Listen to Your Cassandras


As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q2 2017 Issue

-By Aldonna R. Ambler, CMC, CSP, The Growth Strategist

Get early warning of strategic inflection points

A company recently brought in my consultancy because the long-awaited risk management analysis was suddenly needed — right now! Media coverage about the spontaneous combustion of the lithium batteries inside Samsung’s Galaxy Note7 smartphones woke that client up. (If your product line involved fancy lithium batteries, you would want to speed up your risk analysis, too.)

Of course, we were pleased to help them pick up speed to make informed strategic decisions more quickly. But frankly, nine times out of 10, when executives feel blindsided and urgently need outside help, one of the underlying causes is that those businesses lack real CFOs, or their CFOs are too buried in the generation of reports or in analyzing the past. And the result is that the company doesn’t get early warnings of the need for a major directional shift ahead.

It seems to me that strategic inflection points no longer slowly sneak up on companies. Rapidly advancing technology, generational differences, the shrinking middle class, populism, and cyber attacks, among other factors, are pushing our clients to change.

A business is much more likely to achieve profitable accelerated growth when its CFO is expected to look and listen for symptoms of change, hints about new opportunity, warning signs of lost competitive advantage, etc. Much of the data first appears in the form of returns, product questions, or whining salespeople. And no, this reconnaissance is not just the purview of a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO). A CFO’s education and training bring different questions and increase the objectivity of analysis.

Change Your Company’s Fate

It was Intel’s late Chairman and CEO Andrew Grove who described the people on the outer fringes of a business as Cassandras (a nod to the priestess who warned ancient Troy about an upcoming attack).

The Cassandras in your organization know about programs or products veering off-track — correctible things — but if you are staring at financial reports all day, the Cassandras may not bring early-warning signs to you.

As a CFO, are you available to learn from middle managers about what does and doesn’t seem to be working the way it was expected to work? Is there any time in your schedule to interact with customers or suppliers? If you were Samsung’s CFO, would you have picked up on some of the early-warning signs conveyed by Samsung’s Cassandras?

The Strategic CFO


As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q2 2017 Issue


As keeper of the numbers and the data, the CFO is the voice of reason and realism, but is often the challenger when it comes to a company’s strategic planning. However, Ron Kasner, CFO of iCIMS, a provider of cloud-based talent acquisition solutions in Matawan, NJ, envisions an additional line in the job description: “It’s the CFO’s responsibility to help identify opportunities for growing the business.”

Mr. Kasner spoke on “Strategy and Risk: The CFO’s Role in Driving Opportunity and Protecting the Enterprise” at an invitation-only dinner discussion attended by CFOs from New Jersey–area middle market companies. The event was held recently at Community FoodBank of NJ in Hillsdale, and is part of CFO Studio’s Executive Dinner Series.

“Because CFOs are indeed so data driven,” he said, “we should be delivering information about not just our business, but about the market and whether or not it is ripe for realizing the company’s goals and vision.” He continued, “CFOs should have an understanding of the marketing opportunity and whether the projected results of the business are realistic.”

Mr. Kasner shared his strategic focus on “Presence, Portfolio, Positioning, Pricing, and People” with dinner attendees. “For example, if the current opportunity isn’t large enough, CFOs need to guide the organization to expand its presence —whether geographic, segment, or vertical.” The company will then need to “assess the existing portfolio of products and services to ensure it can serve that newly defined presence.”

Without question, Mr. Kasner added, it’s the CFO’s duty to challenge and “push back” on some parts of even the best strategic plans, “mainly because of our keen attention to risk.” But this is where, he pointed out, strategy and risk go hand-in-hand, and “certain risk factors can and should be used by the CFO to create and help drive company strategy,” thereby opening the doors to new and expanded business.

Use Risk Strategically

There are countless types of risk troubling organizations today, and any CFO worth his or her salt has set up myriad controls to guard against or mitigate these dangers. Whether the risk is in the area of finance, personnel, compliance, or data security (to name a few), “once you’ve assessed the likelihood of the risk occurring and the impact that the risk would have on your business, as well as the ongoing value of the business, you can then determine your risk tolerance,” said Mr. Kasner.

He noted that while some business leaders are born risk-takers and others aren’t, risk tolerance is often based on the size or value of the company: “A start-up with little or no revenue may take on a lot of risk because it has nothing to lose, while a larger, more established firm might err on the side of caution and play things safe.” Alternatively, “larger organizations with a more established infrastructure may be better equipped to mitigate risks, thus lowering the likelihood of occurrence or impact, and thereby enabling the organization to take on what other organizations would otherwise deem a higher risk.”

In either case, “it’s now up to the CFO to ‘manage’ that risk,” said Mr. Kasner. Assuming all the necessary mitigating safeguards are in place, “the CFO should look to use that risk strategically to the company’s advantage.”

