The Key to Being an Effective Financial Executive: Engage With Your Peers

Charlene Oldham Executive Features, Finance Leave a Comment

To be effective in finance, Greg Ayers, Chief Financial Officer of inContact, encourages his colleagues to peel back the layers of the business and understand what drives the numbers.

After holding the title of chief financial officer for more than 15 years at technology and pharmaceutical firms around the country, Greg Ayers knows an effective financial executive can’t just bury himself in balance sheets.

“I don’t think that you can fully understand the drivers of the business and, therefore, the levers you may want to pull with regard to those drivers unless you really get out there and engage with your peers.” he said.

So a typical day in his current role as CFO of inContact might find him meeting with the executive vice president of sales to decide how much capital to devote to a new marketing campaign or discussing product development with the head of research at the Utah-based call center technology company.

“And that process is somewhat self-serving so that I can understand their perspective and their challenges first of all and then, secondarily, [so I can see] whatever I can do from a finance standpoint to help them achieve those goals or minimize their pain or provide a different point of view from the finance function.”

Expanding those communications since joining inContact in 2009 has helped Ayers not only build better working relationships within his own company, but also get a deeper sense of the full competitive landscape in the industry all while improving his ability to help identify what the company’s primary initiatives for growth should be. Finally, open conversations help his colleagues better understand the reasoning behind financial prioritizations, even when it means cutting a pet project in favor of something that’s better for the business as a whole.

“So once you understand what those strategic initiatives are, then you can be the champion of asset allocation or funding,” he said. “And, once you are able to do that, when you are speaking to your boss, the CEO, and his boss, the board, you can bring a far more comprehensive view of the world and, therefore, a far more valuable view of the company.”


Gauging Growth and Finding Funding

That broader view has helped Ayers and other inContact executives evaluate potential partnerships and acquisitions, plan expansions more effectively and introduce new products and services to the market at the right time. But growth takes money, and Ayers has been able to raise capital through means including issuing equity and obtaining revolving lines of credit even during shaky economic times.

“We do want to grow aggressively in sales and marketing. We do want to make the strategic investments in the product. We are generating cash from operations. But, because we are in a growth mode, we are investing gross profit every quarter to fund sales, marketing and R&D.”

Investors and analysts have supported the strategy, keeping inContact’s share price generally on the upswing since Ayers joined the company. And inContact executives have kept earnings before interest, taxes and other expenses in the black for the last 10 quarters thanks, in part, to strong sales. Clients have responded well to inContact’s cloud-based offerings because the technology helps them better manage costs and optimize spending on contact centers that are expected to now handle calls, emails, text messages and more.

“I would say we’ve only seen pretty consistent incremental progress since I have been here,” he said. “And when you are growing and succeeding, raising capital is not a difficult thing to do.”


Building a Curious Cohort

Ayer encourages others on his team to take the same approach to understanding both the business and the budgets. Anyone with an accounting degree might be able to crunch numbers accurately, but Ayers also looks for curiosity, ability to accept a challenge and a willingness to take measured risks when adding to his staff. Finance experts should never be satisfied with the initial analysis of any data set, Ayers explains.

“If you don’t have the curiosity to peel back the layers of the onion you, first of all, don’t really understand your business and secondly, you could come to unfounded conclusions and then, thirdly, you could make future decisions that impact the business based on those conclusions.”

At inContact, intellectual curiosity and a willingness to dig into the numbers and understand how they impact the business overall has helped him improve financial forecasts and allowed the company to meet or exceed shareholders’ and analysts’ expectations.  It’s also improved his ability to track the progress of projects to determine, for example, if an ongoing initiative is really delivering the return on investment it was expected to have. Keeping better real-time tabs on projects allows the company to make adjustments and avoid financial surprises at the end of a quarter or fiscal year.

“In the finance department, we’re sometimes criticized for having a complete understanding of the numbers, but not having a complete understanding of the whys behind the numbers. But you don’t just set it and forget it,” he said of project budgets. “It’s just become a natural evolution.”

His staff has also evolved over time, allowing them to suggest solutions to problems that may have once been handed over to him or another C-level executive. Now, he’s often able to provide direction by asking employees just a couple of validating questions that encourage them to think a problem all the way through on their own.

“If you respectfully challenge them and put the obligation on their shoulders – because they’ve done the work – they should have a better grasp of the underlying issues and be able to come up with a proposed solution,” he said. “It’s basically a training ground, a context, a structure and a framework for them to start thinking and acting and doing earlier in their careers so they can end up one day with a CEO title themselves.”

On Mentors and Marines

Ayers became familiar with that training ground early in life and in his professional career. His father was a lawyer and ex-Marine who believed in univocal communication and taught him there were only three acceptable answers in life — “Yes, sir. No, sir.”  And, then there was the slightly more elaborative, “No excuse, sir.”

“What I learned from him from him is that you want to get to the objective analysis and want to speak clearly and concisely,” he said. “Get to the point and, obviously, have conviction around what you do and what you believe in.”

Two other mentors, an accounting professor at Stetson University and a supervisor at KPMG, where he started his career, taught him the value of holding high expectations for himself and others. Those elevated expectations, for example, put Ayers in charge of some small audit engagements just a few months after joining KPMG.

“I think what it has taught me is that, with some really good people, you can set the bar high because, nine times out of ten, they will rise to the occasion. Then, you will all add more value to the company in a shorter period of time and, at the end of the day, that’s what I consider the ultimate mandate of a C-level executive.” ♦

Similarities of Business and Rock Climbing

While some with tough jobs might unwind by reading a novel or indulging in a leisurely Saturday on the sofa, Greg Ayers prefers the challenge presented by a 5.9-level rock climbing route.

“It’s about taking measured risks. You can’t just throw yourself at the mountain and just hope you are going to be able to hang on,” he said. “You have to analyze how you are going to climb a route.”

If you take the wrong approach, you’ve made your climb a lot more difficult, so it pays to plan at the outset, said Ayers. And he sees some similarities between his weekend passion and his professional pursuits.

“Similarly, if you’re well prepared in business, if you are thoughtful, if you have a broad perspective, if you are understanding of different points of view within the company, then you’ll be successful,” he said. “And, obviously, the contrary is true.”

Ayers pointed to the training and groundwork done by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson, the two men who completed a free climb of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall – sleeping in tiny tents anchored to the rock — early this year as an example of what it means to strike the delicate balance between peril and possibility.

Greg's Key Partners:
Diversified Insurance Group (Consultative Insurance Services) | Buckner (Commercial Insurance Broker) | Piper Jaffray (Investment Banker)

Charlene Oldham

Contributing Writer at Forefront Magazine
Charlene Oldham is a St. Louis-based teacher and freelancer.

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