I chose to become a 1099 CFO in 2001. I already had four clients by the time I wrapped up my first month as a young practitioner.
Not much has changed in terms of the basics–designing comprehensive financial reporting that CEOs can actually understand and that bankers like to share with their peers, bridging the gap between strategy and execution throughout the entire organization, and creating financial models where owners can figure out which levers to pull leading to greater success. There is so much more.
Loan closings, successful acquisitions, turnarounds, start-ups, ERP implementations, hiring and mentoring team members, and even coaching sales teams.
Is there more? Maybe a conversation for another day.
But Do You Really Need a CFO?
I’ve never liked responding to that question. Too self-serving in my opinion.
I prefer to look back on those first clients to help me answer that question, and it may surprise you.
No, you do not need a CFO. That’s the short answer. The longer answer–it depends.
Here’s What You Really Need
Let’s start with the small $1 to $2 million dollar enterprise. You need an experienced bookkeeper and I prefer the type having at least 12 hours of accounting from any college and at least five years of experience working under an experienced controller. An office manager who is thrown into QuickBooks doesn’t work in this organization. Please, don’t go there.
Your experienced bookkeeper will make sure your bills are coded accurately and paid in a timely manner. They should be able to nail the daily treasury management function with ease including a simple weekly cash flow forecast. Payroll should be a low-stress process for the experienced bookkeeper. Bottom line, basic accounting functions should be a snap for such a resource.
Your bookkeeper should easily be able to help you with some simple daily and/or weekly dynamic flash reports that can be filtered, sorted, and analyzed.
If you have a good CPA who thinks way beyond the tax return, they can help you translate the monthly financial statements. But do not expect a lot of support in terms of meaningful management information. Do not expect much support during tax time.
As You Grow, So Will Your Finance Team
Moving into the $3 to $10 million range, it’s time to add an accountant, as you are starting to experience some ceilings of complexity both operationally and financially. The ideal candidate should have the following pedigree:
- an accounting degree,
- experience preferably from a mid-sized CPA firm or,
- private industry experience,
- strong business acumen, and
- ability to simplify the complex in language that’s easy to digest
The accountant will oversee the bookkeeping function, but will help with financial analysis which was previously performed by the CEO. The accountant should have a good understanding of all aspects of the banking relationship and should understand the basics of risk management.
Somewhere between $10 and $20 million, hopefully the growing business can finally afford to bring on a controller. Many controllers I work with are still involved in the nuts and bolts of the day-to-day operations. I was fortunate in that regard.
As a former controller, I never did journal entries and was never involved in the daily accounting activities. Instead, I coached and mentored my team. I set the bar, and they delivered.
Accordingly, the controller should be working more at a strategic level. Planning and analysis is a must-have skill and one that is hard to master for accountants who prefer working with debits and credits.
The controller should be one of the consultants in the organization supporting the efforts of other members of senior management. That includes technology solutions, KPI generation, cost analysis, and helping with special projects.
Needless to say, this is a critical role requiring a strong vetting process once you start seeking applicants for the position. I’ve seen business owners hire the wrong person because they got into a hurry and ended up regretting their decision.
Be patient and find that key person with at least 10 years of experience with either prior controller experience or a strong auditing background in public accounting. I would also look seriously at the candidate with 5 to 10 years of managerial experience working under a strong controller.
So Why Do You Need a CFO?
Lack of confidence.
That’s the primary reason I’m hired. CEOs generally lack confidence in one or many of the key financial areas mentioned above.
If all accounting and finance functions can be performed flawlessly as previously mentioned, the CFO role becomes a nice-to-have, not a requirement.
I have never entered a CFO role where timely and meaningful financial information existed. Daily, weekly, or monthly metrics? None. Wobbly banking relationships? The norm. Poor working capital management? Ditto. Lack of strategic clarity? Check.
I learned early on that the role of CEO can be a lonely job. CEOs generally lack someone to talk to when times are hard. Senior management members can help, but sometimes the CEO just needs another greybeard to validate strategy, critical decisions, and people issues.
More Importantly, You Need Process and Methodology
You can live without a CFO. You cannot be lacking in financial confidence. And building your financial confidence starts with a financial rhythm that allows you to know where you are and where you are headed from both a cash and bottom line perspective.
Accordingly, I’ve spent the last 10 years building systems and processes enabling business owners that hire me to build on their financial management systems along with the accounting and financial staffs that support them.
Therefore, the better question to ask is not if you need a CFO. Instead, the question should be, “Do you possess the right amount of financial confidence to grow and manage your business?”