CFO Jay Thompson retraces his career in finance, management, and leadership and discusses how he’s been able to put his knowledge and skills to use at Chobani
As any runner who’s competed in each can attest, there are dramatic differences between a marathon and a sprint. Even more than the distances themselves, there are granular changes, such as an adjusted stride length, typically felt only by the runner as he or she legs it out one step at a time.
Culture, like the respective distances, is something specifically germane to a place. Business and running each have overriding concepts that can be found anywhere, but it’s vital to have regular and recent exposure to the day-to-day operations of a given company.
This analogous relationship is one that is not lost on Jay Thompson, as both a successful business leader and an award-winning runner and scholar athlete at Rice University. Through his career in accounting, finance and executive leadership, he has stressed the importance of not just what experience you gained, but when you gained it. As the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) and leader of Finance and Information Technology (IT) at Chobani, he’s helping to put the former startup on a track toward sustained growth.
To Bain and Back by Way of Business School
After earning a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Managerial Studies and a Master of Accountancy degree from Rice, where he graduated magna cum laude and was the 1991 winner of the Bob Quin Award given to the school’s top male scholar-athlete, Thompson began his career at the large accounting firm KPMG (then Peat Marwick) in Houston. He went on to join Bain & Co. Inc. in 1993, and set off on a career-changing path.
“Bain provided me an introduction to business—an opportunity to work with a variety of different companies, many of which were either in the midst of a turnaround or transformation and generally in need of help,” Thompson said. “I really got a good sense of what business is about: identifying an unmet need and commercializing a value proposition to meet that need. Bain’s approach was very financially oriented. We called ourselves ‘management’ or ‘strategy consultants,’ but there was significant focus on financial analysis and the ultimate objective was to maximize the value of our client companies, oftentimes measured through improvement in the P&L [profit and loss].”
Thompson went on to explain how he saw his accounting skills and background as a useful guide to understanding the broader realm of finance, and how that helped spur him onward to business school at Harvard.
“My accounting skills gave me a leg up in understanding the P&L of a business and in measuring a business’ profitability. Accounting was focused on how to count the money, and once one understood the nuances, there was little room for creativity,” he said. “I realized there were other more interesting facets of finance that got at how businesses make money. Whereas accounting was black or white, I was drawn toward the gray, where creativity and lateral thinking could be put to use. It was the evaluation and measurement of different business options, the introduction of tactics and strategies that got me really excited. Later in business school, I focused on furthering my understanding of the different facets of finance and exploring ways to use that broader knowledge base to help businesses become more profitable.”
Thompson continued by describing a pivotal learning experience he had upon graduating with his MBA, working in executive capacities at Goldman Sachs & Co. and Channelpoint Inc., then returning to Bain in the same position he held prior to attending business school, as opposed to one more senior.
“Before I left for business school I had been promoted to ‘Consultant,’ which is the post-business school position at Bain. When I came back (in 2001), management wanted to bring me in at the same level, which felt strange to me now with three years of additional work experience and an MBA under my belt. I felt like I should be given credit for the time away, but, looking back, I realize it was the right line of thinking. There’s a certain rigor to the structured, analytic approach Bain takes in identifying, breaking down and solving problems. Other experiences did not translate to furthering success with Bain’s system.”
“What I found was that in my time away, I had not exercised the problem-solving part of my brain, and it had atrophied,” Thompson continued. “It took me the better part of a year to get back in my previous rhythm, to a point where I was confident enough in my own abilities that I could effectively manage other Consultants. At that point, I earned a promotion to Case Team Leader and ultimately to Manager. Had I been put in a leadership position right off the bat, as I had thought I deserved, I would not have succeeded.”
“Each profession has its nuances that can only be mastered through experience. Raw intelligence and ability help, but are rarely enough to compensate for a dearth of experience,” he said. “And, as I found, that experience requirement may be sequential; if you take a break, sometimes it takes a while to bring those important nuances forward again in your brain.”
