The Accidental CFO

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CFO Studio Magazine, 4th Quarter 2012
Q&A, Interview By Andrew Zezas 


Sometimes becoming the CFO of a successful company can happen through happy accident. This was the experience for Steve Mullin, chief financial officer of Wurth USA, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Wurth Group specializing in aftermarket auto parts.

He sat down with Andrew Zezas, host of CFO Studio and CEO of Somerset, NJ-based Real Estate Strategies Corporation, to discuss the unusual path Mullin took to get to the top of the finance executive ladder. Below is an excerpt from that conversation.

(ANDREW ZEZAS) Your background is rather diverse and unique, and it seems that you didn’t intend to start out as a CFO. Tell me how you got to do that.

STEVE MULLIN: Well, I never aspired to be a CFO. I was good with numbers, so my mother suggested I get an accounting degree.

I started my career at a very large Japanese organization as an accounting manager and worked my way up through the ranks. I became a controller and a VP of finance for a multi-billion-dollar-division company. Along the way, I also began to branch out to take on the re­sponsibilities of the operational side. So, when I did become the VP of finance for this division, I was also in charge of all their operations — anything with supply chain, logistics, product management was also under my responsibility.

I spent the last three years with this organization. I was running one of the sister division companies, about a $200 million company, and it gave me the experience on a much broader scale, not just finance and operations, but sales, marketing, and engineering as well.

You described to me in the role of a CFO, you’ve seen yourself as more of a forward thinker as compared to a traditional rear-view mirror type.

MULLIN: I was never really content with re­porting the numbers. I always wanted to know what was behind the numbers, what were the business decisions that took place to create the financial result that I was now responsible to report on. So, I took my own initiative to start branching out and work very closely with the other functional managers, to understand their side of the business and what decisions they were making. Whether it’s a balance sheet or P&L, I needed to be able to connect the dots on a business process.

I’ve heard you use the term, “learning to work small.” Explain that to me.

MULLIN: Again, I came from a multi-billion-dollar environment. We don’t have that at Wurth USA. We have a very capable staff, but some of the “working small” is first identifying what I can bring to bear to help improve the business. There are also going to be some obstacles. What is the right timing? What resources are available to the company to drive these types of things?

I have to take what only I know, and I need to try to whittle it down and fit it into a new environment.

When a finance executive aspires to be more, what specific expertise or traits must they possess?

MULLIN: For me, it was to be inquisitive, to want to know more than the numbers and then have the ability to partner the cross-functional team members across the enterprise and start to work with them to un­derstand what it is that makes the company operate. It takes leadership.

Steve, would you agree that the most progressive, most successful CFOs — and when I say successful, I mean for their companies — are those that recognize that finance is really the tool to drive the company’s profit, growth, and strategy?

MULLIN: Yes, I do. We actually created the title “The Finance Business Partner” in a prior company that I worked in. I think to truly add value and to guide corporate decision-making, you’ve got to become a good partner, and that could be mentoring your boss.

Wait! Hold on a second. Mentoring your boss?

MULLIN: It could be mentoring your boss in how to better understand the financial dy­namics of the business to improve decision-making along the way. There is an old adage that I learned long ago at a Japanese company that finance was looked at as the better half of marriage in management. As finance head, you really need to steer that ship so you’re achieving all the financial objectives, not just the top line.

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