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How To Get Ahead In Finance

We sit down with Scott Griffiths, CFO of Marketing at Farmers Insurance

18Jul

The CFO role has changed significantly over the past decade, with a greater emphasis on strategic thinking and less on number crunching seeing them move alongside their CEO at the top of their organizations.

In light of this, CFOs are now not necessarily expected to come from the same background they once were. In a 2013 report from the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) and the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA), 49% of CFOs surveyed said they started their finance careers in public accounting firms and 42% started their careers in a finance role in business. Even since then, this has changed, and we are seeing fewer and fewer coming from an accountancy background.

Scott Griffiths is the CFO of Marketing for Farmers Insurance, a $19 billion enterprise. He joined Farmers Insurance in 2008 and provides financial leadership for the Enterprise’s marketing resources, covering TV, radio, digital, sponsorships, customer research, internal and external communications, and innovation. His long and successful career in finance, holding a number of leadership roles at Countrywide Financial prior to his tenure at Farmers Insurance, having started his career at KPMG.

We sat down with him to discuss his career, how life was changing for those in the finance function, and his advice for anyone considering moving into the area. Scott will be presenting at the CFO Rising Midwest Summit, which takes place in Chicago this September 7th.

How did you get started in your career?

I grew up in a small town in the middle of England. For hundreds of years, the men worked in the coal mines and the women, those that didn’t stay home to look after the kids, worked in the textile industry. Both of my parents followed this path. By the time I reached my teenage years, the world had changed. Cheaper imports meant both the mines and the textile industries had closed, leaving a generation of adolescents unable to follow in their parents footsteps. Having some level of aptitude for Math at school, my career advisor took the bold step of advising me to go to university and study Accounting. ’There’s good money in accounting!’ he exclaimed. So, I duly spent the next 3 years of my life at Sheffield University learning all about double-entry book-keeping, balance sheets, income statements, and cash flow statements. Not particularly passionate about any of the aforementioned things, I took another trip to the career advisor who was quite insistent that I should pursue a career in chartered accountancy (‘There’s good money in chartered accounting!’). Still without passion, I began another 3-year adventure at KPMG creating those balance sheets, income statements, and cash flow statements that I’d learned so much about. While I enjoyed the diversity of the companies I worked with and greatly benefitted from my experiences, I was still not enjoying work. Auditing wasn’t for me. It wasn’t until years later, I finally found how I could use my finance skills to create a role that fulfilled me at a personal level. More on that later.

How is the role of the CFO changing?

When I first started work at KPMG, I was provided with a notepad to capture all of my audit work (think of a paper version of an Excel spreadsheet), a 10-key, pencils, and a rectangular to case to put all of these in, along with all of the previous year’s audit files of my current client. Today, much like the mines and textile factories of my youth, those items are obsolete. The CFO of the past was valued for his/her technical skills – the ability to quote accounting standards, tax law, and to create a team of boffins whose sole purpose in life was to deliver timely and accurate financial statements when the powers-that-be determined them necessary. Having seen this knowledge and skill-set be replaced by slick computer programs that can produce a financial statement with the press of a button, the CFO has had to change their role in order to survive or, at least, prevent themselves being relegated to Chief Button Presser. Those smart CFOs that have adapted are now seen as strategic and, most importantly, objective advisors to the CEO. When the C-Suite are arguing over a decision, the CEO will look to the CFO for the unbiased interpretation of the data that is being simultaneously used to support and refute a decision.

What impact do you see AI having on the finance function?

AI will continue to reduce the need for technical skills and, as a result, for those Finance professionals that long to not just produce a report, but have the luxury to read it, interpret it, and (heaven forbid) use it to change the company, this will provide great opportunity. For those still intent on donning their green visors, digging out their audit work notepad and ruler, and creating a t-account to ensure all those debits have an offsetting credit, I bid you farewell, your time has passed.

What technologies do you think will have an impact on the finance function in the future?

I was once considered tech-savvy because I could program a VCR (for those under the age of 30, please refer to Google). At that time I had no clue that in less than two decades, I would be able to summon any TV show or movie with just a press of a button (not even a button, a piece of glass) from anywhere in the world. My point is, technology will make the lives of the finance function simpler and, at the same time, more complex. I no longer have to go to the video store, hope they have the movie I want in stock, and make sure I returned the rewound cassette the next day. However, now I have to wander around trying to get a good wifi signal so I can scroll through the thousands of titles on Netflix in order to find the one I want, only to find it was removed from the aforementioned site last month and I now have to go to Amazon Prime, search again and rent it (either in HD, SD or UHD!).The same can be said of the finance function. Instead of spending their time ticking and tying, financial teams now have to deal with the endless stream of data at their fingertips. This will only increase as technology improves. The finance function will need to evolve into data analysts, able to access and interpret terabytes if financial data, and crunch it down to meaning business insights.

What advice would you have for young people looking to get into a finance career?

As the Baz Luhrmann song goes ‘Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of wishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than its worth.’ For what it’s worth, here’s my advice: If you’re interested in a career in Finance, give it a go. Keep it broad to start with until you find your niche (if it exists), that area of Finance that gets the blood pumping and the juices flowing. Get as wide a range of experiences as possible, even if within the same company. At KPMG, my clients included anything from not-for-profit housing, to international media companies, construction, manufacturing (the list goes on). All of them facing different challenges and meeting them with varying degrees of success. You may find you love financial reporting, have a blast with investing, adore auditing, cherish taxation, or as in my case, crave the need to invoke change. Which brings me onto this…

What will you be discussing in your presentation?

In Finance, we focus a lot of our time on finding cost efficiencies, process improvements for financial operations, ensuring accurate and timely reporting, and budget management. But to what end? Are the most successful companies of today those that have the best financial reports, or even the lowest cost? In my opinion, no. Companies such as Apple, Amazon, and Netflix are successful because they provide an exceptional customer experience. I’ll be discussing the role that the CFO must play to ensure their company is making customer experience a key priority, because companies that do not, will as obsolete as my VCR. 

You can hear from other industry leading finance leaders like Scott at the CFO Rising Midwest Summit. View the agenda here.

BONUS CONTENT: Watch Ivar Blanken, CFO North America, Unilever, discuss the future of the finance function at CFO Rising East, which took place in Boston earlier this year


 

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