Sprinting Beyond the Startup Level
After his time at Bain, Thompson spent seven years in a variety of executive roles for PepsiCo Inc. before joining TPG Global in 2011, where he currently holds the title Field Operations, Senior Advisor. He came to Chobani in June 2014 as Acting CFO and leader of the organization’s Finance and IT functions.
Having gained extensive experience with both long-established companies and startups, Thompson readily saw how he’s going about helping the overall organization to build capabilities now that it has firmly put its startup phase in the rearview.
“There is a fairly well defined set of functional career tracks at a big company like PepsiCo,” he acknowledged. “Not so at a start-up, where functional roles often blend together in an “all-hands-on-deck” environment, with a focus on next week or next month, not next year.”
“What attracted me to Chobani is it is paradoxically both a start-up and a large company that is a leader in the yogurt business. The company has enjoyed phenomenal success, having surpassed the billion-dollar sales mark six years into its eight-year life. The demands of rapid growth have left little time, though, to focus on building large company capabilities.”
“We still have a tremendous amount of work to do to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization,” Thompson said. “That improvement will come through capability building, both through developing the current employee base and through attracting new talent. The organization has achieved enough stability that we have now begun to focus on people development. This is good for employees, and good for retention. You always prefer to cultivate existing talent in the organization before going outside.”
“Some of the new capability building requires hiring outsiders, but there’s a strong cultural consideration in doing so. Chobani has a unique and loyal culture. We often talk about how ‘Chobani has a soul,’ and that is a key differentiator from existing TPG brands. We can’t lose our sense of purpose, and therefore need to moderate the pace at which we bring new talent on board. We spend a lot of time screening, interviewing and assessing people to test for fit. The entrepreneurial nature and desire to do things differently that led to Chobani’s creation is kind of the antithesis to the thinking that’s required to perpetuate a legacy, so there’s a tension there between keeping that spirit alive while also putting in place proven business processes.”
You Have to Give to Get
In addition to stressing that there is no substitute for experience, Thompson, a father of three, likened leadership to parenting. He finds that it’s crucial to put experiential weight behind the advice you pass onto direct reports and mentees. He also takes an inverted perspective, through the lens of an employee, toward the frequently discussed concept of hiring people who could one day replace you.
“In life, there are givers and takers,” Thompson said. “I’ve been guilty at times of being overly vocal about wanting to get promoted, yet I have learned that it is those individuals that focus on proving they can do the next job that are rewarded, not those that spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about when they will be given a promotion. The first step is to focus on doing your existing job well. Once you have become proficient, then focus spare time and energy on understanding the responsibilities of your manager or supervisor. Figure out what it is required to be successful at that next level, and emulate those things. Displaying enthusiasm and motivation toward getting to the next level have served me well, often leading to increased responsibilities and promotions.”
There’s a simplistic viewpoint, from the outside looking in, to see the movers and shakers in the world of business as relentlessly driving a rapid pace. Commendable as that may be, it’s likewise essential to remember that there are innumerable little steps taken daily by many hundreds of employees that help advance a company forward.
With an accomplished executive and former leadoff leg of a Rice record-holding relay team like Thompson at the helm, Chobani has to feel pretty confident that it won’t be hitting the wall anytime soon. ♦
As stated, Thompson oversees Chobani’s IT efforts. Here he explains how he’s gone about providing direction to the organization in spite of not coming from an IT background.
“IT’s primary role at Chobani is to enable the success of the commercial business functions through improving the accuracy, timeliness and quantity of information used to make business decisions. The focus on enabling business success is quite similar to how I think about running a finance organization. We have assigned IT leaders and resources to the Sales, Marketing and Supply Chain organizations in much the same way the finance team is organized. Our focus has been to work with the functional leaders of those areas to define and map IT initiatives critical to driving business improvements. In that way, it is the business leaders who are the ones dictating the best use of IT resources.”
“Overseeing IT is a new challenge and a definite broadening experience for me. I’m learning as much or more from the team as they are learning from me. What I lack in practical experience, I make up for by representing and advocating for IT at the executive level.”
Jay's Key Partners:Bank of America, N.A. (Banking)
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