Russell Lester, CFO of payments software provider Versapay, says there are two secret weapons that have become critical for tackling the growing demands of his job: leveraging valuable data and cultivating a team of curious thinkers.
Both align closely with what he sees as the evolving role of the finance chief as a “strategic adviser” in the post-COVID-19 pandemic era.
“There’s no time like now to be a CFO,” Lester said during a podcast posted earlier this month by software-as-a-service management company Zylo. “It is not for the faint of heart.”
CFOs are currently faced with a “perfect storm” of challenges: macroeconomic pressures, remote workforces, and a massive acceleration of data use among businesses, just to name a few areas, according to Lester, whose career in corporate finance has spanned over 20 years.
Lester joined Versapay in 2022, according to his LinkedIn profile. Prior to that, he served as CFO of scheduling automation platform provider Calendly and e-mail marketing and sales automation company Keap. He also previously did a stint at Intuit as senior director of analytics.
The veteran finance leader isn’t alone in seeing the dawn of an unprecedented era for his profession.
In a June survey, nearly half (48%) of CFOs at small-and-medium-sized businesses said they were living through the most difficult time in their career due to a combination of factors, including supply chain issues, geopolitical risks and rising interest rates.
CFOs are also increasingly dealing with the stress of mission creep, with their responsibilities reaching well beyond the realm of accounting ledgers and excel sheets to areas such human resources, cybersecurity, and customer service management, as previously reported by CFO Dive.
However, Lester said he also sees opportunities for CFOs in the current environment.
“More and more CEOs are saying they’re looking for strategic advisers — they want the CFO to be the thought partner,” he said during the podcast. “It’s because we see it all. We’re privy to all of the good, and the bad, and the ugly that goes on behind the scenes, which the numbers bear out. And so, we’re here to tackle that challenge with data at the epicenter of all of that.”
But compiling a bunch of data and reports isn’t good enough, according to the finance chief. “It’s about presenting that data in context for people... And so you need the type of talent that can ... assimilate information quickly and connect pieces together.”
SaaS management is one area where Lester sees an opening for the finance team to swoop in as the “hero” of the organization, in partnership with the IT department.
In 2022, for the first time ever, more money was spent on SaaS than on-premise software, and by 2026, SaaS spending is expected to comprise two-thirds of all enterprise application revenue, according to Zylo’s 2023 SaaS Management Index Report, released in January.
However, along with the rapid growth of SaaS spending, “underutilized applications, redundant functionality, chaotic renewals, and ungoverned purchasing have become the norm,” Ben Pippenger, Zylo’s chief strategy officer and co-founder, said in the report’s introduction.
While this has traditionally been the turf of the IT department, it also falls squarely under the jurisdiction of the finance function, according to Lester.
“It’s natural for finance to be interested in understanding where there’s wastage in the system,” he said.