The Changing Role of the CFO
By Dan Chenoweth, MBA/CPA
Dec 30, 2007 - 3:58:00 PM
Few jobs have changed as dramatically over the years as much as the role of the CFO. We have gone from what was commonly referred to as the 'bean counter,' concerned only with accurate historical financial reporting, to being a full-fledged partner at the strategic planning table. Part of the reason the CFO is now viewed as a 'strategic activist' is due to the fact that growing the business is often seen as equal to or more important than solid cost management. In order to assume this role effectively, the CFO must be engaged in designing, adapting and implementing the organization's strategic plan. He or she increasingly takes the lead role in tying the firm's business strategies more closely to enhancing shareholder value.
Instead of just publishing historical financial information for others to make decisions, now the CFO also assumes the role of 'Chief Metrics Officer.' Most companies realize that what gets measured is what gets done. In other words, measurement drives behavior. Who better equipped than the CFO to have immediate access to raw data and the skills and ability to transform that data into useful information on a real-time basis for everyone in the organization to track their progress?
Finally, in a 'post-9/11' world companies are beginning to realize that risk matters as much as return. Therefore, the CFO must not only help develop and implement strategic initiatives, but also determine contingency plans in the event those initiatives are somehow sabotaged or significantly disrupted. How should the organization respond in the event the unthinkable occurs? Managing risk is now a central component in delivering shareholder value.
My first job as a Controller was in 1978. I was the Controller for a company that manufactured Toughskin Jeans for Sears. My expertise was cost accounting and, for the most part, my job was to supervise a team responsible for capturing the company's costs accurately by product line and product type. That way, we could be more accurate in our future forecasting and cost negotiations with Sears. From that job, I went to the opposite end of the products spectrum to become the CFO of a company that manufactured heavy equipment and robotic welding equipment. The welding industry was beginning to deteriorate due to introduction of alternative materials such as plastics, glues and adhesives. Therefore, our corporate headquarters determined that if we didn't play our cards right, we would end up being the industry's "dinosaur." Consequently, we embarked on a strategy to buy up other welding concerns from the larger parent companies anxious to get out of the industry. Suddenly, my expertise had to include negotiation, financial due diligence and change management skills. The lesson here is that many times circumstances force us as CFOs to learn different skills and do things unlike what we are taught in a traditional accounting curriculum. As this dynamic plays out more and more, we see not only a greater role for CFOs today, but greater opportunities, too, for professional growth and career advancement.
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