The Body Shop’s North American CFO Bert Smith’s financial career has revolved around cycles of adapting, evolving and learning.
By Nancy Flagg
Like a galaxy spiral that winds continuously and ever outward from its core point, Bert Smith’s career path has taken a distinctly nonlinear course. Although the financial realm has continually been at the core, his route has swirled through different industries and roles in ever-expanding circles of challenges and experiences.
Nonlinear Career Progression
Smith has always known that he wanted to be a CFO. In college at UNC – Chapel Hill he majored in Economics, then worked in corporate banking for three years before earning an MBA from Duke University.
He could have taken a traditional route in his career by starting in finance at a small firm and working his way up the ladder to being CFO at a larger corporation. Smith’s path, however, was anything but linear. He started in conventional electric utility and banking organizations, then sidestepped to join a small Internet startup, followed by a health care information technology firm, a fast-paced retailer, a publicly traded yellow pages publisher and his own
strategic consulting firm.
Smith’s path eventually led him to The Body Shop, where he is the North American CFO overseeing all financial activities, including financial planning and analysis, accounting, profit protection, information technology and risk management for 380 stores and two ecommerce businesses. The Body Shop Intl., owned by L’Oreal, sells naturally inspired beauty products at more than 2,5-700 stores in 64 countries.
Smith’s career journey required him to adapt quickly to different company cultures, business sizes and leadership styles. To smooth each transition, he first “dives into the numbers” by studying a firm’s historical financial performance and budgets to build an overall picture of the business. He also builds strong relationships with key leaders and the members of his team.
“The people that you work with have the most impact on your success and happiness,” Smith said.
Each new work situation presented an opportunity to learn and enhance his portfolio of skills. His financial toolkit grew broader as he picked up expertise in areas such as mergers and acquisitions and raising venture capital. Smith also watched and learned from managers who had a full array of leadership styles.
Over the course of his career, Smith says that he has evolved from a traditional corporate financial analyst focused on projects to a strategic CFO in partnership with the CEO and other senior leaders.
Smith is happy to be back in retail. “It’s where I belong,” he said. “My highest, best use is in the retail industry.”
Although he worked at a grocery store in high school, he had not planned on a career in retail. And yet, after nearly 25 years, he has returned to his early roots.
Smith is drawn to the adrenaline of the “ultimate fast-paced industry.” He thrives on analyzing daily results in real time and reacting nimbly to constantly changing conditions. He compares working in retail with some of the other “longer-cycle” industries that he previously worked in: “Retail is like racing a speedboat versus piloting a cruise ship.”
Taking Big Swings
Smith advises financial professionals just starting out to first work for a solid, well-structured company to help “crystallize concepts learned in school.” Smith worked in banking early on, where he received formal training and an “ultimate macro view of how the economy works.”
After gaining a solid footing, Smith suggests that young professionals “take calculated big swings” and not be afraid to tackle daunting challenges. Smith took what he considers his two biggest swings when he left the security of McKesson to become CFO of a risky Internet startup and then again when he left Home Depot to join a highly leveraged but publicly traded company (RH Donnelley).
“Twice I’ve left amazing opportunities to take a risk on others that offered additional experiences or career growth. Although they did not turn out as expected, with any challenging situation you learn something from it and it pays dividends,” Smith said.
The experiences, he said, have proved to be “extremely valuable.”
“I learned lessons in finance that I couldn’t learn in school. I also learned about management styles, human nature and how leaders react in very difficult times.”
Smith characterizes his style as that of a “delegator.” He makes sure that staff members are clear on their assignments and his expectations, and then he lets them do their job. “I give ownership of the project to them, but also the credit for a job well done,” Smith said.
Using a “GE Model” of management that he learned at Home Depot, Smith strives to bring in high performers who can work effectively, regardless of the task. Furthermore, he is “not afraid to hire a person smarter than me.”
Smith likes to give “stretch assignments” to promote staff growth, crediting his own invaluable stretch assignment experience to a mergers and acquisition team at Home Depot. Additionally, he was given the opportunity to serve as the Interim President of The Body Shop North American business during the critical holiday period of 2011.
Smith has ridden his career spiral far and wide and back again to retail, developing a wide constellation of competencies along the way.
Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.
Bert's Key Partner:Monaghan Group (Accounting & Consulting)
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