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Smarter Operations

Merck and GM have raised the financial IQ of their operational workers.

21Mar

Although they are in very different industries, Merck, the subject of this month’s cover story, is similar in key respects to General Motors, which was featured in our January/February issue. Both companies make enormous investments in product development — about $15 billion a year for GM, about $8 billion for Merck — and seek to keep that spending steady in good times and bad. Accordingly, both companies keep plenty of cash on hand: the automaker had $26.1 billion in cash and short-term investments at the end of 2012, while Merck’s cash coffers totaled $23 billion at recent count (see “The Best Medicines”).

What’s more, the CFOs of both companies — Peter Kellogg of Merck and Daniel Ammann of GM — have made it a top priority to see that those massive sums are spent wisely, by increasing the financial literacy of their operational colleagues. They are giving their scientists and engineers the knowledge and tools they need to make informed decisions deep in the product-development process, whether it involves a new wheel-tire combination or a new molecule. Merck even offers a business of science course to its top R&D professionals.

“We’re surrounded by very smart and accomplished people, and they love learning about this [creating value],” says Kellogg, who could be speaking for Ammann as well. It’s an example other companies ought to follow.

Elsewhere in this issue, contributing editor Russ Banham recounts how another large company, Baker Hughes, reengineered its finance organization (“A Well-Oiled Machine”). CFO Peter Ragauss led a seven-year effort to knit together the far-flung finance operations of the oil-services giant, which has a presence in 90 countries. Along the way, the company integrated a $6.9 billion acquisition without breaking a sweat.

And in “The Evolving Bond Market,” contributing editor Randy Myers explores changes taking place in the corporate-bond market that could make it harder for companies to issue debt. Such a prospect may seem remote, with Corporate America coming off a record year for bond issuance, but nevertheless it’s one that finance chiefs shouldn’t ignore.

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