Schooled in M&A
When Whirlpool CFO Jim Peters joined the company at the director level 15 years ago, he was thrust into the thick of a pivotal M&A deal that also wound up generating extraordinary value from a career development standpoint. Originally assigned to help manage the accounting facets of the proposed Maytag acquisition, Peters swiftly expanded his assignment to include tax, post-deal integration planning, and other dimensions. His ability to take on additional responsibilities “gave me exposure to senior leaders within Whirlpool,” Peters recalls. “In a very short period of time, I went from being someone who stepped in at the director level to interacting with our CEO … on a daily basis.” The intense work, learning, and exposure subsequently propelled Peters, a former EY consultant who also worked for Limited Brands prior to joining Whirlpool, into a series of increasingly senior corporate finance positions. His previous roles include serving as the CFO of Whirlpool EMEA and as chief accounting officer for Whirlpool Corporation. Peters talks about the numbers—those related to Whirlpool’s financial performance, as well as to the company’s unique commitment to sustainability—that he examines over his first cup of coffee each morning.
Guest: Jim Peters, CFO & EVP
Company: Whirlpool Corporation
Headquarters: Benton Harbor, MI
CFOTL: What comes to mind when we ask for a finance strategic moment?
Peters: If I think back, probably one of the biggest moments I ever had like that– and it’s somewhat strategic but also very tactical in nature – is that in 2010 when I came to our North America business, at the beginning of 2010, there were some incentives in place for consumers to go out and buy more energy-efficient washing machines and dryers.
And what happened, though, is the demand for appliances went up very rapidly. It actually had been falling for a period of years as the housing market had been under a lot of pressure. Over a six-month period, demand went up.
Well, unfortunately, those incentives went away very quickly and demand dropped significantly again. And what it did was it put Whirlpool and our North America business in a very tough situation in terms of just the profitability of our business. And our North America business has historically been our strongest business; this is one of our biggest cash generators.
And just having stepped into that business and seeing where it was, the first thing for me was a realization that this downturn was not temporary and we were not going to see an increase in demand probably in a multiyear period after that. To be honest, we didn’t see an increase in demand till 2013, for appliances. By realizing that and pointing that out to our organization, who really wanted to be more optimistic and thought there was going to be recovery in the industry sooner, it allowed us to change the mind-set of our organization and our leadership and to say, “Okay, in order to turn around this business, it requires that we’re going to need to take action. We’re going to need to make some tough decisions. We’re going to have to take some risks along the way.”
And you know, what I say about that is that we had to make certain decisions on our production footprint. The demand for certain products was not going to exist at the level that it had in the past. How would we get our production footprint aligned with what we thought future demand levels could be for specific products? As we did that and we had to make decisions to take inventory out of our logistics systems, where could we take the risk? Where were we willing to take the risks? How would we go about mitigating those risks as we went through that process?
As I said, they’re tough decisions; when you get in a state like that, you have to make decisions that for the overall enterprise are the right decisions, but they may negatively impact certain individuals and groups. There’s a human side to it that’s always tough, but as a leader, you have to be able to deal with that in the right way, in a fair way – really treating people with respect, but knowing you have to make hard decisions.
But then coming out of that, I think the thing that our organization learned – and this is why I always look back at it as a turning point – is the level of discipline we applied. Not just in our North American business, but more globally, around certain operational parameters, certain decisions to invest in areas that might increase our fixed costs. All of a sudden we had a new approach to it, saying “You know what, we went through a lot of hardship to turn this business around during 2011 and ’12; we don’t really want to go back and ever have to do that again. So let’s look at the decisions we make now and how they will affect the future if demand levels fluctuate off of where they are significantly.”
When I step back and I think about the tactical things that we had to decide to do, it helped to change the mind-set of our organization. And today that North America business – I mean, demand has been positive, but even this past year it was down slightly – but it’s still on record profitability because they’re operating with that level of discipline that we developed back then.
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