Interview with Steve Mullin
Interviewer: Andrew Zezas, SIOR
Following is the transcript of a CFO Studio interview between Andrew Zezas, CEO of New Jersey based Real Estate Strategies Corporation and finance executive, Steve Mullin, CFO of Wurth USA, Inc.
Visit www.CFOstudio.com to read about this interview and to watch the entire on-camera interview.
The Accidental CFO
Zezas: This is CFO Studio and I am your host Andrew Zezas. I am joined by Steve Mullin, Chief Financial Officer of Wurth USA. Mr. Mullin is here to talk to us today about a very interesting conversation, the Accidental CFO. Steve, it’s wonderful to have you here on CFO Studio.
Mullin: Thank you Andrew, it’s great to be here.
Zezas: Before we talk about our topic today, tell me a little bit about the company. I understand Wurth is a dynamically-large organization. Tell me some background about Wurth.
Mullin: Sure. Wurth USA is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Wurth Group, which is a privately-held family owned business headquartered in Kunzelsau, Germany. The Wurth Group has companies in 84 countries and well over 400 divisions in the world.
Mullin: 400 divisions. We are one of those 400. It’s a great organization, privately-held, family owned, family trust. It is a very unique structure for a company that is about 12 billion in global revenue.
Zezas: That is the parent company.
Mullin: That is the parent company, correct.
Zezas: And your Group US?
Mullin: We’re a little shy of a 100 million. We are the automotive division in the U.S. So, we serve on an after-market basis, service and repair items, clips, fasteners, adhesives, abrasives to car dealerships, auto body shops, motorcycles shops and anything service and repair.
Zezas: And, how’s this company doing through this rather funky economy?
Mullin: I joined two years ago. In 08-09, the automotive industry took a bit of a hit with everything going on. But, we’ve got sustainable growth over the year for the past 2-3 years. We’re on our way back. We have a great strategy and we’ll continue to grow. We’re continuing in hiring people and finding the right talent to drive sales revenue.
Zezas: Excellent! That’s a great story. So, you’ve been at Wurth for 2 years. I know a little bit about your background. I enjoyed your story. It’s rather diverse and unique, but the whole idea of us talking today about the Accidental CFO seems to be that you didn’t intend to start out as a CFO. Tell me how you got to do that.
Mullin: Well, ok. You know, I never aspire to be a CFO. I was good with numbers, so my mother suggested I get an accounting degree.
Zezas: Thanks mom!
Mullin: I started my career as manager of accounting. I started my career at a very large Japanese organization as an accounting manager. I 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 then had a very unique opportunity. I spent the last three years with this organization. I was running one of the sister division companies, about a $200 million company. But, it gave me the experience on a much broader scale, not just finance and operations, but also sales, marketing, engineering as well. So, it was a great experience.
Zezas: You described to me in the role of a CFO, you’ve seen yourself more of as a forward thinker as compared to a traditional rear-view mirror type. In wanting to fulfill your obligations as CFO, you really got to get inside the numbers and understand not just what but why. Tell me how that tied into your broad experience.
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 very early in my career 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, and how I can help them make more prudent decisions going forward. I needed to understand how to connect the dots because I was seeing the financial reports. Whether it’s a balance sheet, P&L, it didn’t matter. I need to be able to connect the dots on a business process to understand how we got to those results so that I could then contribute back to the decision making on a daily basis.
Zezas: Now, it sure sounds to me that you were more than just a CFO and I don’t mean “just a CFO”. It sounds to me like you were a lot more. It sounds more like a COO. We’ve talked before that most mid-market CFOs are COOs anyway. It sounds like you fit that role, but you came from a very large organization and you shared with me before that that organization was a multi-billion dollar sales organization. Now, you’re in an organization that in its own right is still a substantial company albeit smaller. I have to believe that CFOs coming from very large to much smaller, but not as small, experience unique challenges. What are yours?
Mullin: After spending so much of my career in a very large organization and coming to something that is somewhat smaller, the challenges that I faced were what experiences did I have, what skills did I develop in my prior career that I could bring to add value to Wurth USA. To do that, I first have to understand the intrinsic values already incorporated, engrained at Wurth, to understand their business model and what is really unique and value add within Wurth because I don’t want to interfere with that. So, I have experiences on the international level, supply chain, and operational issues. The challenge is understanding what is usable in the Wurth business model and what should I then throw away as well.
Zezas: How you can enhance what’s already there.
