Trials By Hire
To look at what has happened to Bud Jason, chief executive officer of Jason Soda Systems Inc., it might seem as if financial managers are as dispensable as cola cans. He has had three financial types in as many years, and the most recent has yet to be given a formal title. Observers are quick to point out, however, that his trials by hire are hardly uncommon.
"CEOs usually think that hiring a [chief financial officer] can wait," says Frederick Adler, the New York venture capitalist. "When they do bring one in, they tend to pick weak people 50% to 60% of the time. They're threatened."
Other observers -- directors, executive recruiters, and consultants -- agree. Chief executives like Jason, who have built their companies on their own skills in operations or marketing, may be comfortable filling management gaps in those areas. But they may be reluctant to add a senior financial executive, often because the CEO considers an effective top financial officer a challenge to the CEO's control of the company. "It takes a strong guy to hire a strong team," says Adler.
Moreover, a lack of familiarity with finance can make it particularly difficult for a chief executive to evaluate candidates or even to define a financial management position properly. Making the distinction between a capable accountant and a take-charge controller, for example, is often tough for novice CEOs, say management consultants.
David Gladstone, executive vice-president of Allied Capital Corp. in Washington, D.C., says that owners of small companies "typically hire someone who can keep the numbers straight [frequently their certified public accountants], but can't negotiate with venture capitalists or banks. They need someone with a wider financial background," he says. "We've refused to lend money to companies that lack good financial management. More companies fail because they can't keep their books straight and don't properly present information to lenders."
If the chief executive is not well versed in finance, he may initially hire someone to fill an immediate need, rather than try to meet the long-term financial challenges. Later, it may become painfully apparent that the financial manager lacks the necessary vision and sophistication to guide the business's subsequent growth.
That was the mistake Bud Jason made in his first attempt to beef up his financial staff. Since graduating from college in 1968, Jason had gradually assumed control of Jason Soda Systems, a beverage, ice, and food equipment and supply business his father started in 1945 in South Windsor, Conn., a suburb of Hartford. By 1980 it was clear that the time was right to expand. The family restaurant business in the Hartford area was growing rapidly, and Jason responded by broadening the company's product line of soda, beverages, and specialty foods. He also stepped up the service end of the operation by leasing and repairing beverage-dispensing equipment to his customers -- primarily insurance companies, fast-food restaurants, and bars. He then used the rental-business revenue as the basis for capital expansion. Jason's strategy has paid off. Revenues have risen to $5 million from just under $2 million in 1979, and his staff has expanded from 30 to 55 in the same period.
But that growth took the company beyond the scale at which Jason could comfortably run the whole show and called for some important additions to its management structure, including finance. Until then, Jason Soda Systems had gotten along with a small accounting department, and Jason himself functioned as both the financial manager and operations overseer. He was putting in 12-hour days and working the better part of the weekends.
By 1980, the business badly needed a more sophisticated data processing system to coordinate the activities of its three-plant operation. And Jason was tempted by several competitors that seemed ripe for takeover. So Jason brought in a new staffer with the title of financial analyst to prepare financial statements and work in conjunction with his accounting firm in assessing potential acquisitions. Unfortunately, the person he hired didn't have the skills to handle an increasing array of duties.
"When I hired him, I felt he might have the capability to do more," Jason explains. "I was also hiring with dollars and cents in mind." After about a year, it became obvious that the company needed a controller but that the young man, although technically competent, lacked the management skills and broader financial background to fill that role. Had the company not faced such urgent short-term needs, he might have had time to adapt. As it was, Jason didn't have the luxury of waiting.
"Bud Jason needed an orchestra leader, but he hired a guitarist," says Ron Weber, a management consultant who advised Jason Soda Systems on planning its expansion. On Weber's advice, Jason reluctantly fired the financial analyst.
It wasn't until he also had to fire the analyst's replacement in the summer of 1983 that he gained a clear idea of the kind of person he needed in the position, in terms of both skill and personality. Expansion had forced Jason to wrestle with the traditional growing pains that precede installing a senior management tier. For example, he brought in an operations manager to free himself of the pressures of scheduling deliveries and service calls. But it was more difficult for him to pinpoint what he needed in the financial area.
Jason says that when he replaced the financial analyst, he gave the new hire too much autonomy. In launching the second search, Jason had upgraded the title to financial manager, and felt he had an accurate job description. He knew he wanted someone to manage the accounting staff, to implement the data processing system, and to assist him in evaluating further acquisitions. He also wanted someone familiar with a service-intensive business. And finally, he hoped to hire a local candidate, thus saving himself relocation costs. His mistake this time was in incorrectly assessing how the candidate's personality would mesh with the atmosphere at Jason Soda Systems, where hands-on management was the accepted style.
"He wasn't a shirt-sleeves kind of guy," Jason says of his next hire. "I'd see him reading The Wall Street Journal at 10:30 in the morning; I don't even get to mine until I get home at night." Jason sensed, too, that others in the office were uncomfortable. While they were shortening their lunch hours to get the data processing system up and running, the financial manager would be gone for an hour and a half. Jason tried counseling him, even confronting him, but the situation didn't improve. His consultant again recommended termination.
In looking for another replacement, Jason placed as much weight on work ethic as qualifications: "I spent a tremendous amount of effort trying to determine what kinds of hours the candidates kept and how they felt about working on Saturdays."
His final candidate appears to fit the profile that investors and headhunters offer in describing the kind of CFO best-suited for small or medium-size companies. As Allied's Gladstone puts it, the "perfect CFO" for a $5-million to $25-million business is someone who has worked for a slightly larger company, or who has been the CFO of a $50-million to $100-million division of a large company, with involvement in all accounting functions, as well as raising money.He and others also stress the importance of pegging someone flexible enough to assume the variety of roles inherent in a small business environment.
Dennis Michaud, whom Jason hired last fall, came from a job as controller of a $30-million Union Carbide subsidiary, where he managed 125 people and had recently implemented a data processing system similar to Jason's. In previous positions at Union Carbide, as controller for a retail grocery chain, and as a CPA, Michaud handled real estate investments, borrowed money, and gained the requisite accounting knowledge.
Unlike his immediate predecessor, Michaud also seemed to be a "people person," Jason notes, and a hard worker. When Jason steers his Jaguar into the parking lot on a Saturday morning, he will sometimes see Michaud's car there already.
Jason hestitates, however, to give Michaud a formal title. For expedience, he calls him a financial manager, rather than a CFO, drawing the distinction between managing the company's internal financial resources and taking on the wider responsibilities of a CFO.
When will Michaud get the title of chief financial officer? "When I get to be chairman of the board and can stop being the general manager," quips Jason.