When Mattel brought in more than 100 analysts to assess which products consumers did and didn't like, they were integrated into the finance function — a choice the company made because it wanted an unbiased assessment.
“We were the one source of neutral truth,” CFO Joe Euteneuer said last week in a CFO Thought Leader podcast. “We didn’t want to taint it one way or the other. We weren’t marketing and we weren’t product. We were just finance.”
Embracing that kind of operational role as a finance person has been key to his career, Euteneuer said.
His first job when he left public accounting in the mid-1980s was with LaCanasta, a small Mexican food manufacturer with big ambitions. The company thought it could use gourmet flavorings to compete with giants like Frito Lay, and it achieved a lot of success, he said. But to get there, he had to move beyond finance and assume a hands-on operational role.
“I learned that the highest-yielding kernel of corn in the manufacturing process of tortilla chips came from West Texas, so I flew to West Texas,” he said.
Euteneuer bought corn crops from the farmers in the area, giving him the best yield and highest return on invested dollar he could get.
“It’s those types of things you experience, and dig into, that allow you to become a good CFO,” said Euteneuer, who has led finance at Sprint, Comcast, Qwest and SiriusXM as well as Mattel.
For finance professionals with ambitions to assume the top seat, the operational mindset is central to C-suite relationships as well, he said.
Although the CFO’s first relationship priority is with the CEO — a relationship that will make or break the company’s success, he said — the CFO must partner with the operational leaders reporting to the CEO. Unless they feel they’re supported by the person who manages the budget, they can’t take steps to drive the initiatives the company depends on to grow.
“If you’re really trying to drive success, you need to understand the key drivers — whether it’s marketing or manufacturing — and know what those people should be focused on to make sure they’re successful,” he said.
In that sense, the CFO acts as the chief operating officer, he said, and that’s the way the CEO expects it. Because other executives are relying on the CFO to give them the support they need.
“It’s critical that everyone who reports to the CEO views the CFO as their partner in making them successful in what they do,” he said. “If you can have that partnership with the people who are your peers, you not only make them more successful, you make the company more successful.”
Euteneuer credits a willingness to play an operational role across disciplines and across industries as key to acquiring the CFO mindset.
“In finance, your skills are only enhanced by switching industries and learning another set of things that drive a business,” he said.
That broad exposure also helps CFOs seize on opportunities they might otherwise miss, he said.
When he was heading up finance at telecom giant Sprint, the leadership team settled on a $2 billion refinancing plan but he jumped at the opportunity to triple that.
“All of a sudden the market was totally open and we got offered $6.5 billion, which at the time was the largest high-yield raise ever done in the world,” he said. “We did it with JPMorgan. So, I had to do an emergency phone call with the finance committee. ‘Guys, the money is there. Should we take it?’ We closed the deal.”
The board agreed because there was trust with him personally and between him and the CEO, he said. If the trust isn’t there, those kinds of deals can’t happen.
At Qwest, another telecom giant, he was brought in as part of a team to turn the company around after it got ensnared in scandal.
The team the company had brought in initially was caught cooking the books. A second team was brought in to sell the company, but until operational changes were made, the company couldn’t find a buyer. So, he was brought in as part of a third team to make the company attractive on the market.
“It needed real cleaning up because it had now been out there for a couple of years,” he said.
The company arranged a merger with CenturyLink, where he stayed on as CFO of the combined company.
The chemistry he had with the CEO was key to getting the company cleaned up and set on a new trajectory that, despite all that happened, enabled investors to come out on top.
“The shareholders were well-kept,” he said.