Kimberly-Clark Finance Chief to Staff: Think Like a CFO

Mark Buthman's 'Power of a CFO' mantra aims to instill a business-leader mindset in every team member.
David McCannJuly 11, 2014

Editor’s note: This article, the first of two about finance at Kimberly-Clark, focuses on an initiative to get finance team members to think more expansively about their jobs. Next: the company’s energetic cost-saving vigil and other finance priorities.

Mark Buthman wants every employee in his 1,600-person finance organization to think like him.

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It’s not ego run amok. Actually, Buthman, finance chief at consumer packaged goods giant Kimberly-Clark, wants them to think like CFOs generically. How do CFOs think? According to a video that Buthman’s communications director created to help get the message out to the staff, a CFO “delivers insight, not data. Operates end to end. Questions, challenges, takes smart risks. Builds a high-performing team. Champions innovation and breakthrough solutions. Makes tough decisions. Steps forward to lead.”

Mark Buthman, CFO, Kimberly-Clark

Buthman: “Every finance organization is on a journey.”

The effort has a name: “The Power of a CFO.” But it’s not really a “program.” It doesn’t involve any formal training. “It’s more of a mindset,” Buthman says. “It’s about setting an expectation that every individual in my organization around the world comes to work every day thinking like a CFO.”

The idea came from some feedback Buthman got a few years back from a peer, who observed that the further an employee is away from you, whether geographically or hierarchically, the less clear the person is about what you expect of him or her. “So I wanted to send a clear, crisp message to everyone, to think this way: If I were there helping them solve a problem, what would we do?”

In Buthman’s vision, everything a finance professional does should be aimed at achieving one of three things: building talent, driving results or growing the company’s capabilities. “We call that inspire, drive and transform,” he says. “The Power of a CFO aims to get those three things into every objective that every single person in my organization has, and to give our teams the freedom and empowerment to go after results.”

Buthman had been talking about “inspire, drive and transform” for a few years, but the concept didn’t connect with his team as well as he would have liked. But “Power of a CFO,” which was rolled out in July 2013, has resonated broadly, he says, and not just within finance. When he speaks internally to teams in other departments, like marketing, procurement and IT, he talks about the Power of a CFO concept in the context of their work and tries to empower them to own the whole business by expanding their thinking as if they were CMO, CPO or CIO.

Indeed, he notes with satisfaction that he got an email from one of the company’s security guards, whose team had discussed how to apply the Power of a CFO to their own duties.

“His note told me how it had helped his team reframe how they think about their jobs,” Buthman says. “For them, now it’s more than logging someone into the building. Maybe it’s about greeting people with a smile, giving them better directions to where they’re going or making an extra call to let someone know they’re coming. That may seem simple, but it’s a good illustration of empowering people to think differently and bigger about their work.”

Buthman reinforces the message in various ways, like posting blogs and stories on the company’s intranet that bring to light what he’s driving at with the Power of a CFO concept.

One such story is about manufacturing capacity in Argentina, which was under pressure because of projections that it would become inadequate within two years. Multiple solutions ultimately led to dead ends.

The finance team in Argentina tackled the problem by, first, creating a balanced focus between the need to grow the business and cash availability. “That was a clear sense of reality,” Buthman says.

The team then “thought like a CFO” by expanding that focus from the local market to the broader region and going beyond internal solutions, even though such actions were “outside of their direct line of authority,” notes Buthman. “They approached the issue as if they were investing their own money — as if they were shareholders more than members of a country finance team. They used a disciplined decision-making process, influenced negotiations with an external supplier and took smart risks.”

Another story highlights leadership thinking in procurement and accounts payable. The company had already doubled its payment terms from 30 to 60 days in recent years so as to pull even with the average in the consumer packaged goods industry. But last year Buthman’s team noticed that some of its competitors were moving to 75 days, so “we knew we needed to move the needle” further, he says.

At the same time, the company launched a global program to significantly reduce the number of different payment terms it offered. The priority was to make things simple and standard and to reduce process complexity and waste. “We were able to do these things quickly because of the leadership mindset among our procurement and accounts-payable teams, which have generated hundreds of millions of dollars worth of working-capital improvements over the last three or four years,” Buthman says.

Another example: Kimberly-Clark historically announced its earnings early compared to its peer group of companies, then published the financials later. For many years, the finance team thought that keeping the accelerated reporting schedule but syncing it with the public filings — as the audit committee wished — was unsolvable.

But two members of the controller’s team explored the company’s 10-K for opportunities to file faster. “They ended up creating a breakthrough idea that we called ‘Road to 40,’ where we committed to accelerate our annual filing by nearly two weeks,” Buthman says. “Accelerating the close forced us to eliminate unnecessary work in the process globally.” It also reduced Kimberly-Clark’s exposure to unanticipated events just prior to making public filings and freed up time for people to work on other valuable projects.

“Every finance organization is on a journey,” Buthman says. “We all want to be best in class. Years ago, we were controllers. Then we aspired to become business partners. Power of a CFO is about becoming business leaders.”