Workplace Issues

Keeping Cool in the Hot Seat

The financial crisis has prompted CFOs to assume primary responsibility for risk management, and most believe they&spamp;rsquo;re on top of it. But...
Kate O'SullivanMarch 1, 2012

The CFO’s role has expanded in recent years, perhaps most notably in the area of risk management. Finance chiefs frequently took charge of assessing and guarding against risk during the financial crisis, and as the economy has slowly recovered, few have relinquished the task. More than half of the finance executives responding to CFO’s latest Deep Dive Survey say their responsibility for risk management has increased over the past two years, while just 3% say it has declined.

Overall, 72% of survey respondents say their companies have increased the amount of time and resources devoted to risk management over the past two years, with 23% calling the increase significant. Most are satisfied with the way their companies approach risk, as 66% say they have struck the right balance: neither too cautious nor too aggressive. Maybe that’s because, at nearly half of the companies surveyed, the CFO bears most responsibility for risk management, followed distantly by the CEO at 24%.

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As for the risks finance executives deem most critical, “customer demand and profitability” tops the list, with two-thirds of CFOs calling it one of their biggest areas of concern. While many finance chiefs report signs of an improving economy, the shakiness of the recovery means this is an “ongoing risk,” according to Kevin Lamb, CFO at Sauder Woodworking, a manufacturer of ready-to-assemble furniture sold through large retail chains like Wal-Mart and Target.

Workforce Worries
Workforce management also ranks as a key risk area, with 44% of CFOs calling it one of their greatest risks. Bill Schulz, controller at RSW Group, an AT&T cell-phone retailer with 450 employees, describes the company’s employment situation as something of a catch-22. “When the economy declines, that hurts us from a sales perspective,” he says. “But when the economy picks up, our employees start looking elsewhere.”

In a company that saw well over 100% turnover last year, that means a huge recruiting and training expense. “It’s made us rethink our whole compensation program,” says Schulz. “We’re trying to tie people to more of a long-term strategy and hoping that they’ll stay around longer.” The company is linking part of employees’ pay to hitting training and education goals, hoping that workers will start to see a longer career path with RSW.

Dan Marchetti, finance chief at Urschel Laboratories, a manufacturer of food and chemical processing equipment, also cites workforce concerns as a big risk — but for a very different reason. The company has placed a new emphasis on employee health and occupational safety over the past two years, after middle managers raised the issue and urged the company to address it. “We can’t control the guy who slips on the ice,” says Marchetti, “but we can improve things that involve process.” Urschel has increased its investment in education and training for workers using heavy machinery and has reviewed its operating procedures.

Given Urschel’s sizable international business, however, Marchetti says currency fluctuation is where he sees the most risk for the company today. “As we have grown internationally, we have focused more on currency and have put a new strategy in place in the last 6 months, particularly as Europe has grown more volatile,” he says. The company used to hedge its foreign- exchange exposure with short-term, 3-to-6-month contracts. Now, says Marchetti, he’s locking in contracts for 12 to 18 months, trying to reduce the company’s exposure to currency swings for the entire fiscal year and beyond.

Strategic Risks
Despite the dramatic risks on display in the European debt crisis, the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and the political upheaval in the Middle East, fewer than half of the finance chiefs responding to the survey say their companies do scenario planning. Those that do typically run just three scenarios, while the most sophisticated users of such planning run seven or more.

Still, while RSW’s Schulz says his company doesn’t conduct a formal scenario-planning exercise, he says the management team does take a strategic view of risk. As an AT&T store, the company felt the impact of the telecom giant’s failed merger with T-Mobile last year. “We were kind of banking on that to happen,” says Schulz. As a result, RSW has taken steps to build its business in areas in which it does not rely on its primary supplier, developing its own cell-phone repair business and exploring the possibility of offering its own warranties.

Lamb says Sauder Woodworking is also monitoring various strategic risks, including the danger of offering home goods to consumers in a down housing market. “We try to address it with product design, with competitive pricing, and with quality and functionality that you hope the consumer is looking for,” he says. Although Sauder’s largest input cost, particleboard, increased in 2011 over the prior year, the company has taken steps to source it differently. Lamb says the company has also considered different types of particleboard and has used the board it does purchase more economically by reducing waste.

Finally, several finance chiefs also cite financial markets and the looming U.S. presidential election as potential sources of risk this year. But while Urschel’s Marchetti acknowledges the uncertainty, his attention is elsewhere: “We’re focusing on the things we can control,” he says.

Kate O’Sullivan is director of content development at CFO.