Group Dynamics

A down-to-earth think tank; a graceful exit for Martha Stewart's CFO.
CFO StaffFebruary 1, 2006

Typically, the words think tank conjure an image of tweed-clad philosophers formulating a unified theory of life, the universe, and everything else. But sometimes they are more down to earth.

At the University of Massachusetts Boston, there is actually a Chief Financial Officer Think Tank sponsored by the New England Resource Center for Higher Education (NERCHE). One of six such groups dedicated to fostering collaboration among university officials, the 25-member group meets five times a year to network and address problems unique to the academic setting, says Glenn Gabbard, NERCHE’s associate director. This year, for instance, the group will address “Accreditation and the Role of the CFO,” “Creating a Culture of Assessment,” and “Sarbanes-Oxley: Will It Work in Higher Education?”

“The collegial relationships are invaluable,” says member Susan L. Davy, vice president, finance and administration, at the New England Conservatory of Music. So is the practical advice. For example, after the conservatory decided to put its annual audit out to bid for the first time in 10 years, Davy’s think-tank colleagues “offered confidential commentary on their positive and negative experiences with various audit firms,” she says.

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Their advice allowed Davy to develop an auditor RFP and a list of potential candidates. The think tank also offers members techniques for maneuvering in academia. “Higher education is a different animal,” says Pamela J. Kedderis, CFO for the Connecticut State University System. In the typical corporation decisions are made quickly, but in universities “everyone likes to discuss everything.”

The think-tank idea, Davy believes, would work in any industry in which “competitive barriers” need to be broken down. “The day-to-day issues will always make it hard to get away,” she says, “but it is important to be able to think, reflect, assess, share, confide, mentor, and inspire away from the din.” — Lori Calabro

Graceful Exit?

No one expected James Follo, the CFO at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., to master the fine art of glycerine soap-making or to make cranberry wreaths in his spare time. Simply keeping MSLO’s finances in order qualifies as a “good thing.” Follo, 46, stayed at his post for five tumultuous years, including the five months his famous CEO was jailed. But now that the dust has settled, he’s calling it quits next month, saying via E-mail that “this is the right time for me to explore the next step in my…career.”

One reason, of course, could be that he is just tired. “Follo brought the company through a very trying time,” says Ellen Williams, senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International. “The company was probably filled with turmoil internally, and that exacted a toll.”

However, with so many changes at the company, including a new CEO, a new publisher, and Stewart’s return, it’s possible that MSLO is hoping for a fresh start with Wall Street. “The company has brought in a lot of new management in the last year,” points out Michael Meltz, an analyst at Bear, Stearns Securities Corp., who doesn’t believe that Follo was pushed out.

Still, if it is hoping for a fresh start, MSLO isn’t looking far for an acting CFO, instead tapping vice president of finance Howard Hochhauser. As for Follo, Walt Williams, a partner at Battalia Winston International, believes his loyalty will help him land a new gig. “Usually, people earn credit for not cutting out in a troublesome time,” he notes. — Laura DeMars

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