IT Value

For This CFO, Nine Gigs Are Better Than One

A veteran finance chief finds satisfaction running finance and IT for nine different companies.
David McCannJanuary 28, 2011

If variety is the spice of life, it explains why Tom Kelly is so happy in his work.

After spending the early years of his career as a Peat Marwick accountant and a finance executive at Pepsico, the famed CFO factory, Kelly landed finance-chief spots at several companies — large and small, public and private. The largest was Deluxe, a billion-dollar supplier of printed and promotional products for small businesses and financial institutions.

But that’s not the kind of variety that makes Kelly so content today. In early 2009, he became CFO of a new company called Healthcare IP Partners. Created out of a relationship between its founder and a world-renowned medical institution, it formed start-up companies to commercialize the intellectual property for various software programs developed by the institution.

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As each start-up rolled out, Kelly acted as both its CFO and chief information officer. In September 2010, when five such companies were up and running, the decision was made to dissolve Healthcare IP Partners. Oversight of its portfolio companies’ back-office operations — accounting, information technology, and human resources — was transferred to T-Edward, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm Kelly had launched a few years earlier. The goal was simply to shed duplicate administrative costs for running both Healthcare IP Partners and T-Edward.

Meanwhile, as word of the operation started to spread, other companies came to Kelly, asking that he redo their finance and IT processes. He now has the joint CFO and CIO roles at nine different companies, which presents him with endless and, he says, enjoyable challenges.

Tom Kelly

Most remarkable, none of the nine has its own finance or IT staff. Kelly and a staff of four at T-Edward handle everything. How does he do it? He told CFO how in a recent interview; an edited version follows.

What do you like best about your job?
The variety and the constant challenge are very enjoyable and rewarding. There are a lot of aspects to it. As a CFO at a single big company, it’s the same kind of thing every day. You meet with your controller and others on your staff, then you do the other things on your calendar — one, two, three, four, five — and it’s time to go home. It doesn’t always lend itself to constantly challenging you.

For example, one of my companies, TriPrima, is a virtual storage and hosting company that we’re trying to expand by going through partners. Another one, Kardia, sells to cardiologists. Those are two very different types of challenges when it comes to moving the businesses forward.

What did your firm, T-Edward, do before it took on the back-office operations for the nine companies you work with?
When I started it, the goal was to help companies be more efficient by getting them into cloud computing. What’s happening now, though, is that companies are coming to us, asking me to be their CFO and CIO and get everything fixed. They don’t care about what I’m going to take them into; they just want it to work.

How do they hear about you?
Before I came to Healthcare IP Partners, I was working with a company called 2ndWind Exercise, a seller of fitness equipment. The IT infrastructure went back to the 1980s. Everything in the back office needed to be revamped. I figured it would take me two years to get it all done the right way, but it took only nine months.

A magazine article was written on what I had done at 2ndWind, and after that a company called FeedLogic contacted me out of the blue, asking if I could do the same for them. Another one came from networking, and two others were brought in by an IT firm that I partner with.

But it was that 2ndWind experience that made me step back and say, if I could do that so quickly for a company of 300 employees and $100 million revenue at the time, I can do it for a lot of others. That was a good mind-set to be in when the opportunity came up with Healthcare IP Partners.

And the companies don’t have any finance and accounting staff of their own?
No. My staff closes books, prepares financial statements, handles payables and receivables, deals with the banks — all the day-to-day stuff. For the medical-institution-related companies, we were doing it all from the beginning. The other ones did have finance staffs when they came to us, but they’ve been able to let them go.

We also work on the companies’ taxes, handle payroll, do financial forecasting and planning, and even do investor relations. At this moment, we’re doing a valuation of one of them, so I’m working with a valuation company. Another one is having an audit, so I’m interacting with their audit firm.

How can you do all that for nine companies, with just you and a staff of four?
I couldn’t do it for General Mills, 3M, and Pepsico, but with small and midsize businesses, there’s no reason you can’t do this in a very effective way. It’s an 80-20 scenario: 80% of what happens from company to company is essentially the same — you pay people, you close the books, et cetera. You’re not wasting time trying to figure out how this company should do something. The other 20% may be very specific to that company or its industry, but that’s not so hard to learn.

Plus, I work more than an eight-hour day, and there are seven days in a week. Some of the companies are right here in Minneapolis. Some of them I do have to travel to, but we also have a lot of virtual meetings using GoToMeeting.

GoToMeeting is a cloud application, and you’re a big cloud proponent. Is the use of cloud-based technologies a big part of the equation?
Oh yes. The big one is NetSuite: we use their ERP, sales, and e-commerce applications. I’ve got a meeting today with our newest company to talk about getting them onto NetSuite, which serves as our focal point of information. For example, for forecasting and planning I use the Adaptive Planning solution, but I can flow all of the information into NetSuite, which produces all the reporting.

We use a lot of other cloud tools as well. Without them, I could not do what I’m doing with all these companies.

Do you do consolidated procurement across the companies?
Not yet. That will come later. But we are looking at auditing. The companies are at different stages: some have been around for a few years, some for a year, and some are prerevenue. But at some point, they’re all going to need a real audit to be done. I’d rather work with just one auditing firm, in order to get an economy of scale.

And you’re going to get a better audit, and the auditors will be more efficient, if they are more involved in your businesses and understand how they work. When they move on to the next company, they won’t see completely different ideas for how to recognize revenue and expenses, for example.

Do you ever see yourself again being a CFO candidate for a single company? Or do you figure you’re where you’ll be for life?
A good question, but if we continue to do as well as we’re doing, I’ll be here. I’m not going to tell you we’re going public in a year or anything like that, but I don’t have to be standing on a soapbox selling myself.

I do get approached by companies and recruiters, but it would have to be a situation similar to what I have now: a mix of businesses and constant change.