Looking for a long-term view of what it means to be a good CFO? Brian Hughes is a retired partner of KPMG and an experienced advisor to public VC- and PE-backed portfolio companies.
His perspective spans an entire career of public and private market transactions, overseeing multiple market cycles--like the dot-com bubble and the 2008 recession--and becoming acquainted with the needs of companies through different life cycles. He is uniquely positioned to deliver a holistic picture of our current environment and provide advice to financial leaders.
On this episode of The Modern CFO, Brian advises CFOs to plan ahead--not just for internal organization, but for future macroeconomic shifts. As he sees it, a modern CFO needs to ensure the financial plumbing of an organization is not just working, but safeguarded for what lies ahead.
5:09 - Understand the CFO role
In Brian’s view, the most important job of the CFO is being a great partner to the CEO. The second job is to be strategic, collaborative, and adaptable.
“Number one, you know, I think if you're a CFO in a company you've got to understand what your role is. And there's a lot of different things, but I think being the CEO's trusted business partner is probably by far one of the most important things that you can do as a CFO. And you need to really establish that on day one because that's the individual that's helping set strategy and direction. At the same time, I think you also, as an individual, you need to be aware of sort of what your strengths and your weaknesses are, which will dictate the type of CFO you're going to be...I also think that today's CFO needs to be more strategic in their thinking. It used to be that you were the numbers guy and you put together the financial statements. Now it's really how do you make the numbers come alive and really tell the story of the company in terms of their operations, the metrics and the KPIs. And also, it used to be you thought about the CFO just within the financial function. I think it's also extremely important now for the CFO to really get outside of their swim lane and really become more cross-functionally across the organization, supporting all the different functions that help a company operate.”
7:28 - Gain the trust of investors and stakeholders
A good CFO isn’t just savvy internally. They have the confidence and ability to communicate with external partners, such as investors and board members.
“The other part of a CFO is again it's multi-faceted. And you obviously need to not only have the trust and insight of the people in the company, but also the key investors and stakeholders outside the company. Because the CFO and the CEO tend to be the folks that are interfacing the most with investors and board members. And therefore that requires a unique set of skills as well in terms of understanding sort of what their needs and wants are, and presenting that in a way in which they can understand it. And then, of course, I think you need to also be somebody who can fix things that get broken quickly, right? That happens in organizations, whether it be through acquisitions or divestitures. But you need to make sure that you're able to act quickly to address issues that need attention on a real-time basis.”
10:57 - The “going public” craze: then and now
Brian contrasted today’s SPAC boom with the bubble of the dot-com era. In the early 2000s, many unprepared companies went public. Today, companies are generally well-established.
“I think there was the euphoria, if you will, around the dot-com boom that created a unique opportunity for companies to go public, but unfortunately they shouldn't have been public. And then I'll compare and contrast that today, where I think we'll talk more about this later, but the SPAC boom is very different than sort of the dot-com boom, in that the companies that are even going public through SPACs today are fairly mature, well-established, later stage either venture-backed or private equity companies that have a business model, have a management team, typically are generating revenues...Some may not be generating profits, but it's a very different feel and type of company going public today than it was back in 2000.”
12:31 - The two worlds of the pandemic
The pandemic starkly impacted some industries and helped others. Going forward, Brian believes those temporary inequalities will begin to normalize on both sides.
“Today feels very, very different in that even though we've had the pandemic, it's really been certain industries impacted. You know, travel, leisure, hospitality, restaurants. And if you look at the other industries, they have really benefited greatly by the pandemic and people being at home. So it's a story of two worlds. And now that we're coming out of the pandemic and people are now able to go back to stores and restaurants without masks, I think that, again, those industries will come back, obviously laggers we've seen them now perform pretty well in the markets. And so I think we're on a trajectory of all the industries returning to normal. And some correcting, rightfully so, because they benefited abnormally just from the pandemic...The key is that on either side, you, as a CFO, were reacting one way or another, and you were called into action very quickly.”
16:51 - The rise of the IPO market
Available capital is fueling growth opportunities for both public and private companies. Brian believes that the SPAC model will only increase in popularity.
