To be a strategic CFO, you have to get out of your office, attend a sales call, attend a partner meeting, get a firsthand look at the operational side of all the functions in the business and then combine that with the one asset you have that no one else does: access to all the data. Then, when you look at the data, you can derive insights that otherwise you wouldn't have recognized.
That's the advice of Ravi Chopra, CFO of cybersecurity company SonicWall, a veteran finance professional whose career in technology companies started just as the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s, teaching him the value of seeing company operations clearly.
"You have to be talking to customers, to your distributors, to your suppliers," Chopra said last week in a CFO Thought Leader podcast. "You have to be part of sales meetings, part of product finance, product strategy. It doesn't mean you have to be a jack-of-all trades, but you have to have an appreciation for every area, what is happening in the company and how the company is evolving."
Chopra called data the biggest tool a company has for understanding its businesses, and control of that data falls to the CFO. "You have to be externally focused," he said. "How you become more strategic is how you absorb all of the other inputs you get, and then you use data to analyze and derive insights out of it."
Chopra started his career as an analyst at Lazard Freres (now Lazard) in India before earning his MBA in the U.S. His first job after grad school was at Cisco, where he got a taste of the operational side of the finance function when the company restructured to survive the dot-com bubble burst.
"Cisco was growing, like, 50% a year," he said. "Everything was up and to the right, and then the big 2001 implosion happened. I was lucky to survive in my job."
Key to the company's restructuring was looking at which businesses made sense for the near term, which ones didn't, and making the needed changes.
Chopra took that lesson into his finance positions at Juniper Networks, where he worked for almost a decade, and then, two-and-a-half years ago, to SonicWall, a carve-out from Dell, where he had to build the finance function from scratch.
"At the time of divestiture, we were running on an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that belonged to Dell, so we had to transfer into our ERP system," he said. "I had probably three finance people of my own, so not only did I have to hire the next 35 people, over the next six months, I also needed to transfer all the ERP over, and also get us through our first full audit, finance the company, go to capital raising, so everything in the span of one year."
Chopra said he kept the ERP as simple as possible because his goal was to stand up the system quickly.
"The thing I did differently, because I'd learned this from looking back on my experience in previous firms, was, I don't want to over-customize anything," he said. "Most people, if they want to set up an ERP system, will over-customize it. That not only takes a very long time, but also, in that extreme customization, you're always dependent [on the vendor]."
Speed was imperative, Chopra said, because the executive team needed insights to know where to invest to grow the business, because when it was with Dell, its growth had stalled.
"Getting to the part quickly where we knew where we wanted to invest, where we didn't want to invest, was very critical for us rather than spending three or four years just trying to set up this company," he said.
In hiring, Chopra looks for the right attitude once he's confident people have the technical skills he needs.
"I would probably take the person who was an A- versus the A+ player if I think the A- player will perform better as part of a team," he said. "I can have a superstar, but if they can't work with others, they're just not going to be successful."
Swim lanes and metrics
SonicWall started out selling hardware and software security solutions equally, but it's pivoted since leaving Dell to a predominantly subscription-based software model. "In a matter of two years, recurring revenue has become 70%," Chopra said.
Like other software-as-service (SaaS) companies, Chopra looks at annual recurring revenue, customer retention, renewal rates and new business. "Are we getting new logos?" he said. "Are these bigger logos than before? Let's look at deals by deal size. Are the smaller deals brought in by the channel? Are the larger deals brought in more by your own direct-touch, enterprise kind of sales forces?"
When the company was split between hardware and software, performance wasn't broken out in this way. "It was just one lump sum," Chopra said. "Everyone looked at the total number and said, 'OK, here's the number. We need to grow this, or this is what's happening to it.' But no one looked at it by swimlanes."
By breaking performance out by swimlanes, or business aspects, Chopra can identify the value-adding solutions.
"That's what my team brought to the table," he said. "So today, when we do our sales forecast, obviously it's done by region, but now it's predominantly done by swimlanes."
As a result, Chopra knows applications like anti-spyware, content filtering and sandboxing are creating value that will carry the company forward, he said.
"What really drives long-term growth is innovation," he said. "If you are an operationally focused finance professional and can see many parts of the business, many times the data is right in front of you. You just have to take a step back and say, 'Am I innovating? Are we investing in the right places, where there's longer-term value creation?' You can make yourself slightly more efficient for the shorter term [by focusing mainly on cost cutting], but if you want to grow a company, you have to invest in innovation."
And to do that, you need to get outside your office to put the data you analyze into context.