The CFO, or Chief Financial Officer, is usually the person who was ridiculed in grade school for having a strong comprehension of math and an intensely analytical personality. Fast forward a few decades and they find themselves responsible for managing a company’s finances, often shaping the evolution and strategic vision of an organization with their keen intellect and insights. Or, as Snoop Dogg eloquently puts it, they’ve got their mind on the money and the money on their mind. Did I mention that they’re often very well paid? As they say, the best revenge is living well. What follows is a profile of three individuals who put their considerable skills to the task of managing the finances of some dynamic organizations and gained reputations as shrewd strategists along the way.
Ruth Porat-CFO of Alphabet, including subsidiary Google
As far as tests of mettle go, the financial crisis of 2008 was a pretty good one. After helping Morgan Stanley survive the tumult, Ruth Porat made the transition to Silicon Valley in 2015, where she now serves as CFO of Alphabet Inc. including its subsidiary, a little outfit called Google. One of the keys to Ruth’s success has been her work ethic, which is the stuff of legend. According to popular folklore she was making client calls from the delivery room as she gave birth to her first son in 1992. These days she’s making her mark by reducing spending on so called ‘moonshot’ divisions, while still investing in innovations such as robotic human-free vehicles. The sheer load of high profile issues facing the tech giant gives Porat and the rest of the Alphabet C-suite plenty to deal with (privacy concerns, information filtering and other political hot-button topics). Despite this, the bottom line isn’t Porat’s only concern. She has been outspoken about gender issues in the workplace. She even joined her colleagues during the ‘Google Walkout for Real Change’, famously asking ‘If you can get cars to self drive, why can’t we solve this?’1
Pamela Steer, CFO of WSIB, Canada’s CFO of the Year for 2019
People get up to a lot of things when they’re 18. Odd jobs. Road trips. Night clubs. Pamela Steer was working as the CFO’s assistant for Ottawa based software company Corel as they went public. Her colleagues saw her raw talent and convinced her to go back to school in order to prepare herself for what they believed would be a strong career in finance. They weren’t wrong.
Today, Steer is CFO of the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, where, since joining in 2012, she has helped turn the organization’s $14 billion deficit into a surplus. To do so, she has relied on wisdom gained from the private sector.
“We injected a lot of private sector thinking – outcome-based thinking – into the WSIB,” Ms. Steer says. “I believe the organization is better for it. It runs better, it operates smoother, and the team is happier, as well.”2
Recently her work was recognized when she was named Canada’s CFO of the Year for 2019. The award was presented to her on April 25 at a gala at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto, marking just the second time a public sector CFO has been given this honor.
According to her Wikipedia page, Ms. Steer is highly skilled in ‘creating order out of chaos’, which sounds to us like a very good talent for a CFO to possess.
David Wells, former CFO of Netflix
Now that David Wells, CFO of Netflix from 2010-2019, has stepped down from his position, his intention is to focus more on philanthropy and playing an advisory role on the boards of young companies. It may well be that this position is more ‘chill’ than Netflix, which went from mail order DVD rental service to run away leader in the world of subscription streaming before being forced to fend off strong challengers in an increasingly competitive field. These days Netflix is a major movie and TV production studio, spending a reported $12B on original content in 2018. Navigating a company through those types of changes is where CFOs earn their stripes and Wells did just that. The market has responded, but it wasn’t always such a rosy picture; changes to the company’s fee and service structure led to their market evaluation decreasing by 75% in 2011. However, Wells and his team steadied the ship. They didn’t just “recover”; they built their value to over 500% of that 2011 low in just two short years.