The Case for a CFO

Climbing the four levels from the flight deck to the bridge, I began to remember some of the things that I liked about being at sea. When there was nothing but water from horizon to horizon, I had a sense of limitless possibility, backed by a 60,000 horsepower engine that could get me wherever I wanted to go. Oh, the things that I could do if I weren’t tied to my three-year obligation to Uncle Sam’s Navy.

But I wasn’t on the destroyer Hubbard in the Western Pacific, and it wasn’t August, 1964. It was August, 2013 and I was just another tourist aboard the aircraft carrier Intrepid, now a “museum ship” tied firmly to Pier 86 in the Hudson River at midtown Manhattan.

When I reached the bridge of Intrepid, I was reminded of all of the other constraints to my independent activity those years ago. It wasn’t just the Navy or the Captain that limited my options. It took a lot of human horsepower to move those 2200 tons through the waves at 30 knots in the right direction, and those guys were all committed (more or less) to Hubbard’s mission, not to mine.

Even as the ship captain makes most of his (her) decisions without looking at the wake, so does the entrepreneur focus on what’s ahead, having absorbed the occasionally-traumatic lessons of the past. Certainly it’s useful to know that the Company lost money last month, or that sales increased during four of the past five months. “But how does that affect my decisions today and tomorrow?” the entrepreneur asks. “I want to know when and how I should bring on a new product line. And how should I assess whether the sales team, and especially its manager, is maximizing our potential now that the economy has turned up?”

For the Accounting Manager or the Controller – people who have trained and done well as accounting historians and administrators – responding to these types of issues doesn’t come naturally. It demands effective management by one who takes the initiative, establishes standards, sets goals, and holds people accountable – a person who has the confidence to challenge the thinking of the owner/president and the judgment to know when not to.

At the risk of over-generalizing, here are some attributes and responsibilities of a capable small-company controller vs. those of a chief financial officer:

Controller – Manages the income statement; mainly concerned with revenues and expenses.

CFO – Manages the balance sheet; mainly concerned with assets, liabilities, and equity.

Controller – Initiates and coordinates the budget process; reports on monthly progress vs. the budget.

CFO – Manages the budget process; holds managers accountable to the budget.

Controller – Provides metrics to owner/president to hold senior managers accountable.

CFO – Develops metrics and holds other senior managers accountable.

Controller – Coordinates work of staff in payroll, receivables, payables, general ledger.

CFO – Manages controllership, administration, legal, human resources.

Controller – Supports owner/president’s initiative in merger/acquisition; in developing bank relationship; in negotiating equity funding; and in providing narrowly-focused financial report to board.

CFO – Takes the lead in M & A activity and in relationships with banks and equity sources; provides broad, strategic financial report to board and/or investors.

Controller – Supports the vision. Concrete, steady, structured, precise, focused.

CFO – Contributes to developing the vision. Conceptual, urgent, broad-gauged, demanding.

The progression from Controller to CFO shouldn’t be automatic. Given cross-functional exposure, seasoning, management capacity, and professionalism, the effective CFO is one who can remind the owner/president, as well as the other members of the management team, of the mission and influence all of them to remain focused and to stay the course. Most often, that’s more than a numbers exercise.

Back in New York City, descending from the bridge of Intrepid, I lingered in the operations control room, mostly dark except for the glowing radar repeaters and plotting boards. It was a time warp to my long hours in Hubbard’s Combat Information Center as C.I.C. Officer, narrowly focusing on trying to make sense of every little piece of data that my team could develop. When I emerged to a glorious August afternoon, I had the same reaction that I remembered when I stepped out of my black box onto the decks of Hubbard: “Look at that horizon. I can see forever!”

That’s why I’m a CFO.