CFOs Go Beyond Number Crunching to Earn Strategic Seat

The days are long past for chief financial officers to hide behind the adding machines and spreadsheets in their corporate suites.

The broadening role of the CFO into a wider range of company operations -- from helping combat cyber-security threats, using data to spur growth without antagonizing customers and fielding calls from activist investors demanding a quick turn of the dollar -- was a main focus of the finance chiefs making presentations at the Bloomberg CFO Conference in New York yesterday.

“The role of the CFO historically was ‘what are the numbers’ and now the role of the CFO is ‘why are the numbers and what can you do about it,’” Adena Friedman, the departing CFO of Carlyle Group LP who returns to Nasdaq OMX Group Inc. next month, said at the conference. “To be able to answer those questions, you need to have a more strategic seat at the table with the rest of senior management.”

The data-crunchers gained leverage across industries -- from technology to airlines and private equity. For some, such as SanDisk Corp.’s Judy Bruner or Jarden Corp.’s Ian Ashken, that influence has extended to board seats at their own companies or other corporations.

“The role of the CFO is evolving so it’s all about leadership influence -- that’s kind of the cusp of where we are,” said Dipak Golechha, CFO of Chobani LLC, the maker of Greek yogurt. “Do you have the right activity systems in place to actually be able to deliver that next bit of growth and still maintain what you have.”

Informed by Data

Mike Herring, the CFO of Internet radio service Pandora Media Inc., said the biggest change he’s seen in 18 years in technology and finance is that his job is being “informed dramatically by data.”

“As a technologist, I spend a lot of time making sure we are pulling data from all the right sources, that it’s complete and accurate, and that we are looking for inflection points,” Herring said.

It’s all about trying to strike a balance between protecting consumers’ personal information and using some of that data for marketing purposes, according to United Continental Holdings Inc.’s John Rainey.

The CFO cited as an example a hypothetical customer who spends $15,000 a year flying with United and uses awards miles for Christmas-season family trips. Data now allows the Chicago-based carrier to spot occasions when that customer comes up short in accrual of miles.

Tailored Offer

“We can tailor an offer specifically to you that says ‘Would you like to supersize your miles and spend a little bit more money so that you can still take that trip?’ ” he said.

Technology gives Blackstone Group LP real-time views into the finances of the entire organization, said Laurence Tosi, the finance chief who said he oversees the CFOs of the investment firm’s four main businesses and an additional 65 at portfolio companies. The information shows which CFOs are struggling, helping make personnel decisions, he said.

“We try to find someone that can live through the lifecycle of being a Blackstone company,” Tosi said. “Some people are really good at the turnaround stage and they’re not as great at the go-public stage. I try to encourage and work the most with people to be a CFO for all seasons -- if your company’s going to change, change with them.”

The Handbrake

Financial heads are not the “handbrake” they used to be because they’re much more involved in strategy, said Todd Papaioannou, chief technology officer of Splunk Inc., a San Francisco provider of software that helps CFOs at client companies analyze and manage data.

“Over the next decade, companies who leverage, monetize and compete on the data will be the companies that win,” Papaioannou said. “Companies that don’t invest in how to use data will be those that get left behind.”

CFOs are in the cross hairs to provide the balance between sticking with a risky bet and folding up the cards, said Mitchell Scherzer, CFO at publisher Hearst Corp.

“We also have a philosophy in our company of failing fast,” he said. “We want to try things, but knowing when to say ‘When’ is sometimes the most difficult thing we all face. That’s the most challenging thing from a risk management standpoint is when to fail fast.”

(An earlier version of this story corrected Chobani’s product offerings.)

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