“We've also seen the IPO markets open up rather dramatically last year into this year, and all through three different ways, direct listings, a regular IPO, or a SPAC transaction. And so, in SPACs, just recently, there's been a lot of them that have occurred in the last year; recently have slowed down because of a matter that the SEC raised about certain accounting for warrants that had issued in connection with these initial IPOs, that of course caused some people to slow down and they've had to refile their 10Ks. So although it's slowed down temporarily, I think it is probably here to stay. And in fact, we're also seeing overseas the European community now begin to adopt the SPAC as a bible for a way in which to go public in the European Union. So long story short, whether it be public or private, there's a real significant availability of capital that's driving either 1) helping companies that are earlier stage grow while they're private or 2) help those later stage private companies come public.”
23:28 - Be prepared for the unexpected
When you have talented teams and proven processes in place, you are better equipped to handle any curveballs that are sent your way.
“The CFO needs to be prepared always for the unexpected, right, as I like to call it. And what that means is you better make sure your house is in order if you're going to have something unexpected occur. And so that's why, initially when I talked about some of the things I did at the beginning around, you know, being the trusted partner, being strategic, having elite teams, having the right processes, people and systems in place. If you don't have all those things operating effectively, it doesn't allow you to prepare for what I would call the unexpected. So I think for CFOs out there, you never know when you're going to be called in to raise new capital. You never know when you're going to be called in to potentially think about doing a public offering. You never know when you're going to be called in to do a major acquisition. But each one of those three...has different complexities that your organization may or may not have been prepared for previously.”
24:46 - Preparing for acquisitions
Is an acquisition in your future? You should start preparing now. It’s not just a financial process, it’s a deeply operational undertaking.
“John Chambers was a master from Cisco. And any time he did an acquisition, he integrated all of the operations of that acquired company - almost all - on day one. I'm not suggesting that's the right model for every company, but I think people and companies need to think about what's their model for integration because you have to get done with the financial valuation and the structuring. You need to operate that company in a way that adds value to the existing shareholders. And obviously, it takes care of whatever capital you're raised to do the acquisition. So I would say on the acquisition side for the CFOs out there is if you're anticipating an acquisition, anticipate, what is the integration plan? It's not just financial, it's operational.”
25:48 - Preparing for IPOs
Preparation is also key for going public. Whether that’s through a SPAC or traditional listing, you need to have your financial ducks in order well before you seal the deal.
“You've got to be prepared to be a public company before either 1) do your SPAC transaction or 2) do your direct listing or do your traditional IPO. Because you've got different financial reporting requirements around quarterly and annually. You've got different governance requirements around board composition and audit committee meetings. You've got, depending upon the size of your company, internal controls, Sarbanes-Oxley testing that needs to be done at a minimum by management but also potentially by your auditor, at some point in the future. And then you've got to close your books really on a timely basis each quarter and each year end. And you have to have the ability to forecast so that you don't miss your guidance that you've given, or you weren't able to update your guide just to the extent you do it quarterly or annually.”
32:12 - The limitations of a hybrid work model
Five-day workweeks in the office may be a thing of the past, but Brian believes that areas that relied on face-to-face interactions in the past will continue to do so as part of a competitive strategy.
“I don't think my expectation is that we will not go back to five days for most people, five days in the office as being the norm. And it will be a hybrid model of work at home and then work in the office. What will change I think is that for those folks that need to have what I’d call client-facing responsibilities. They will get back on buses, trains, and planes because the last thing you're going to want to find is that your competition has gone out and had those face-to-face meetings. And you were complacent at home, still tied to the Zoom. So I think for certain functions within the company, you're going to see more of a return to normal, as opposed to others which are going to become the hybrid model. But, you know, one thing I think the pandemic proved to all of us is that you don't know what you don't know, but that we are all resilient.”
23:08 - Look for the smoke signals
The Fed may not be worried about inflation - but should you be? Brian says it’s important to read subtle signs and plan to act in advance.
“One thing I think people are taking for granted is inflation, or the lack of inflation. And it's only when it happens that it becomes unexpected. I think people probably should be thinking more about looking inward at their own business, and they're probably seeing things like supply chain disruptions. They're probably seeing labor disruptions. They're probably saying, you know, commodity price increases, so typically, where there's smoke, there's fire. I'm not arguing that they're not aware of it, but I think we become complacent when we hear folks like the Fed speak to policy is driving and keeping interest rates low, as opposed to what's really happening out there...If there's going to be an increase in inflation and interest rates, be prepared to start thinking about what you're going to do now, so that when it does happen, you're prepared to act. And if it doesn't, then you take advantage of the market cycle.”