate with the Boards and senior management has to be very different than the way I communicate with the company’s creatives, especially those who are more junior. In certain cases, I’ll look to our head of operations, who is also the executive creative director, to drive home certain specific business points that I know will not get through to the creative staff if seen as coming directly from me or the Boards.”

Some have perfected their leadership skills by being exposed to ineffective leaders. “When I was coming up in the ranks, there were times when I wasn’t treated well by some leaders, and I think that impacted me to be respectful of people. When you’re respectful, you’re going to get more out of people than by pounding a hammer,” said Carey Heber, CFO of Carlstadt, NJ– based Advanced Polymer, a specialty chemical company.

Mr. Craig had a similar experience. “I learned what to do by learning what not to do,” he said.

“What this is all about is creating a culture within an organization that allows and promotes cream to rise to the top, for lack of a better analogy. You are allowing employees to become leaders.

…You are allowing them to blossom,” said Mr. Guerra.

Good leaders make the tough decisions that need to be made. “They say, for the greater good, this person needed to go,” said Mr. Tassello.

The most successful leaders are authentic, the group agreed, they are self-aware and genuine and mission-driven and focused on results. They lead with their heart, not just their minds, with substance, integrity, and a vision — not just style and image. Some are born, some are made. They establish connected relationships and inspire colleagues. They bring teams together around a shared purpose and a common set of values. They lead by example.

Copyright 2017