How One CFO Steers Toward Growth

Gerson Lehrman Group finance chief Tania Secor tells how she chooses her priorities at a growing company.
Marielle SegarraJuly 3, 2013

There’s a lot to be said for growth company culture. On the one hand, it can be fast-moving, invigorating and entrepreneurial. But it can also be a bit of a pressure cooker, requiring employees to work quickly and juggle varied responsibilities at the same time.

There may be even more pressure on CFOs, whose role has expanded over the last several decades. Finance chiefs at growth companies need to be able to “pivot quickly into different situations,” says Tania Secor, CFO at Gerson Lehrman Group (GLG), the country’s largest expert network firm.

GLG, which is backed by private equity firms Silver Lake and Bessemer Venture Partners, has grown rapidly since it launched in 1998. The firm manages more than 350,000 professionals worldwide and rakes in about $300 million in annual revenue. (Indeed, its public presence was raised considerably several years ago by clients who may have used its services for insider trading, though GLG was not accused of any wrongdoing.)

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Few are better positioned to toggle between strategy, operations and other areas than Secor, a former CFO at Businessweek and Bloomberg and former senior director of finance at McGraw-Hill. In 2009, Secor garnered significant operational experience when she led the sale of Businessweek to Bloomberg. She’s also a former vice president at Weiss, Peck & Greer Private Equity Group.

CFO recently spoke with Secor about her challenges as finance chief at the fast-growing expert network.

What is a typical day like for you?
The core of my background is finance and accounting, but my role here is fairly expansive. It includes managing the facilities of our 22 offices globally. I also oversee human resources, and the strategy team reports to me. On any given day I could be negotiating a vendor agreement, or I could be discussing our capital structure with the board, or we could be talking about a new product. Or I could just be a coach to the heads of the business. We have so many opportunities for growth, and at the end of the day, my job is to help prioritize our resources to make sure we’re capitalizing on those opportunities.

How did your previous jobs prepare you for your current role? 
When you’re CFO at a middle-market company and you’re private or backed by PE investors, you need to be both strategic and operational. I have to be strategic in thinking about growth acceleration and where the business is headed. But I also have to make sure the bills get paid.

My more strategic experience has come from working in private equity and investment banking. My operational experience came from a few positions. When we sold Businessweek to Bloomberg, for instance, it was a six-month integration that was extremely hands-on. We were ripping out systems and building out systems and very focused on operational finance.

As another example, in my first role at McGraw-Hill, I had to work on our earnings guidance for the head of investor relations. There are a lot of operational best practices that I learned there in terms of how to put together a forecast, review that forecast with the business leaders and then come up with an earnings guidance recommendation to share with Wall Street. That is something operational that I now bring to our forecasting and planning function at GLG.

How quickly is the company growing?
Over the past three years in particular, we have broadened the industries that we serve and our approach to client service. I can’t disclose exact growth rates, but we have delivered substantial top-line growth.

Where is the company looking to grow going forward?
One of the reasons I joined GLG back in January 2012 was that I thought there was a very significant opportunity for organic growth in several different directions. We provide services to clients not just in financial services but also in corporations, law firms and nonprofits. The opportunity for growth in those businesses is very significant, domestically and globally. We could also grow through new product innovations and additional services.

What are your biggest challenges as a CFO in this industry?
Because we are such an entrepreneurial company, my job at the end of the day is to help prioritize the resources to make sure that we’re capitalizing on those growth opportunities. It’s important to spend time on things that matter. It’s almost like this question: Do you shoot for 100 percent perfect or do you go for 70 percent and let the rest take care of itself? Say we’re negotiating a vendor agreement. The team could spend months on it. But I’d rather they get to a 70 or 80 percent comfort level, not worry about negotiating all the clauses that are low risk, move on, get the agreement executed and get to market faster than someone else does.