Mr. Kasner explained: “If it’s been decided that my company is going to have a greater risk tolerance, we may be willing to bring in certain types of customers that the competition might shy away from because they are viewed as too risky. On the flip side, if I have excellent controls around my risk, a customer might consider my company more secure, and decide to do business with me instead of my competitors.”

CFO Studio Business Development Partner Steve Peckman, a Vice President at Yorktel, an Eatontown, NJ–based provider of unified communications & collaboration, cloud, and video managed services, found Mr. Kasner’s take on the CFO as strategist enlightening. “As the only professional in the room who wasn’t a CFO, I was inspired to hear that the strategy and risk- management tactics laid out over the course of the evening correlated with the ways my team and I manage our business unit — as a microcosm of the larger company.”

Ultimately, it’s the CEO who has the vision for the direction of the company, “but the CFO should be contributing data about both the business and the market to help make accurate and strategic decisions,” Mr. Kasner pointed out.

“It’s our job,” he added, “to establish the framework for strategy and risk, and then use and contribute to that framework to help guide company strategy.”

The Power of Passion


As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q4 2016 Issue




Most diehard sports fans will tell you they “eat, sleep, and breathe” their teams, but that’s not something you usually hear a finance executive say about his or her job. But for Frank Gumienny, CFO of the Philadelphia Eagles, it would be an understatement.

Mr. Gumienny attends all events at Lincoln Financial Field, the team’s home stadium, from each concert, lacrosse, and soccer match to every Eagles game. He even goes so far as to visit tailgate parties in the parking lot. He explained this, saying customer service is at the very heart of what he does. “Game days are very special to me because it’s an opportunity to spend quality time with those who are tied very closely to the organization.” He continued, “The fans are our customers, and they all come for the same reason. I take advantage of this time and use it in a way where I can engage and connect with them before the festivities start.”

Mr. Gumienny has been with the NFL franchise for 19 seasons, four as CFO, and every single day, with everything he does, he tries to build the passion for his team. “We are creating and cultivating a culture where everyone is an Eagle. Not an Eagles fan, an Eagle.”

He made these remarks on “CFO Leadership in Managing Operations, Finance, and Risk…69,000 Customers at a Time!” at a Middle Market CFO Dinner, part of CFO Studio’s Executive Dinner Series, held recently at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.

Those in attendance were surprised to learn that the CFO would be so involved with drumming up team spirit. “My whole job, this whole business, is about experience,” Mr. Gumienny said. “What we sell is passion and experience. I sell it, we all sell it.”

That resonated with Dominique Bernardo, CFO of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, a nonprofit organization that aims to strengthen Latino communities. “The personal touch of a CFO can make the difference in the experience of the consumer,” she said in an interview after the dinner. And she cautioned: “The CFO cannot afford to sit in the office and not be seen or not interact with staff and even customers.”

Mark Quinn, CFO of the Advertising Specialty Institute, a membership organization supporting the success of suppliers and distributors in the promotional products industry, said that he and his fellow CFOs need to recognize that they are in business to make their customers successful. “If you are committed to the success of your customers, it will be evident to them and your company will, in turn, be a success.”

This similarity with other businesses having been acknowledged, Mr. Gumienny made note of how unique his industry is: “Not many companies get their customers to show up on one day and share the same passion that others are showing,” he said. “They come wearing your colors, painting their faces, investing time and energy in what you do.” So part of the passion is already there, he said, but, “Our job is to continue that, to just keep fostering that passion, and above all, to show we care.”

Inside Out

To do that, he advised — and this can be done in any business — you start from within and work your way out. “Our staff members don’t just work for the organization, they are becoming it.” Mr. Gumienny added, “We do everything we can to instill that in the people we hire, making sure they come in with that attitude.” At the end of the day, “It’s just the mentality that every single one of us must have at all times and live out in every move we make.” To put it simply, he said, “Everyone inside the building has to feel the passion before anyone on the outside can feel it.”

This will only work, Mr. Gumienny pointed out, if employees are empowered. “I don’t believe that when you give people power, they abuse it. Most people want to do what’s right, and the right people are going to do the right things. If someone is going to abuse their power, you’ve got the wrong person.”

Mr. Gumienny continued, “When someone calls the stadium to see if they’re allowed to bring in an umbrella on game day, they are not talking to an operator, they are talking to the Eagles. So every staffer has to be empowered in the same way.”

Mr. Gumienny told the story of a stadium usher who went to his boss upon learning that a longtime season ticket member —whom he had seen at every home game for years — had died. The usher’s concern resulted in a memorial gesture for that fan’s loyalty to the team: “We removed the seat he had sat in and gave it to the family.” After all, said Mr. Gumienny, “that was not our seat, that was Grandpop’s seat.”

Mr. Gumienny said the usher was celebrated for knowing that this was something that should be brought to the attention of management, “which is impactful.” At the same time, the family will be fans forever. “We did this because it was the right thing to do, but the by-product is that they are fans for life. They’ll never forget it, and they’ll never let their kids forget it.”

