Attention Deficit

How to balance important strategic projects with routine responsibilities.
Sarah JohnsonMay 1, 2011

Steve Abely, CFO of Abound Solar, a privately held solar-module manufacturer, is the very model of a strategic CFO. Is he about to pay a price for his recent success?

Abound Solar secured a $400 million loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy last December and raised $110 million in equity to expand a Colorado manufacturing facility and build a plant in Indiana that is expected to create 1,200 jobs. Securing the government loan alone was an arduous process, in which Abely submitted a 600-page application, followed by several rounds of financial analysis and sign-off on a 40-page term sheet. A name-drop by President Obama, who publicly touted the loan as part of the government’s stimulus program, didn’t hurt either.

But even as Abely devoted most of his time to those complex fund-raising efforts (a seemingly affordable luxury, since the company’s finances and operations have thus far been fairly simple), “there were still times when there were too many things to do and not enough hands on deck,” Abely says. Having spent two years securing the funding, he now must face the fact that running the finance department “will get more complicated, and I will need to expand staff as we grow the business.”

By their nature, major strategic changes — such as physical expansion, initial public offerings, or acquisitions — divert finance chiefs from their routine responsibilities. These projects are critical in the long run, but in the short term they take up a lot of space on the CFO’s calendar — space that is already at a premium. “An acquisition is the glamorous, sexy thing on your plate demanding your time, but the basic work of the company still has to continue,” says Paul Burmeister, a partner at executive-services firm Tatum.

That puts CFOs in a very tough spot: they are frequently responsible for ensuring that the major milestones of strategic projects are met, but they must also make certain that day-to-day finances run smoothly. It’s little wonder they feel torn between the finance department’s immediate requirements and the demands of initiatives that won’t be finished for months or even years. “You have to force yourself to be very disciplined and effective in how you divide your time between tasks,” Burmeister says.

Multitasking Madness

Even with the best of intentions, it can be hard to keep the finance department moving forward at top speed on multiple initiatives. FleetCor Technologies finance chief Eric Dey learned that the hard way.

Last April, Dey filed his company’s first S-1 in preparation for an initial public offering. Soon after, the payment-card provider tabled those plans as it waited for the market to improve. Six amended S-1s later, the IPO was finally completed in December 2010, at $23 per share.

Finance executives' greatest challenge

A process that Dey initially thought would last only four months took twice as long. The starting and stopping of the IPO also diverted resources from other initiatives designed to grow the company, like searches for potential acquisition targets and partnerships, which went slower than Dey would have liked. “We got sidetracked from a business-development perspective,” he acknowledges.

Check In, Check Off

There are several tactics that can help keep both special projects and routine finance tasks on track simultaneously. Above all, the CFO should set the tone for finance employees who are plugging away on both kinds of work, letting them know that all of their contributions are valued and important. “I’m not directing them on a day-to-day basis, but they need to know I care deeply about the project,” says Samuel Strickland, CFO of Booz Allen Hamilton. Strickland oversaw the spin-off of the consultancy’s government business three years ago and managed its IPO, which was completed in November.

Abely of Abound Solar says various to-do lists keep his attention focused on his immediate tasks and prevent him from becoming overwhelmed by larger, looming goals. He consults a personal checklist nearly every day, and he keeps regular tabs on quarterly and annual plans for the company as well. Abely also has weekly status meetings with three key finance employees, including the controller. “You’ve got to set expectations for when things can get done and find out the critical items on the path to getting something completed,” he says.

Regular check-ins can serve both as morale boosters and as a form of peer pressure for employees working on a daunting project. In the case of Booz Allen’s IPO, the 23 key people involved in the project met twice a week and later twice a month. “Nobody wanted to go into the meetings not having accomplished what they said they were going to accomplish,” says Strickland.

One caveat: finance chiefs should think carefully before planning too many meetings. Status sessions can be helpful, to be sure, but they also take up valuable time that could be spent tackling important tasks. “People have a horrible habit of having meetings to have meetings,” says Leigh Stevens, senior product architect at consulting and training firm Franklin Covey. For effective group updates, Stevens suggests meeting at a regular, consistent time, and that each agenda item be assigned a limited discussion time.

Getting Help

For some projects, finance chiefs may need to apply their risk-management acumen to their own workloads. “It’s a constant question for CFOs to ask: Where is the biggest risk at this particular time and what resources do I have to address it?” says Catherine D’Amico, CFO of Monro Muffler Brake, an automotive-services company. “It’s not always easy to figure out.”

Last winter, D’Amico passed some of her daily responsibilities to her controller so that she could work on-site in New Hampshire while completing the purchase of a tire-store chain. Since the new business “lacked sophistication” in its finances, D’Amico felt compelled to review the numbers in person to confirm their veracity, and to ensure that the store’s employees — whose bonuses that year relied on those numbers — would feel confident in them as well.

CFOs say outside advisers, including management consultancies, accounting firms, and lawyers, can be crucial at such times, not only to help structure the stages of a large project but also to support and fill corporate staff positions while a pressing project consumes the CFO’s time. Small and midsize companies with limited financial resources can particularly benefit from outside assistance, which may include temporary finance expertise such as that offered by B2B CFO, Tatum, and others.

In some cases, CFOs may need to hire permanent help. FleetCor’s Dey, for example, says his major regret about preparing for the company’s IPO was failing to hire a head of financial reporting soon enough. He just filled the position last month, after having racked up plenty of extra hours completing the public offering.

Breathing Room

While taking time to establish deadlines and goals and make targeted hires can save time in the long run, so, too, can taking a breather and encouraging your staff to do the same. The latter may sound impossible, even laughable, to a finance chief with a packed schedule, but studies have shown that people can effectively concentrate on one thing for only 90 consecutive minutes. People are also more efficient when they take breaks, says Stevens of Franklin Covey.

Of course, it can be hard for managers to heed that advice. Indeed, Patricia Bedient, CFO of Weyerhaeuser, says she easily could have worked around the clock on the forest-product company’s conversion to a real estate investment trust, a project that progressed in earnest when she became finance chief in 2007 and will end when the company files its first tax return as a REIT this year. However, she says, “for my own well-being, there are certain things I have going on besides what I do as a CFO.”

To squeeze in leisure activities, not to mention time for the two directorships she holds, Bedient blocks off time on her calendar, sometimes many months in advance of an event. Every fall, for example, she sets aside time to plan a camping trip with her 10 siblings and their families for the following summer.

In other words, CFOs have to have a life, too. “You can’t let yourself get totally wrapped up in any one thing for a long period of time or you will burn out,” Bedient says. “You won’t be as effective.” And with so much to do, both for the present and future, being ineffective is clearly not an option.

Sarah Johnson is senior editor for risk & compliance at CFO.