After being on the road every workday for almost six years as part of GE’s global audit team, Nathan Winters was asked to join the company’s financial planning and analysis (FP&A) team as its commercial group leader for North America.
Little of his work for GE up to that point, either as an auditor or in the company’s financial management program, prepared him for an FP&A role. But it didn’t matter; FP&A leaders had worked with him before and felt he could shift gears to take on the new challenge.
“What I always valued about the company was, as long as you performed, executed and delivered, opportunities were available to advance,” Winters, now CFO of Zebra Technologies, said last week in a CFO Thought Leader podcast. “You get a broad connection across the organization. As you progress in your career, these connections come back and say, "hey, are you interested in doing this?”
As it happened, the opportunity came during the financial crisis, posing its own set of challenges.
“It was a pretty volatile market,” he said. “But it gets back to skills you learn early — being able to adapt, learn quickly, get up to speed, knowing the right questions to ask, and know how much you can absorb early in any new assignment.”
GE as incubator
Until he joined Zebra Technologies, as its head of FP&A and business operations in 2018, Winters spent his career at GE, starting in its financial management program, which enabled him to rotate into a variety of roles over his first six years.
“It was a series of small steps,” he said, first, with GE Appliances and then with corporate audit. “It really helped mold my leadership style. I was able to look at the qualities I liked and recognize the attributes I didn’t.”
He ended up leading finance for GE Healthcare’s global supply chain, which gave him, for the first time, oversight of a large team, distributed over some 50 countries. “That really gave me the responsibility for delivering productivity, improving working capital, and transforming the supply chain to really create that value for the company,” he said.
At Zebra, which provides mobile computers, scanners, barcode printers and other devices to help frontline workers like nurses and inventory clerks make real-time, data-based decisions, Winters has been a champion of integrating FP&A and business operations.
“We have a small corporate FP&A team and FP&A leaders embedded across business units and regions,” he said. “I’m a big believer in providing consistent and reliable input and data back to the operating team. Part of that is just making sure you have the right infrastructure.”
FP&A plays a role in the company’s M&A deals as well, as part of the team analyzing and then integrating deals.
“FP&A and business leaders will get engaged around diligence, understanding the company, looking at their policies, processes and identifying risk, and then working with the deal team to make sure these are embedded in whatever final decision is made for the company,” he said. “Immediately, on day one, it’s how do we get into integration, embedding them into our financial processes.”
Since he took over as acting CFO late last year, and then as permanent CFO at the beginning of this year, the company has completed two acquisitions.
For those deals, he assigned FP&A specialists who understand valuation and can ask the questions that need to be asked as part of the diligence work they do with the business specialists.
“If it’s in one of our business units, making sure we have someone who has the background around that technology to be part of it, so it’s a combination of a specialist within that business unit as well as from an M&A perspective.”
To help him chart the company’s growth, he and the FP&A team track daily sales, the sales funnel, cash performance margins, share position by vertical, and the quarterly outlook.
“How are things pacing?” He said. “What are the risk and opportunities? What actions and insights do we need to deliver back to the operating teams?”
Even with something as in the weeds as cash performance margins, the FP&A team, working with data analysts in the business units, is expected to be on top of that — and on an increasingly accelerated basis.
“It’s leveraging some of the insights the data analysts can provide,” he said. “You may have looked at these results on a monthly basis, and that’s just not good enough in today’s environment. So, how do you get that information weekly or daily? The big difference [from the past] is, we’re not waiting until the end of a quarter or the month. What do we see on a weekly basis so that if things are trending in the wrong direction, how can you react quickly to reshape the direction of the company or these different business lines without waiting for the final results?”