The Ties That Bind

Balancing their hobbies with the demands of being CFO is easy, say some finance chiefs fortunate enough to combine their passions with their profes...
Lori CalabroAugust 1, 2005

Jerry Straub’s passion for the sea was long in coming. Not until this year, his 28th with Viking Yacht Co., did he buy his first boat (christened SeaFO).

Indeed, Straub first interviewed at the yacht maker in response to a blind ad for a CFO. When he learned what Viking’s business was, he told the owners they had the wrong guy. But the owners, brothers Bill and Bob Healey, chose him — mainly because the other candidates “knew more about boating than they did about finance,” recalls Straub.

Over the next two decades, Straub says he played “the role of anchor” at the New Gretna, New Jersey–based company. In the process, he became “fairly astute about what makes a quality boat,” joining company tours and attending boat shows. That knowledge served him well when presenting the company’s case to bankers, dealers, and the board.

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Finally, Straub purchased his own craft — a 24-foot Regulator FS. “I can’t afford a Viking,” he laments.

Balancing his new hobby with the demands of being CFO is easy, says Straub; one supports the other. It’s the same for other finance executives who are fortunate enough to combine their passions with their professions. Their enthusiasm for the product helps them understand customers, communicate with stakeholders, and conduct competitive analyses.

It’s All Downhill

That’s certainly the case for Betsy Cole. A skier since she was five, Cole is now CFO of Booth Creek Ski Holdings, a privately held ski-resort operator with revenues of $115 million. Headquartered on a mountainside in Vail, Colorado, Booth Creek encourages its employees to take advantage of the packed powder whenever possible. In winter, staffers often leave their desks in the middle of the day to ski for a couple of hours.

Cole usually isn’t so lucky. Right now, for instance, she’s immersed in an expansion project at the Northstar-at-Tahoe resort in Nevada. But she does hit the slopes about 25 days a year — and that’s not counting the times she’s on skis less than two hours. And since most of the time she uses a company facility, Cole manages to combine pleasure with business. “You just can’t get a sense of whether a resort has momentum and feels right until you are out there doing what a customer is doing,” she says. Skiing a Booth Creek slope, says Cole, gives her a much better idea of “where the money needs to be spent in terms of labor, expansion, and customer service.”

Mike Trueblood, on the other hand, doesn’t have to go anywhere near a golf course to take the pulse of his industry. The CFO of Phoenix-based Karsten Manufacturing Co., maker of the popular Ping golf clubs, routinely encounters golf enthusiasts on business trips. Still, by playing some 20 rounds a year, Trueblood (whose handicap is 18) can see what types of clubs players keep in their bags. Moreover, the sheer allure of the Ping name works in his favor when he plays with bankers and key vendors. “There’s nothing like a round of golf to set the tone,” he remarks.

Likewise, being a self-described wine enthusiast gives Doug Walker insight into his industry’s future. “The success of the movie Sideways has given a boost to our industry just like ’60 Minutes’ did years ago with its piece on the health benefits of red wine,” says the vice president at $600 million (in revenues) Beringer Blass Wine Estate Holdings, a division of Australian beverage giant Foster’s Wine Estates. Also, wine is “being appreciated by people at an earlier age,” says Walker. Both trends give him comfort as he leads the U.S. integration team for Foster’s $2.8 million acquisition of Australian wine producer Southcorp, which will increase the company’s volume in the United States by 50 percent.

Roses and Thorns

As if combining their passions with work weren’t enough, these CFOs enjoy other benefits. Within the wine industry, for example, there are certain discounts fellow vintners offer, says Walker, who is partial to cabernets. And thanks to Ping’s sponsorship of tournaments and events, Trueblood has played some of the world’s most famous courses, although his best round was an 83 at Moon Valley Country Club, right in Phoenix.

There can also be an upside to sharing a pastime. At The Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., the horticultural- and turf-products giant, CFO Christopher Nagel recently shared his passion for gardening and perennials with his finance staff. Last May, Nagel, who insists that he is “not a master gardener,” volunteered the staff and their families to plant a community garden in Columbus, Ohio, for a local conservation group. “We weeded beds, spread mulch, and planted flowers,” says Nagel, who adds that the event was an ideal way to give back to the central Ohio community. At the same time, while the finance folks “showed up with a lot of enthusiasm, they aren’t in danger of losing their day jobs,” says Nagel.

But there can be impediments to the marriage of passion and profession. Sometimes, for instance, the job takes over. In Nathan Eckhart’s case, the grind of his work means that the Allen Organ CFO — who actually started his career as a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music — doesn’t play very often. And, of course, competing interests may take precedence. Given the time he spends with his four children, Mike Trueblood says, “I tell everyone that I’m 10 years away from being a 10 handicap.”

Their Favorite Things
CFO/Company Favorites Comments
Doug Walker
Beringer Blass Wine
Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages blended wine Walker had a hand in developing and naming the wine.
Betsy Cole
Booth Creek Ski Holdings
Cranmore Mountain Resort,
North Conway, N.H.
Cole grew up skiing at Cranmore.
Christopher Nagel
Scotts Miracle-Gro
New Guinea impatiens Loves the impatiens “because of their rich, vibrant blooms.”
Mike Trueblood
Karsten Manufacturing
Pointe at Tapatio Cliffs, Phoenix Course has a “nice shape and variety, with elevated T’s.”