Mullin: Exactly because Wurth is a great company. They don’t need me to salvage them. I need to understand what value I can bring on a day in day out basis to help elevate the sophistication, if you will, of how we got to market.
Zezas: 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 had a lot of resources, a lot of side load areas that we can pull resources from. In today’s age, we don’t have that at Wurth USA. You 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? When should I try to influence the organization to drive additions? What resources are available to the company to drive these types of things? I have to take what only I know I know and I need to try to widdle it down and fit it in to a new environment. So, that’s a daily challenge that I face.
Zezas: What you describe as your single greatest challenge going from [large] to [small]?
Mullin: I think the single greatest challenge because I do have more of a COO role today, CFO title and COO role, the challenge that I face throughout my whole career is understanding how to manage cross functionally and understanding the dynamics of the types of people who are running those different types of areas. It’s a very diverse group of functions, diverse group of people heading those functions like IT. I’m not an IT technical person, but I had some experience in IT so I have to understand how to be able to facilitate discussions with my director of IT, for example. Or maybe it’s my manager of procurement or logistics manager. Understand their perspective, what they’re faced with each day and how I can add value to help lead them to continuously grow their organization. So, to me that is the biggest challenge that I have.
Zezas: So, you’re talking more than just being a CFO/COO in the role of permitting these folks to report to you. I’m hearing influence, inspiration, and leadership.
Mullin: And, I think that’s the biggest piece in leadership. I can’t teach the director of IT about IT. She’s not going to learn IT from me, but I can hopefully bring some sense of leadership to help her then grow her organization value. That’s really what my purpose is.
Zezas: There are a lot of CFOs who aspire to excel through the finance executive position to become CFOs like yourself, to become CEOs, or something else. When a finance executive, a guy as a traditional finance executive aspires to be more, what specific expertise or traits must they possess?
Mullin: I think 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, how does the company operate. It takes leadership. At some point, you have to influence and persuade so you need a certain level of leadership. I think the first thing, you have to take initiative. If you don’t have the initiative or the desire to branch out and to broaden your business acumen, then maybe being an expert in financial management is good enough for you and that’s fine. We all have to be a CFO as our first and foremost responsibility. A specialty needs to be financial management, but I think if you want to continue to grow, for me, I really want to add value in more ways. I want to be part of the day to day decision making and be part of the success or failure. In order to do that, I had to take my own initiative and start to learn more about the business. If over time, you show enough success and leadership, then maybe you’ll be rewarded with more responsibilities. Be careful what you ask for.
Zezas: Steve, would you agree that the most progressive, most successful CFO, and when I mean successful I mean for their companies, are those who that recognize that finance is really the tool to strive 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. So, 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.
Zezas: 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. So, I think finance at times is considered the better half of the relationship. That was 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. It’s not my turn, but a Japanese term. I think it holds true because everyone should be focusing on driving business development, the CEO or president, certainly the head of sales and marketing. I think the finance head, whatever the title is, you really need to guide them and steer that ship so you’re achieving all the financial objectives, not just the top line.
Zezas: Well, I love the idea of the CFO mentoring his or her boss. I think you’ll agree with me that that ability rests as much on the CFO as it does on the CEO permitting. If you have a good, solid CEO who gets that and recognizes the benefits that he or she can derive by a very tight relationship with the CFO, the sky is the limit. Well Steve, I want to thank you for appearing on CFO Studio. We’re about out of time. I do have one question that you probably didn’t expect me to ask you, when you’re not being a CFO and you’re not in the office, what are you doing with yourself?
Mullin: Good question. I am in the office all the time.
Zezas: In case the CEO is listening.
Mullin: In case my boss is listening. I spent 10-12 years coaching my kids. That was three sports a year. That took a lot of my time. My wife and I are always very focused. We always have been for as long as our kids have been alive. We are focused on our kids and doing things with them. One is in college and one is a senior in high school, so there is no more coaching for me. We’re still very much focused on the kids day in and day out and what’s going on in their lives. Other than that, I’m playing some sports now and then as long as my knees can stand up to it. That’s how I spend my time.
Zezas: Sounds to me like you have a full life. It sounds like to me like the Accidental CFO is doing some great work for Wurth USA. I want to thank you for appearing on CFO Studio. I hope you’ll come back and see us again.
Mullin: Absolutely, I’d love to.
Zezas: This is Andrew Zezas at CFO Studio with Steve Mullin at Wurth USA, saying thank you very much for watching. We’ll see you again.
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