For finance leaders, navigating today’s uncertain economic market effectively means that failing to have a close, trusted relationship with their CEO is no longer an option, said Debra McCann, CFO of global technology solutions company Unisys.
Having a healthy relationship with the CEO is critically important for financial leaders as the role continues to morph from a pure accounting play to a more strategic position, McCann told CFO Dive during an interview before a three-day Investor Day the company hosted last week in New York.
“There's really no choice but to have that good relationship with the CEO, understand the strategy, because you can't just be the CFO sitting there waiting for people to come and ask you for money because you have to know, ‘Okay, well, what are we spending it on?’” McCann said.
Becoming a trusted strategic partner
A 12-year alum of Dun & Bradstreet, McCann joined the Blue Bell, Pennsylvania-based company in her first CFO role about a year ago in May 2022. She served in a variety of roles at Dun & Bradstreet during her tenure at the firm, including as treasurer and SVP of investor relations and corporate FP&A, and has also held key financial roles for IQVIA and AT&T, according to her LinkedIn profile.
As she took on the role, understanding the priorities of the company’s finance team and establishing that trusted relationship with the CEO and other members of the company’s leadership was an essential first step, she said.
A primary role of the CFO is first the controls, but once the accounting is in order, the next priority is “really being a strategic partner with the CEO and leadership team to understand, where should we be spending our money?” McCann said.
It’s important for CFOs to approach their relationships with CEOs with that strategic role in mind, McCann said — a key part of that relationship is being able to “push on each other,” she said; having “that trust in each other where he can push on me, I can push on him and say, ‘Well, I disagree. I think we should look at that,’” she said.
Having a transparent idea of where the money is flowing — both when it comes to investments and creating greater operational efficiency inside the firm — is key as Unisys looks to capitalize on its recent rebranding to grow sales. McCann joined the company a few months before Unisys conducted what CEO and Chairman Peter Altabef called its “most significant brand transformation” since its founding in 1986 in November 2022.
The rebranding effort included a marketing campaign aimed at boosting the company’s market awareness in an effort to drive up “key sales metrics such as leads, pipeline, wins and ultimately revenue and margin,” Altabef said during the company’s Q3 2022 earnings results in November.
With the rebrand, Unisys is focused on growing top line revenue, McCann said, and trusted relationships — with advisors and analysts as well as investors — also play a key part here.
Many people will rely on such third parties’ advice when seeking out digital workplace solutions, “so it's important to be in the upper right quadrant, so that those advisors and analysts do help us get more sales, because at the end of the day we really are focused on growth,” McCann said.
A provider of digital workplace solutions that focus on the end user experience of employees, Unisys has not seen pullbacks in technology and IT spending in response to inflation and other economic challenges so much as a delay in certain deals, she said.
“So as customers are looking to maybe switch providers, in some cases, they say, ‘Oh, well, let's wait. Let's not do this yet. Let's see where everything's going to play out,” McCann said.
Trust and technology
Unisys rebranding effort comes as the company looks to take swift advantage of the $1 trillion IT solutions market — a market which is expected to grow 11% over the next three years, CEO and Chairman Peter Altabef said during a June 15 presentation at the company’s Investor Day, where Unisys outlined its future strategy and showcased its Next-Gen IT solutions.
The company’s Next-Gen solutions pipeline grew by 16% year-over-year for its most recent quarter ended March 31, according to the company’s earnings report in early May. While the company reported revenue of $516.4 million, a 15.6% jump year-over-year, Unisys is also expecting to see lower renewal levels on a year-by-year basis for its next three quarters relating to its license and support sector, though revenue in that category did help to boost growth for its first quarter, McCann said during the call.
Like other firms, Unisys is also looking for ways to improve its operational efficiency, McCann told CFO Dive, but the current economic environment “sharpens that focus even more to say, where do we really need to spend?” she said.
“Where can we save to really ensure we maintain that balance sheet and ensure we have enough cash for a rainy day, given the macroeconomic environment?” she said.
The importance of balancing growth and savings in a murky economic environment will be critical for Unisys as it seeks to cement itself as a key leader in the IT solutions sector. For full year 2022, Unisys reported a net loss of $106 million, driven in part by charges related to cost reduction activities, according to its earnings results. This compares to a net loss of $448.5 million in 2021, a figure which included $447.9 million of after-tax settlement losses related to the company’s defined benefit pension plans, the company said.
As part of its push to growth, Unisys look to tap emerging tools such as generative AI — a factor that, despite its newness, is part of what will drive the coming 11% boost in the IT solutions market, Altabef said last week.
Unisys has already been utilizing AI for some time, McCann said, which relieves some of the pressure other firms might be experiencing when it comes to tapping the technology.
Having that healthy working relationship with the rest of the leadership team remains a key piece here — continuing to have conversations with other members of the team who understand the business and what the customer seeks is essential to ensuring the company is putting the technology to best use.
“As a CFO, it’s looking at that technology and saying how can we best serve our customers and improve efficiency, which ultimately helps the customers with their costs as well,” McCann said.