William Curnan, CFO/COO of Advancing Opportunities, a provider of services and support for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families, attended the dinner and in an interview afterward said he was genuinely impressed with the way the Eagles organization thinks of themselves and their fans as part of the team. “They build a home for them and they treat them like family, with respect and with pride to have them as fellow Eagles.”

Also in an interview, Curt Allen, Vice President and CFO of Subaru of America, made a comparison between his company and Mr. Gumienny’s Eagles. “The passion that the Eagles organization shows to their fans is what Subaru calls the ‘Love Promise.’ Subaru builds relationships with its employees, business partners, and customers by treating them the way we would want to be treated in order to create a culture with a sense of belonging.”

Close Encounters

This is something any business can do, Mr. Gumienny said in response to Mr. Curnan’s and Mr. Allen’s points: “Get your customers to feel that they are a part of the organization, to really be a part of it, and to get them on the inside, not just operating as a fringe player.”

Mr. Gumienny said generating devotion to the team is practically a mantra among his colleagues, “always on our minds as we go about our day-to-day,” and they take every chance they get to touch the fans and ignite the passion, be it on a grand scale or a very small one. “We might invite 500 season ticket members to the stadium to meet the new coach, or just one kid with autism to get an autograph from his favorite player.”

He said there are hundreds of opportunities to get tight with the fans and to bring them in closer to the Eagles, and “we go above and beyond at every turn, whenever we possibly can, to give them that ultimate connection to the team.”

This may sound minor, said Mr. Gumienny, but “guest services” at the stadium is now referred to as “fan services.” But that’s actually a big deal because “they really are fans, not guests, and we want them to feel at home when they come to a game.”

In an interview, Arlen Shenkman, CFO of SAP North America, the world’s largest enterprise application software company, expressed fascination over Mr. Gumienny’s varied and unique role: “his focus on the experience of the customer and how that experience weaves through everything the organization does, from finance to operations to game day.” He noted that every core operation within the organization relates to the customer experience. “It’s amazing to me that even the CFO is responsible for the quality of the experience a fan, a ‘customer,’ has on game day. But it makes sense.”

Mr. Gumienny said every single person who works for the Eagles is responsible for that experience, though he recognized that you can’t make all of the fans happy all of the time. “But if we continue to try to do what’s right, when we can get a win and make an impact, we definitely do it.” And that goes a long way, he added. “This kind of customer service really becomes who you are as a company. And we’re always mindful that each and every one of us within the organization has different powers to do that.”

The Business of Football

In addition to building the passion for the team and reinforcing a fan’s loyalty, “the goal of everyone on staff is to win,” he said, of what drives the organization and how it is ultimately perceived by its customers. “All decisions tie back to winning.”

He acknowledged that, “For most businesses the goal is to make money, but our primary goal is not to drive revenue and make money, it’s to win.” He pointed out that, in some ways, “You need to drive revenue and make money in order to win,” and that sometimes those two things are at odds. “Decisions to make you better on the field aren’t necessarily the same decisions that will make you money,” he said, citing an example: “We traded up to become the second pick of the draft, which comes with a much higher price tag than if you were 10th.”

In an interview, Anthony Conte, CFO of EPAM Systems, a provider of software product development services, commented on the business goals of Mr. Gumienny compared to those of his fellow CFOs. “At the core, we are all trying to accomplish the same thing, which is to make our companies the best in our respective industry. Obviously, we all go about that slightly differently, but that’s probably the one thing we have in common.”

Peter Miller, Executive Vice President and CFO of Binswanger Management Corporation, an international real estate firm, agreed: “As businesspeople, we are all trying to do one thing —more business.” He went on: “Even though the Eagles are a larger-than-life brand, it is still a business. And, like most of us, it fits the profile of a ‘big’ small business.”

In response to that, Mr. Gumienny said: “We’re not a business, but we’re almost a business.” He explained: “It’s the challenge that we’re faced with in dealing with the business side” of a sports franchise. “As CFO, you just have to balance conflicting needs and keep things moving in the right direction, which allows us to do whatever the owner and the head coach want, giving them every opportunity to win and be successful.”

Corey Smith, CFO of Dechert LLP, a global specialist law firm, attempted to sum up the discussion. “While Mr. Gumienny is in a unique industry and position, it’s clear that the role of an organization’s financial executive is ever evolving. CFOs becoming more involved outside the financial suite is critical and adds value to the organization, regardless of the industry or client base.”

Elaine Cheong, Senior Vice President and Senior Relationship Manager at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, and a CFO Studio Business Development Partner, echoed that. “We have observed over the years that the role of the CFO has evolved dramatically.” She added, “In the 25 years that I have been in the industry, CFOs are now acting very much like COOs. They’re no longer just the finance folks. The industry, and the world, really, is moving and changing very quickly.”

Not as fast as Eagles fly, but perhaps close.

Copyright 2017