There’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind. At Ahold, a Dutch retailer, the crisis came after it nearly went up in flames along with Parmalat, Enron and other scandal-ridden companies earlier in the decade. Interviewed by CFO Europe three years ago, Hannu Ryöppönen, Ahold’s CFO at the time, recalled the struggle of bringing the company back from the brink after years of reckless, acquisition-fuelled growth. With its balance sheet — and reputation — now restored, we got back in touch with Ahold, speaking to its new CFO, Kimberly Ross, in “Back to Basics.” What’s particularly striking is her emphasis on focus — a word she used frequently — which has left Ahold half the size, but with twice the profits, and arguably in better shape than ever as it pursues a smarter, sustainable growth path.
There is also a strong emphasis on focus among CFOs in “Stress Test.” As the first anniversary of the subprime-mortgage meltdown approaches, we catch up with CFOs of European property companies to find out how they’re dealing with the fallout. Given the steady stream of grim news over the past year, it’s surprising that the CFOs we interviewed are so upbeat about their companies’ ability to ride out the downturn. Although demand for new property development is dipping and banks are now reluctant to lend to the sector, CFOs say they have prepared their companies for the downturn, making sure balance sheets are flexible and property portfolios aren’t as overstretched and vulnerable as they were before the last big boom and bust nearly 20 years ago, when easy credit and undisciplined growth led to loan defaults, forced sales and countless bankruptcies.
These lessons, of course, are not confined to retailing and property. Companies in all sectors are spurred by shareholders, competitiors and other forces to chase new, and often highly risky, growth opportunities. During uncertain economic conditions, however, many of these growth strategies can come unstuck. CFOs who have first-hand experience of this, including those profiled in this issue, have three pieces of advice for their peers: focus, focus, focus.