This article was originally published on Forbes.com
In many ways, the economic ups and downs of the past two decades have played something of a supporting role in the careers of chief financial officers, who frequently enter office with at least 20 years of career-building behind them.
In fact, many of today’s CFOs are able to bookend their careers with the dot-com collapse of the early 2000s and the ongoing pandemic of the 2020s.
“I happen to have been right smack-dab in the middle of all three macroeconomic world events over the past 20 years,” says Jon Nguyen, CFO of cloud technology firm Kyriba. Nguyen’s comment is more than conjecture. Turn back the clock to 2008’s mortgage crisis, and you see Nguyen as a vice president for banking firm HSBC; go back to the dot com collapse, and you find him as a technology consultant for IBM Corp. So far, Nguyen observes, the cross-industry reach of the pandemic’s economic consequences are being felt more broadly than the effects of previous financial jolts.
Says Nguyen: “Right now, the pandemic is affecting everybody. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. One way or another, you’re getting impacted.”
Not unlike that of Nguyen, the finance career of Dave Jones, CFO of online car seller Vroom, has been shaped and influenced by economic crises of the past two decades. Last month, as the initial shock of the coronavirus waned and the stock market rallied back, Vroom moved quickly to go public.
Reports Jones: “We consulted with our board and our investors and decided that the time was right.” After pricing its IPO shares at $22, Vroom saw their value more than double on their first day of trading.
This was not the first time that Jones had discovered a window of opportunity in less-than-friendly economic times. Back in 2002, he had found himself in a tight spot while serving as a senior manager for Andersen, the historic accounting house that collapsed in the wake of the Enron scandal of the early 2000s.
“The view at the beginning of crisis was that there was no way that Andersen would be taken down. For me, the lesson became to never say ‘never,’” says Jones, who adroitly stepped from the ashes of the once esteemed accounting house into a financial reporting role at Penske Automotive Group, where he entered the CFO office roughly 8 years later, in 2011.
Angiras Koorapaty, CFO of cloud-based security firm ReversingLabs, says that the challenging economic times of the early 2000s also helped him to advance in his career. In the midst of the dot-com collapse, Koorapaty was a controller for a fast growing tech firm when he was asked to step into a VP of finance role following the abrupt departure of the company’s CFO. In short order, Koorapaty was named CFO of the company – an outcome he says was due largely to the extraordinary circumstances, but one that ultimately served him well as it positioned him for future CFO roles.
As far as the current economic climate goes, Koorapaty notes that “this is probably the most difficult economic cycle that I have ever experienced, if only because it’s happening on a global scale and it’s happening all at once.”
Meanwhile, according to Nguyen, the types of opportunities that finance professionals will someday be talking about as they relate to 2020 will involve data and data strategies.
“There are a bunch of unknowns here,” he points out. “During this time, finance professionals must react quickly. They must be nimble and able to shift gears quickly. To do this, they must have access to information and be able to access it quickly.”
Perhaps few companies help to underscore Nguyen’s point better than Vroom.
“We are ingesting millions of pieces of data every day from the industry and from our own demand signals and our own inventory, so we saw an inflection point,” explains Jones, who reports that after seeing demand for cars drop swiftly in mid-March, they saw a late-April uptick that seemed to signal something altogether different.
“What we realized was that the demand seemed to actually be accelerated by the current environment. So, as you can imagine, our value proposition meant even more to consumers because they could buy a vehicle from home and have it delivered—and with a touchless delivery,” adds Jones, who credits Vroom CEO Paul Hennessy with having put in place a “public company management team” capable of running a company that could someday be a $20 billion to $30 billion firm.
“I think that Penske was a $2 billion or $3 billion business when I first got there, and it was an $18 billion business when I left,” recalls Jones, who prior to entering the CFO office at Penske in 2011 had served as CFO of Penske’s European operations and consequently weathered yet another economic storm.
Back in 2008, Penske CEO Roger Penske had described the subprime mortgage crisis as “one of the most challenging periods on record in the automotive industry.” The automotive company would post its first quarterly loss in a decade and painful personnel cuts followed, but for future finance leader Jones, along with professional scar tissue would come valuable lessons for the future. – Jack Sweeney