Why Strategy Plays Second Fiddle for Finance Chiefs

Yes, CFOs are getting more strategic, but for many, it’s not yet close to the core of the job.
David McCannJune 19, 2012

On the seemingly endless list of skills and traits that synthesize into an effective finance chief, a case can be made that one stands out for its potential to make or break a career: solid prioritization. A sizable part of that je ne sais quoi we call “vision” could be described as a sense of what activities will render the most value for the organization.

But is prioritizing the same as strategizing? Not according to what some CFOs told Ernst & Young, which recently conducted in-depth interviews with 19 of them at companies throughout the Americas. While they agreed overall with the common view that they and their peers are and should be growing ever-more strategic, several argued for other, higher priorities.

Tracey Travis, who heads finance for Ralph Lauren, said ensuring business decisions are grounded in sound financial criteria must be a higher priority. “That really needs to be a primary focus,” she told E&Y. “The audit committee expects it. Management expects it. External constituents expect it. Sometimes the CFO can get distracted with other opportunities that are also important to the organization and are, quite honestly, more intellectually stimulating and more fun.”

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Questioning where strategic leadership really should reside, Peter Ragauss, finance chief at oil-services company Baker Hughes, said, “If the CFO is too involved in strategy, then it’s not owned by the business or the CEO.” But there’s also a risk of not being strategic enough: “You can do too much; you can do too little. There’s a sweet spot.”

Bruce Besanko, CFO of OfficeMax, contrasted actual strategy development with ably funding, enabling, and executing the CEO’s strategy, which he called a “must-have” ability, “whereas helping define and develop strategy is a nice-to-have.”

Andy Campion, who holds the top finance seat at The Nike Brand, begged to differ. He ranked developing strategy for the organization, as a member of the executive-leadership team, alongside executing that strategy through financial planning and performance management as the two most important roles for CFOs. “I would describe the rest [of a CFO’s duties] as in support of those two priorities, with the exception being that clear communication to external stakeholders is enabled and enhanced when you couple sound, intuitive business strategy with a value-creating financial model.”

Indeed, communicating with external stakeholders was the very top priority for Dave Johnson, CFO at connector-products maker Molex. “It is crucial that a CFO is able to summarize complex material succinctly” to investors, he said. Yet he ranked developing strategy dead last among six sets of core CFO activities described by E&Y. Second through fifth on his list were, in order: funding, enabling, and executing the strategy set by the CEO; ensuring business decisions are grounded in solid financial criteria; leading key initiatives in finance that support strategic goals; and providing insight and analysis to the CEO and other senior managers.

Being more strategic is a wish, but lags behind more pressing short-term concerns for Paulo Prignolato, CFO of Brazilian commodities maker Votorantim Metals. “Unfortunately, we do not control prices, so our focus is always on costs,” he told E&Y. “And since the [economic] crisis, we have had to work a lot on cost reduction, internal controls, improvements, and risk management — hedging, mainly. The ideal situation would be for me to [spend] more time on strategic decisions, [but] most probably during the next two or three years the reality will be exactly as it is today.”

Coca-Cola CFO Bill Douglas explained that strategy inherently does not fall under his purview, because the company has a strategy director who is in charge of that. Still, he said, he’s routinely involved in top-level strategic discussions along with the strategy director and CEO.

At global industrial-supplies distributor W.W. Grainger, CFO Ron Jadin said the “foundational aspects” of the CFO role lie not in the strategic realm but in protecting the company’s brand and reputation. Those are things such as enterprise risk management, internal controls, Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, and adherence to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. “We want to make sure everybody knows this is how Grainger does business,” he said. “That’s critically important for us, because we could enter a new country or purchase a business that is less than 5% of company sales but risk destroying 100% of our brand equity if something goes wrong.”

To be sure, others interviewed by E&Y were strong advocates of CFOs as strategists. In addition to Nike’s Campion, Xerox finance chief Luca Maestri said defining and executing strategy “is the most effective way for companies to extract value from the CFO.”

And Fareed Kahn of United Stationers suggested that the CFO may the best-positioned person in the company to shape strategy: “Listening to how analysts and investors, particularly the skeptical ones, talk about your business brings important clarity on value drivers, execution priorities, and performance expectations. These are very valuable inputs to business leaders as they develop strategy.”

Kahn further noted that CFOs should take a “portfolio approach” to business priorities. “Not all good ideas have to get done at once,” he told E&Y. “The CFO has a unique role in helping prioritize across the businesses.”

Hank Halter, the just-retired CFO of Delta Air Lines, sees both sides. “It’s tough as CFO,” he said. “In some ways you are a record-keeper, and in some ways you’re a strategic thinker. You can’t be the first point of contact to save or spend money. You can affect company results and cash-flow generation through things you do in a corporate role or through the treasury function. But in some ways you sit with your hands tied, because you can’t directly impact the divisions that spend and generate the money. It’s a unique dilemma.”

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