David Cobb, CFO of ArcBest, is retiring in October. After nearly two decades with the global supply chain logistics company, Cobb has climbed the executive ladder, earning well wishes from his fellow leaders, as he begins a new chapter in life. During Cobb's time as a financial leader, including taking the role of CFO in 2015, ArcBest has grown from earning revenues of $1.9B in 2006 to over $5B in the last twelve months.
Cobb's career with ArcBest, which has spanned nearly two decades, provides him with an informative perspective on the current state and future of leadership. However, before he bares his farewells, Cobb plans on continuing to work hard, focusing on creating a seamless transition not only for his retirement but for ArcBest's new future CFO.
- First CFO position: 2015
- Notable previous companies:
- Smith International
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ADAM ZAKI: You have been with your company for nearly 17 years, a lifetime for the average CFO. Why do you think there is so much turnover in the CFO world, and what about your current role has kept you around?
DAVID COBB: I attribute a large turnover partially to the constant regulatory changes, especially in public companies. In my 35-year career serving publicly traded companies in the finance function, there’s been a tremendous impact on the CFO role from a regulatory perspective.
In terms of what’s kept me at ArcBest for so long, it’s really that people are at the heart of our company.
ArcBest is a company that thinks and plans long-term, and that’s been a driver of our success over the past 100 years.
We have shared values and an unparalleled desire to serve customers. We’re on a growth path that has produced meaningful results for all of our stakeholders, and that’s something I’m incredibly proud of.
What are you prioritizing in 2023 to close out your career? What do you think is your biggest challenge?
COBB: I made the decision to retire with mixed emotions, as our team is tremendous and the company has an incredibly bright future. We’ve invested smartly in our people, technologies, innovation, and our existing businesses — and all have expanded our opportunities for growth and profitability.
I’m focused on what I can do to ensure a smooth transition of the new CFO and to continue to support my teams and our executive leaders through the handoff.
How would you describe your approach to executive leadership? Is there anything from your previous work experience that helped you build the necessary communication and people skills needed to be an executive?
COBB: Servant leadership. That’s how I describe my approach to leadership as an exec. CFOs should consider how their work affects others. Key to that is investing in building relationships and not taking a leadership role for granted.
Previous work experiences that have helped me build the communication and people skills needed to succeed at this level [were] the age-old face-to-face conversations when public auditors spent time in clients’ offices. Having a seat at those tables, managing information, and getting to the source of facts as efficiently as possible all helped form the skills I needed in the present day to lead effectively.
Servant leadership ... CFOs should consider how their work affects others. Key to that is investing in building relationships and not taking a leadership role for granted.
Another thing I’ve always aimed to be good at is learning how to be a good follower — anticipating my supervisors’ actions and thoughts, and finding ways to make their job easier. I carry that approach with me while still being part of a management team.
What do you think about changing work environments? Are you a fan of remote work and/or hybrid work?
COBB: Flexibility is certainly important in today’s work environment. How far that flexibility goes depends on the role, in my opinion.
I tend to appreciate teaching and learning through observation, but I can also appreciate the desire to have hybrid work environments, especially as you think about appealing to a younger generation of workers.
What is the first step towards accomplishing your goals this year as a CFO? Is there anything you've already started doing in your job that you said you were going to start doing in 2023?
COBB: While we are closing out 2022, we’re leaning into our long-term strategic initiatives and vision that pertain to 2023 and well beyond. ArcBest is a company that thinks and plans long-term, and that’s been a driver of our success over the past 100 years. We’re continuing to focus on capital allocation and developing options and scenarios so we continue to manage well around the macro business environment.
Are you worried about labor markets? Do certain areas such as retention, hiring, or benefits worry you more than others?
COBB: The labor market has certainly been challenging, particularly in the past few years, but rather than worry, we stay focused on initiatives aimed at retaining employees.
ArcBest has received numerous employee-directed awards for being a great place to work given our focus on things like benefits, values, and training. We’re extremely proud of our retention metrics, and this remains an area of focus for us.
Do you believe you have reliable cash flow data? Why or why not? How has cash flow data's accuracy changed throughout your career?
COBB: We do have good cash flow information, yes. We benefit from our centralized approach to cash management and receivable and payable management. The enhancements around our technology systems — namely, data and analytics tools — have certainly improved that visibility.
The labor market has certainly been challenging, particularly in the past few years, but rather than worry, we stay focused on initiatives aimed at retaining employees.
Do you believe in quantity or quality when it comes to financial forecasting? Why?
COBB: I appreciate a quality view of projections that are supported by data-driven insights. While a forecast can help with communications, I have always advocated for our forecasts to be useful to management. In other words: 'How can we use them to achieve a better outcome?' Seeing around corners is challenging, but having the data to anticipate how those drivers potentially move forward helps in managing the possibilities.
At the same time, I find value in having various scenarios, particularly to provide insight into the potential and in our strategic longer-term capital allocation priorities.
What is the value of the MBA or being a CPA on the career trajectory to CFO? Has this value of the MBA or CPA changed since you were in school?
COBB: They’re each valuable for different reasons. The training leading up to the CPA designation helps in the technical accounting and auditing side — and that training gives you the foundation to work through the changes in regulation that will eventually come.
MBA training generally advances training in leadership, executive management, and strategy that are so useful for the CFO.
The CFO role has a focus on future innovation and opportunities which require investments. CFOs must be able to steer complex initiatives with many moving parts. One example is bringing an understanding of strategic operating expenses that might occur ahead of the benefits from that investment.