Trailer Episode

Hypertherm’s CFO Rob Masson on navigating crisis with teamwork

How do you create a crisis-ready company that can adapt to challenging situations and come out the other side stronger?

Rob Masson is the CFO at Hypertherm, a 50-year-old company that is a leader in industrial cutting systems. He’s also a former Naval aviator who learned critical leadership skills firsthand. Rob joined us on the Modern CFO Podcast to share his unique perspective on the importance of empowering employees through a culture of company ownership.

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Key Takeaways

Weathering COVID-19

The pandemic took an early toll on Hypertherm, but the company stayed true to its employee-centric values. 

“We suffered, you know, over a 30% loss in sales almost overnight in April, and that caused a whole chain of events...We're an employee-owned company. We all share in the success of the company. And so we're all committed to each other. We have a no-layoff philosophy. So a lot of the normal things you do in public company settings and others, we don't do. And we have a very strong passion for that. So we will cut costs. We're very aggressive with that. But in terms of commitment to people, we don't do that. We come together as a team and solve the problem.” 

Overcoming obstacles as a team 

Teamwork enabled Hypertherm to bounce back from COVID-19 amid global challenges.

“It was quite a dramatic response from us internally to reset for the new norm. And then there were a lot of things on the capital structure side that we thought about with the treasury group and working with our banks, just to make sure we were secure from a cash flow and keeping that going...we serve some essential end markets. So we worked very diligently to keep our supply chain open, to make sure we had raw materials, stock, etc., since we source from all over the world. So it was really a team effort.” 

Crisis builds new muscles 

Once you go through a crisis situation, you are better equipped to face the future. 

“This year, actually, we really surprised the organization because our business came back quite strong and we really stepped forward and shared a lot of that profit back with our associates...When you go through crisis, you live through it, you gain new muscles. So I feel very confident. Hopefully we never have to face it again as a company, but we're now prepared more than we were prior. And I think we'd do even better the next time, just because of the response and teamwork of the company.”

Naval experience in action 

Rob’s Naval background played a critical role in his ability to keep cool under pressure. 

“There's just a different experience you get as a Naval aviator than you get in other walks of life, and that's trained into you to compartmentalize and solve the problem. ‘There's no end until it's over’ kind of thing. And excellence is that way too. You demand a lot of yourself. And anytime I flew, we briefed as a team. We flew in the mission then we came back and we assessed what we did and how we could get better the next time...so it was a very critical look and that was all part of teamwork as well. And then the last thing is tenacity, which is what I started with. When you're in a crisis situation, you're not done until you've tried everything. And you don't let yourself think of anything but solving the problem and keeping with it. And I think that's the type of unique training I had as a Naval aviator that helps me in all sorts of situations.”

The value of parallel expertise

While traditional jobs require a one-track mindset, the Navy instilled in Rob the ability to adapt to new situations. 

“The Navy does that to you. They put you in and just when you're comfortable and you succeeded somewhere, they throw you in a totally different leadership situation and you learn to lead in situations where you're not the expert. Some cases you're the expert, some cases you're not the expert...I think that gives me a little bit different perspective. The normal business career is get out of college, get started as an individual contributor, prove yourself through your technical skill, and then start getting advanced into leadership situations. And I think with the Navy, it's a professional training organization and it's much more about parallel technical expertise.” 

Structural versus Operational CFOs

Rob sees himself as a leader first, and an operating CFO second.

“I was an economics major in college. So the art and the science of economics always appealed to me. And I think it's more of that side of operational finance, and what does finance tell you about the operations of the business. So I'm much more of an operating CFO if you will. And those are really, if you look at CFOs, you either have a structural technical side or you have the operating side. And I definitely fall into the operating mode with my military experience...I think of myself as a leader first, it's my first passion. And I really enjoy the art and science of finance. So I choose to apply my leadership skills through the function of finance in that lens. But I always do come at things first with the grounding of leadership.”

Commitment to the “triple bottom line” 

At Hypertherm, the company’s unwavering focus is on customers, associates, and the community. 

“We're really on the next S curve of growth at Hypertherm. And that's what's really exciting. We really see the opportunities in our end markets to add value with the types of investments we're making...We have a motto here. A part of our strategy of shaping possibility for our customers, our associates, and our community. And that's what we call the ‘triple bottom line.’ But what that really entails for me inside my function is okay, Hypertherm has been incredibly successful to where we are here. And all businesses go through transformations to get to the next level. We have to continue to evolve and advance. And so I'm focusing my team on re-looking at what we've done and where we've come from so that we can leverage the future.”

Flipping the triangle 

Rob’s goal is for 80% of company time to be spend on insight & action, and 20% on transactional duties. 

“In most organizations, people spend their time on the transactional side of things on that lower end of the triangle. And that takes up the 80/20 rule applies here. That basically takes up 80% of people's time. And the insight and action, where they're really making meaty decisions and driving the value of the company, is sort of at the point at the top. The 20% or less of their time. And so the transformation we're going through is I call it flipping the triangle. We want to flip that ratio on its head...I want 80% of the time spent on insight and action. How do we drive the business forward? How do we meet our customers? How do we benefit our associates? And how do we hit the community with positive impact?”

Breaking down barriers 

Rob believes that by empowering individual employees, the entire company benefits. 

“My job as CFO now is to make sure I'm getting input from everybody at the right time, at the right spot to empower them to make the decisions. The people in the right position to make the decision with the right information. I want to make sure they're able to do that. And that's really what that story's about. One it's about communication. Make sure that everyone is feeling included. It's a leader's responsibility to break down any barriers and make sure they're getting the best out of the people...if I can just get the best out of each individual person, we're going to be much better off as an additive thing than if I get the one superstar.”

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