June is Corporate Finance Month at the VSCPA! We'll be spotlighting our corporate finance members all month long and highlighting the value they bring to their organizations. Our first spotlight member is Nathan Perrine, CPA, CFO of the Auto Care Association in Bethesda. Md. Here's what Nathan had to say about his career in corporate finance.
VSCPA: What led you to the accounting profession?
NP: My father worked as an accountant for most of his career, and he earned a comfortable living for our family. As I entered college, my interest was more in music and I briefly entertained the thought of a music major and a career writing or performing music. It didn’t take me long to realize that it would be a challenge to keep my family housed and fed that way, so I turned to accountancy to pay the bills! I got some good advice early on that an accounting education would lay a strong foundation for most any role in business. And it turns out that I have an aptitude for puzzles and putting things together, which translates well to the accounting profession.
VSCPA: Why did you decide to pursue a position in corporate finance instead of public accounting?
NP: I actually did have a position in public accounting; I spent about six years with a local accounting firm in Washington, specializing in the not-for-profit industry. It was a wonderful time of career development for me; I learned a great deal about the not-for-profit industry and was exposed to some fabulous leaders. That said, a CFO role has been a long-time career goal of mine, and my time in public accounting really helped prepare me for when the CFO opportunity came.
VSCPA: What led you to the CFO position?
NP: Although I enjoyed my time in public accounting, I felt ready to take the next career step, so I was thrilled when the CFO opportunity arose. I had been working with the accounting firm in a consulting capacity, serving as the “outsourced CFO” for a number of organizations. One of them was a trade association; I had been their outsourced CFO for several months when I was approached by their CEO about joining the association full-time. It ended up being an excellent fit for me, and I learned a lot during my time as CFO there.
VSCPA: What are the most important skills needed to be an effective CFO?
NP: One of the biggest lessons I learned in the CFO role is that I needed to let go of the transactional work and the details of the accounting function and focus more on the big picture. It was a challenge for me; I was good at putting the pieces together and making things tick and tie. Once I pushed through that mental and emotional barrier, I found the higher-order thought and vision exercises extremely liberating and fulfilling. You still need the technical background so that you can probe, ask questions and help your staff to be thorough in their work. But the role of the CFO is strategic, not technical.
VSCPA: What non-accounting skills are important for a CFO?
NP: The skills that have helped me succeed as a CFO are most definitely the non-accounting skills. As with any leadership position, the CFO needs to be able to articulate a vision — to take a mental picture of the future and explain what it looks like. To envision the outcomes, structures, systems and tools. The CFO needs to clearly communicate that vision in a way that resonates with the staff. In my case, I was responsible for not only the accounting, but also the human resources, office operations and information technology functions of our organization. It was important to me to get the entire team to buy in to a shared vision and to establish a documented set of principles, values and culture. Once the team was working off a shared vision, each function could build out their own work plans that fed into that framework.
CFOs also need to have diplomacy and tact; in any organization you have to be able to relate to other individuals, whether that is managing up to the CEO, managing down to your direct reports, or managing sideways to your peers. There are also external stakeholders that the CFO needs to worry about, whether that is the board of directors, investors, creditors, etc. Breaking out of the stereotypical isolation of the accounting function is critical – a successful CFO will be able to work with people.
VSCPA: What are the main benefits a quality CFO brings to a company?
NP: I learned a great lesson serving on the board of directors of a non-profit organization. It wasn’t a huge operation — staff of around 100 — but it did, and continues to do, important work in the testing and credentialing space. In my time in public accounting, I had presented to numerous boards and finance committees — but this time I was on the other side of the table. What I had intuited on some level became real; board members don’t have the details about the business. I found myself looking intently to the CFO for reassurance, comfort and professionalism; I needed that CFO to paint the picture for me and to tell me everything was going to be okay. A quality CFO brings that level of professionalism and story-telling to the board of directors.
From an internally-facing perspective, a quality CFO keeps the organization productive and efficient — CFOs are in the information business. The quality CFO will take data, turn it into information and then deliver it as intelligence so that line managers and operational leaders will have the appropriate context for their decisions.