Disruptive Change Spells Opportunity for Top CFOs

In these disruptive times, finance chiefs should invest for scale, root out scope creep, and adopt a customer-centric mindset, says Gartner.
David McCannNovember 21, 2019

While there is a convergence of uncertainty around the economy and corporate health, this time is also a great opportunity for CFOs to demonstrate how they stand out from their peers, according to Gartner.

“There is disruptive change occurring at an unprecedented rate, but along with it there is opportunity for top CFOs,” said Jason Boldt, research director in Gartner’s finance practice. “CFOs need to understand what characteristics their high-performing peers exhibit.”

Boldt said Gartner research suggests that a focus on investing for scale, on preventing scope creep from destroying margins, and customer-centricity are CFO qualities that are “significantly related to the best-performing organizations.”

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Gartner experts identified six disruptive trends that CFOs can treat as opportunities to grow the business.

Business Transformation. The number of M&A deals has reached a 10-year-maximum. So has the frequency of Fortune 500 companies mentioning terms related to “business transformation” in their earnings calls. This juxtaposition underscores that in the last two to three years companies have rapidly accelerated efforts to fundamentally alter how they compete and create value.

“Top CFOs deliberately pursue scale-additive transactions. However, CFOs need to be careful of following the herd and overpaying for acquisitions that unintentionally undermine competitive positions,” said Boldt.

Market Competition. Not only do companies face more entrenched incumbent firms in every industry, but they must also contend with well-financed, privately held startups. “It is critical for CFOs to have a thorough and objective view of competitive advantage, and honest appraisal of where their firms are falling short,” said Boldt.

Economic Uncertainty. “Never in recent times have executives faced such levels of policy and economic uncertainty simultaneously,” Boldt said. The key to profiting from such uncertainty lies in ensuring costs are appropriately optimized for the operating environment to shore up liquidity and keep dry powder to enable rapid investment in suddenly attractive opportunities.

Employee Power in Labor Market. With unemployment at historic lows and employee disengagement at record highs, organizations face these turbulent times without the levels of employee certainty they have enjoyed in the past.

“However, looking at this trend through a positive lens, it may be easier than ever before to poach key personnel from competitors,” said Boldt. “Employees are likely to benefit in the form of higher wages, which will pressure CFOs to oversee investments that increase productivity at least at the rate of labor cost growth.”

Capital Inefficiency. “We’re seeing that in the current low-interest-rate environment, companies have plenty of cash yet few opportunities to spend it,” Boldt said. While it may be harder to identify profitable investment opportunities, the CFOs whose companies perform best tend to focus investments on a limited number of big growth bets, concentrated customer bases, and tightly coordinated product and service lines.

Executive Confidence. Gartner experts say this is arguably a red flag, as it could seem like the kind of overconfidence that has preceded major market corrections in the past. Nonetheless, the CEO confidence index hit its highs in 2018, although it has waned in 2019.

“Top CFOs will see this as a warning that given the volume and significance of current market changes, executives could be vastly underestimating the headwinds their companies face,” said Boldt. “We’ve found that leading CFOs are building their own viewpoints of the customer, spending time one-on-one with key customers, with the aim of linking that theory of the customer back to financial considerations.”