CFO Wendy Beck reveals how Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” inspired sustained business growth at Norwegian Cruise Line.
By Nancy Flagg
It’s a quick jaunt down the expressway from the Miami headquarters of Norwegian Cruise Line to the busy PortMiami, seasonal home to many of the line’s 12 ships. This close proximity is one of the many reasons why Wendy Beck encourages her shoreside team members to take the opportunity to forge direct connections with their shipboard counterparts. Her collegial approach, practical business improvements and commitment to developing her team have helped the company build momentum in its efforts toward becoming an industry leader. Beck says that she can “feel the excitement and energy in the air.”
Navigating from Good to Great
Throughout her career, Beck has progressively broadened her experience. Starting as a Tax Accountant at Lincare Holdings, she moved up the ranks to become the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) behind many household names in the foodservice industry, including Domino’s Pizza, Whataburger Restaurants and Checkers Drive-In Restaurants; en route, she also joined the Board and Audit Committee at Spartan Stores.
When a search firm contacted her about the opportunity to become Executive Vice President and CFO of Norwegian Cruise Line, it was “a mix of coincidence and the stars aligning.” When the recruiter called, she and her family had just returned from an enjoyable cruise vacation experience on Norwegian Pearl. Beck had chosen the line for its Freestyle Cruising offering, which sets it apart from others in the industry and fit with how her family, including four energetic boys, likes to vacation. She also was excited about the prospect of applying her extensive foodservice and finance experience to the cruise industry, while at the same time learning about the operational aspects of the business, including the technical, deck and engine areas.
The clincher for Beck was Norwegian’s commitment to transforming its business performance. The company had embarked on a journey of transformation, using Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” as its playbook, and it was preparing for an initial public offering.
Beck came aboard and implemented business improvements that have helped the company on its journey, which includes 20 consecutive quarters of fiscal growth and counting. Some of the measures taken include:
Creating a more collaborative environment. Beck implemented cross-functional task forces consisting of team members from both shipside and shoreside functions, capitalizing on the talent pool across the organization. The teams were tasked with looking at the top 10 business expenses and developing cost-saving ideas. As an example, a task force of ship captains, chief engineers along and their shoreside counterpoints found several ways to drive down fuel consumption—a significant expense in the industry—without impacting the guest experience.
Refreshing the purchasing function. Beck and her team looked for opportunities to leverage existing affiliations by cultivating a network of strategic purchasing relationships and gaining greater group purchasing power. They also implemented creative bid processes, such as electronic auctions, to get the best price possible.
Fostering a continuous improvement culture. Beck supports the company’s continuous improvement philosophy and Kaizen events. “The events have produced amazing results,” Beck said. In a Kaizen event, a team focuses on a single problem and creates effective solutions. For example, one event explored barriers to turning staterooms for new guests and having them available for occupancy sooner. By analyzing each step of the process, the staff members found that room stewards had to travel to the laundry room for linens before being able to open the rooms. A simple re-assignment of laundry cart duties yielded great returns.
Establish the Finance Team as a business partner. Finance Team members need to cultivate a macro view of the organization. “In order to have a world-class Finance Department,” Beck said, “we need a good understanding of the entire business.”
To achieve this broad perspective, Beck encourages everyone on her team to “see where the money is actually made” by visiting ships and interacting with officers and crew. The face-to-face interaction, she said, builds relationships and gives her team greater visibility.
Beck also created an operations finance function in which Analysts from different areas of the organization connect centrally. This helps them to be better “attuned to what is happening in the rest of the company,” and it results in more accurate and consistent financial analysis, according to Beck.
When Beck was Tax Director at Checkers Drive-In Restaurants, the interim CFO observed that she was focused on the tax aspects of accounting. He saw potential in Beck and gave her an opportunity to grow by promoting her and adding additional departments and responsibilities. His insight and that promotion altered the course of her career. Since that time, Beck has been a fervent advocate of mentoring.
“I only worked with him for three months,” Beck said. “But what an impact someone can have if they just take an interest.”
Beck makes a point to take a genuine interest in her employees by learning what they are passionate about and where they see themselves in five to 10 years. “Take time to invest in people,” she said. Using an analogy from the aforementioned Jim Collins book, Beck sometimes finds that an employee is “at the right company, but in the wrong seat on the bus,” meaning that although a certain employee is a great asset to the company, their current position may not be utilizing their talents to the fullest. Beck finds it rewarding to help people find their right seat on the bus so that they can reach their full potential. At the same time, the company is able to strengthen its “root structure,” Beck added.
Preparing to be a CFO
When Beck mentors young executives who are aspiring to become CFOs, she shares three pieces of advice:
- Keep your head above the sand. Early in Beck’s career, a Chief Executive Officer gave her this advice, and she said it has stuck with her: “Numbers people” tend to look down at the data on their papers, but to be successful “they need to look up and get to know the organization.”
- A career does not have to be in a straight line. Beck advises that a career may not go straight from point A to point B. “Where you think you’ll end up when you start your career may not necessarily be where you end up,” she acknowledged. In college, Beck had envisioned becoming a Tax Attorney. As another example, Beck’s 20-year career in the food industry took an unexpected but fruitful turn into the hospitality industry when she joined Norwegian Cruise Line.
- Network and volunteer. In one of her earlier jobs, Beck said she volunteered to take on more responsibilities until she reached the CFO level. She recommends that young professionals network to expand their connections and volunteer to take on projects. “Always raise your hand and ask, ‘How can I help?’ even if it is to perform a function outside your normal role, in another department or on your personal time.”
In Beck’s journey across multiple roles and organizations, she keeps her compass bearing set on a course that leads from good to great.
Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.
Latest posts by Nancy Flagg (see all)
- Setting the Stage for Success in Sales - March 24, 2015
- Positioned for Success On & Off the Field - March 13, 2015
- Keeping Everything in Alignment, From Tee to Green - March 13, 2015