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Ken Diggs of Greenleaf Hospitality Group Inc. speaks during Wednesday's CFO of the Year Awards Ken Diggs of Greenleaf Hospitality Group Inc. speaks during Wednesday's CFO of the Year Awards PHOTO: Katy Batdorff

Award-winning CFOs rely on comprehensive perspective, ‘brutal honesty’ for success

BY Friday, May 20, 2016 12:55pm

GRAND RAPIDS — Responsibly managing corporate finances increasingly requires the best financial executives to expand their scope by branching out into other roles.

That was one key message this year’s winners in the MiBiz CFO of the Year Awards shared during a best practices panel discussion this week.

“The role of the CFO is evolving into someone that can wear a lot of hats,” said Judy Brown of Perrigo Co. plc in Allegan. “If you talk to recruiters ... they’ll say that the top job requires a broad perspective on the environment, the competition and the landscape in order to deploy that capital. It seems like more people are challenged to get that internal promotion if they are seen as just a treasurer.”

For Brown this means communicating heavily with “owners, legislators, employees, and spending a lot of time with our customers.” She recently told MiBiz that she had more than 1,000 interactions with investors while fending off a hostile takeover from Mylan NV in 2015.

The awards, presented in cooperation with the Western Michigan chapter of Financial Executives International (FEI), also honored John Genualdi of S2 Yachts, Randy Brink of Kent Companies Inc. and Ken Diggs of Greenleaf Hospitality Group Inc.

Despite working in a disparate industries and organizations — both in terms of size and scope — the financial executives all agreed on the ever-shifting nature of their positions. For some, that means being given direct responsibilities over departments that wouldn’t typically be associated with CFOs. For instance, Shari Dick, a finalist at the event, was asked to take over the sales team when she came on as CFO for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, despite having no prior experience in sales. Diggs told the crowd that he had a similar task.

“One of the opportunities I had at Greenleaf was to build a technology team,” he said. “They report to me and that’s a little challenging because I am not a techno-geek, so to speak. … When things go wrong, the same people I poke at for not hitting their numbers or needing to improve their performance get to poke back at me. It helps me understand how important it is to keep all our operations humming. Ther’s been some interesting learning experiences.”

Meanwhile, Genualdi was focused primarily on fiduciary responsibilities at S2 Yachts, but he said that a large part of his work is telling the company’s story to potential business partners like financial institutions and insurance brokers. A CFO sometimes act as a kind of salesperson, just not as much to the customers, he said.

Brink agreed, noting the large degree of variability from company to company.

“It amazes me how many different styles of work you can do as a CFO,” he said. “The key is to find a company that fits with what you want to do.”

Another crucial element of the job is “brutal honesty,” especially when the business is under extreme pressure, according to the panel.

“My voice in the room had to be the one that dropped the pile of 'you know what' on the table,” Brown said. “It drives the discussion in a way that makes sure you’re keeping all the constituent voices in. It’s a very uncomfortable place to be sometimes but you suck it up.”

Genualdi and Diggs both had similar experiences, stepping into struggling companies that needed an outsider’s perspective to get operations back on track.

“You really can't go anywhere until you're brutally honest with your situation, the pitfalls and what your dreams for success are,” Genualdi said. “You're not sugarcoating any of the problems. If you're going to have that uphill battle, you better be prepared and have all the footsoldiers around you in line. Hopefully they all got the message that you're not turning back.”

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