Although the CFO role is evolving to become more strategic, each person who holds the title must put in the work to get there, BSI Americas CFO Sarah Murphy said last week in a CFO Thought Leader podcast. "There are no divine rights to a seat at the table," she said. "If finance is to be at the table, then it needs to contribute to the overall strategy."
Murphy, a 19-year veteran of BSI, a business standards and training company with 85,000 global clients, took over the CFO role in BSI's Americas operations in 2009, just as the economy was recovering from the global downturn. The company's Americas operations were flat, requiring her to look beyond spreadsheets to understand the dynamics holding business down, she said.
"I worked quite closely with the new president of the Americas, who came in just as I came over," Murphy said. "This was where my role really began to move from that hybrid role, which very often happens with CFOs, where, yes, you have the finance function, but finance doesn't sit in splendid isolation. It's part of the business, so it's working with all the other aspects of the business."
To help her wear both a financing reporting and a strategy hat, Murphy brought in executives to help fill the gaps in existing finance and accounting operations.
"It was really a cultural shift in the function," she said. "One of my mentors at the time asked, 'Why are we doing this?' Well, the answer for a while was, 'This is the way we've always done it.' It became my cry for change. To this day, I think finance has got to really challenge the status quo. That does change the mindset."
In her new role, she helped BSI expand from its training and certifications business to consulting, and also took the lead on integrating companies acquired by the Americas operation.
Murphy gained valuable experience in one of the overseas integrations because it required her to turn around a loss-making company.
"I essentially did a forensic review of it," she said. "There was really very little quality information around the segregation of services or the isolation of an assignment of revenue, the cost to the different aspects, and service lines. So, it was really a question of getting under the hood of it and understanding that business: what are driving [lines of business] and what are the interdependencies? If I get rid of one service line, does that mean I impact something else? Where there were service lines established that were actually loss-making, or very low-margin, could we change those and improve? And, if not, what would be the implications of getting rid of those services?"
In the end, BSI elected to keep most of the company's business lines in place and focus on tightening operations instead.
"There were very few business lines or services that we stopped," she said. "What we did do, though, was introduce a lot more discipline around pricing and scheduling and how we serviced some of these clients. In about 18 months, we turned that business profitable. It just demonstrated the value of that financial discipline."
Murphy said her go-to metrics are standard profit and loss and sales metrics, but she's looking increasingly at qualitative measurements, too.
"Client satisfaction is huge, and gets a very high-profile exposure for us," she said. "Obviously [as a consulting company], we have very close relationships with our clients. It's not a one and done, very much a trusted partnership, long-term relationships, so client satisfaction and client issues are key for us. We monitor and manage those very closely."
Murphy, who worked in a handful of companies before BSI, credited her large body of finance experience and international postings — she's worked in Hong Kong, France, Belgium, Ireland, England, and the United States — with keeping the profession exciting.
"As a trainee accountant, pre-launch, [I] got involved in lots of different things, whether it was in the advertising department, circulation, distribution," she said. "It sparked some of my interest beyond finance and how finance fits into the overall business. Curiosity beyond finance. How do businesses work? Numbers on a spreadsheet just don't really do it. You really have to get under the hood and see how they all knit together."