Ewout Steenbergen is executive vice president and CFO of New York City-based S&P Global, a provider of credit ratings, indices, data, and research and analytics. Views are the author's own.
While the word “unprecedented” has started to sound like a broken record, it is still true that in the last few years, our global economy has navigated historic and unprecedented times. COVID-19, inflation, and war in Europe have continued to shake markets and we have been forced to adopt a new sense of normal as our homes, workplaces, and communities have changed. From a business perspective, CFOs have been asked to dramatically shift strategies, actively develop and implement scenario planning, and balance renewed calls for efficiency with the need to invest in long-term growth.
For me personally, in addition to navigating macroeconomic uncertainty, my company was also completing a historic merger with IHS Markit. We started the year with an expanded footprint, new colleagues, and new divisions. While it was exciting to see everything come together, 2022 quickly became the year when the rubber hit the road and we executed the vision we had laid out prior. That coupled with everything else, made it an even more historic year.
Looking ahead at the broader landscape, 2023 is poised to be a transitional year, with continued economic uncertainty giving way to the potential for accelerated growth in the second half. For CFOs, this means we will need to continue to run a tight ship, while also continuing to invest in our businesses to take advantage of future growth when the markets will start to turn.
I recently had the opportunity to hear how others are thinking about the road ahead at our Investor Day earlier this month in New York City, a gathering of more than 100 of the world’s largest investors. While participants shared universal concerns related to the macroeconomic environment, there was also a palpable sense of urgency to seize opportunity. From my conversations and observations, three main themes will encompass the next year:
The importance of “future proofing”
CFOs are often seen as cost-cutters and that is especially true in times of tightening budgets. I prefer to think of our role as making the right investments at the right time — ensuring that our actions position the enterprise for long-term growth through innovation. We are allocating capital to the areas where it will perform best, preferably by systematic re-investments in organic growth. While it can be difficult, it is critical that we look beyond the next quarterly earnings call and consider outcomes 2, 5, and 10 years into the future. Our actions must be connected back to a broader growth strategy, and we should be articulating this point at every step.
The bigger picture of purpose
Beyond numbers on a spreadsheet, investors want to understand the broader effect of their investments. Across all my conversations, there was an increased desire by investors to know if their investments were aligned with their values. As a provider of data and analytics, this was not a surprise. At S&P Global we have been at the center of the rising need for information about how a company operates, how their products and services are used in the marketplace, how employees feel about their workplace, and the drivers behind specific actions. It is no longer about the who, what, when, and where but the how and the why. As financial leaders, we need to think critically about the reasoning behind each action we take from a organizational health and sustainability perspective. The story has to be about more than just savings to the bottom line — it should be rooted in building resiliency and purpose.
Embracing digitization in finance
Technology integration has always been the driver of tremendous change throughout an enterprise. For CFOs willing to embrace it, the cloud and digitization have been at the core of improving customer buying experiences, creating a paperless environment with streamlined internal processes, and helping efforts to improve corporate responsibility. The next technological wave of artificial intelligence and machine learning is upon us. I’ve personally advocated for the accelerated use of these advancements and see the results first-hand. Done right, AI and machine learning can allow CFOs to remain agile, easily iterate, improve accuracy in products, and quickly respond to market cycles and customer demands through dynamic scenario planning.
Moving Forward in 2023
The things we may view as challenges today can actually be opportunities for the future. In times of tightening, we are pushed to reevaluate and reassess, empowering us to develop new approaches that rise to the occasion. Whether that’s challenging ourselves and our teams to deploy technology innovation or telling a broader story rooted in purpose, we are creating new best practices — helping our enterprises create greater resiliency for the times ahead.
As I think about the new year with these thoughts in mind, I am optimistic. There are considerable opportunities to innovate, expand, and build upon the lessons learned from 2022. The macroeconomic environment is uncertain, but as CFOs we can future-proof, refresh our current ways of operating, and lay the foundation for growth beyond 2023.