CFO Snapshot: Commercial Metals’s Barbara Smith

The finance chief says key mentors have had a major impact on her career.
Kate O'SullivanAugust 6, 2012

Name: Barbara Smith 
Title: CFO
Company: Commercial Metals Co. (CMC)

To see a video of Barbara Smith discussing an important, yet underrated, skill for CFOs, click here.

When did you know you wanted to be a CFO?
I grew up in an entrepreneurial family and was always interested in the dynamics of family businesses. My father and grandfather had several businesses — my grandfather had a steel-fabrication business, although he was retired as long as I knew him. That led me to study business and accounting. I concluded early on that I wanted to work in business rather than public accounting, so I spent no time in public accounting, which is a pretty nontraditional path given my educational background.

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I wanted to be a CFO from the beginning. Back when I started, you didn’t have the [knowledge of what] you needed to get to the end objective. I kind of found my way through it rather than charting a specific path. The first half of my career I spent largely in the business, and starting there serves me well now because I’m probably considered more of a business person than a numbers person. At some point in my career, I realized there were certain experiences I needed to be competitive for the CFO job, like capital-markets experience and SEC reporting.

Who have been your best mentors or sources of advice?
Very often my husband has been the best source of advice, because he doesn’t have an agenda, he’s objective, and has spent his entire career as a business executive and has context.

In addition to that, there have been two individuals who took a particular interest in me in my career. I wasn’t a vehicle to make them look better, they were already comfortable in their careers, and they took that extra time to help me, to promote me: doing anything from dry-running presentations for a critical board meeting, firing questions at me that I might get and letting me know about the political minefield I might encounter moving forward with certain initiatives, to just being an advocate for me when there were job openings. In any organization, particularly a large organization, you need advocates: individuals who know what you’re capable of and who can speak on your behalf.

What is the hardest part of being CFO?
The hardest is landing your first CFO role, because typically you’re competing with other CFOs for the job, so the company hiring you is taking a bigger chance on you because you haven’t been there or done that. I left Alcoa and went to Faro Technologies to be CFO. In that situation, it was just the right combo; they were not that concerned that I didn’t have direct capital-markets or SEC-reporting experience, they were looking for my manufacturing experience and large company experience.

Do you think it’s more difficult for a woman to become CFO than it is for a man?
I’ve never focused on the female aspect of advancing in business. Early in my career there were more barriers for women, probably because there were fewer mentors or people to ask for advice on how to work through the maze of a corporation. Today, I don’t think there are those barriers. I think women have certain characteristics that are an advantage, and I focus on those things that are advantages for me.

Like what?
Women are incredibly good at multitasking, handling a lot of stuff at one time, potentially an advantage. Women tend to be, studies show, much more comfortable giving very candid feedback to individuals [who] work for us, which is an advantage in building and developing a team, and getting results.

Do you participate in any women’s networking groups?
I don’t belong to any women’s networks in particular today. We had an internal one at Alcoa that was quite controversial at the time. I was one of those who was reluctant [to join], because I didn’t like the idea of setting yourself apart as a minority group. But I did reluctantly get involved. The best part of that was being able to share with younger women. But I also came to know a lot of the senior women at Alcoa that I probably wouldn’t have developed such a deep relationship with otherwise. I’m still in touch with some of them. In the end, it ended up being a positive experience for me.

What advice would you give to an aspiring CFO?
If the goal is to become CFO, figure out what you need to do and gain those experiences, like capital-markets experience, external-reporting experience. Find good mentors who are interested in your career and developing you. They can propel you forward in ways you can’t. You need advocates or cheerleaders in the organization.

Women in particular really focus on results and doing their job, and sometimes don’t focus as much on building the relationships and the networking. Informal networking is sometimes a little more awkward, like playing golf on Saturday, but those activities are what build advocates in an organization. Sometimes that relationship-building is the side that gets sacrificed, and that can be the make-or-break situation. Work-life balance is always a challenge. Every woman deals with it. But it was a realization along the way for me that I had to make time for that, for building relationships.

What was your most important career decision?
Leaving Alcoa after 24 years to be the CFO of a very small company was a very high-risk move at the time. I was clearly not on the path to be CFO there, and if I had not left, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve all of the things I’ve done in the past 10 years, which have been far greater than what I had been able to do in the previous 24 years.

It was a big decision, because I had progressed very well in the company. I was in the top 100 employees, so from one perspective, I was doing very well. A lot of people thought I was crazy because it was high-risk, but looking back it was the best thing. I wanted to be CFO and I wasn’t going to be CFO at Alcoa. I didn’t have some of those boxes checked — I hadn’t done IR or treasury. Then I stumbled across Faro, and their need and my skills were a match. By going there I was able to check those boxes of experiences I didn’t have, and that then allowed me to compete for other CFO jobs.

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