Donna de Winter remembers vividly the first dollar that came into her father’s general store. “We held it up and kissed it, and then pinned it to the wall,” recalls the CFO of Canadian software firm Geac.
It was an important dollar for the 13-year-old and her five brothers and sisters, who had just been forced to move permanently to their summer home in tiny Big Pond, Nova Scotia (“200 people in the winter, 1,500 in the summer,” says de Winter). Her father had sold their house and his commercial painting business in a nearby city after his arm was shattered in a car accident — an accident that also crushed her mother’s throat, ending her teaching career. “We went from two incomes to nothing pretty quickly,” de Winter remembers.
The Big Pond general store boasted a gas station out front and pool tables, pinball machines, and a jukebox. To make ends meet, de Winter and her siblings worked long hours when they were not in school, opening the store at 6 a.m., when the first truckers headed past, and closing it at 10 p.m. “I did tire plugs, checked and topped up oil, pumped gas, and cleaned windows and all that stuff,” she says.
Ultimately, says de Winter, her father made “a good living,” ceding more responsibility for the store to his children as he neared retirement (at which point he took up driving the Big Pond school bus). The store stayed in the family for 30 years, and was only recently sold by one of de Winter’s brothers.
It’s Called Work
Two years ago, when we asked CFOs who the influences were in their careers, most pointed to their parents. So, with Father’s Day upon us, it seemed only fitting to ask a few CFOs what their dads did, and how that shaped their own work lives.
For de Winter, her father’s store introduced her to the mechanics of finance: bank reconciliations, deposits, and inventory counts — even loss leaders — and convinced her that she would some day be in business. But seeing firsthand the financial risk and instability inherent in a sole proprietorship quashed any desire to follow in her father’s entrepreneurial footsteps.
“I don’t know if watching him convinced me I never wanted to have my own business, or [demonstrated] that every entrepreneur needs a strong second-in-command,” she muses. At 18, she left for Ontario, eventually earning her professional accounting designation and MBA while working full-time.
Similarly, Allen P. Maltz, CFO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, says his path was shaped, rather than set, by his father’s example. A World War II veteran who served in the Pacific, Maltz’s father worked in the “rag trade” — selling specialty items like braid, yarns, and sequins in New York’s garment district. At the end of the day, he would work another two hours selling subscriptions for the New York Times’s circulation department. And his diligence, says Maltz, “instilled in me the belief that you have to work for a living; nobody gives you a free ride.”
Maltz’s father also instilled in him a healthy respect for salesmanship — a trait that has served him well in finance. “If you don’t understand how the customer looks at your business, you’ll never be successful,” says Maltz, who was the first in his family to go to college. “It’s the difference between fulfilling your role in an accounting function and being the CFO.”
In health insurance, for example, “the difference in [a competitor’s] price, particularly for a large customer, can be measured in tenths of a percent,” explains Maltz. “As a finance guy, you can get lost in the notion of margin, margin, margin, and not realize you have to have a competitive product. Having a family that focused on what the customer wanted was an advantage for me.”
Casting a Long Shadow
Like Maltz, Southern Co. CFO Thomas A. Fanning found that his father’s influence grew as Fanning reached the CFO position. The elder Fanning was a “lifetime Bell System guy,” who went to work for Western Electric, predecessor to Lucent Technologies, after serving with the Marines in World War II. Although he never went to college, he eventually rose to become head of benefits for the southeastern United States.
Consequently, Fanning takes “a strong interest in everything we are doing with benefits” at Southern Co., even though the human-resources department doesn’t report to him. For example, long after Fanning’s father retired, he told his son about an outreach program he had created to maintain contact between the company and Western Electric retirees, and how much those retirees valued their personal relationship with the company. That may seem a quaint sentiment today, but Fanning says it had a profound impact on him.
“It’s one thing to say as CFO that you want to keep costs as low as possible, but we want to make sure we are doing everything practicable for employees’ welfare — even after they leave,” says Fanning, who, like his father, devoted most of his career to one company, holding 11 different jobs at seven different companies in his 24 years with Southern. “We can never take the view that the bottom line is the only thing that matters.”
Fanning’s and Maltz’s fathers have since passed away, but not before taking great pride in seeing their sons go to college and rise to CFO positions. Now 76, de Winter’s father is also “pretty proud,” she says, but thinks she works too hard down in the big city. “Sir,” she tells him teasingly, “I think you forget what you did at my age.” That, she says, “just gets a smile from him.”
Tim Reason is a senior writer at CFO.
|Like Father, Like CFO?
A sample of prominent CFOs shows no particular emphasis on finance in their father’s careers.
|Dell||James Schneider||Manufacturing engineer|
|Nike||Donald Blair||Real-estate broker|
|UPS||D. Scott Davis||Owner/manager of a trucking company|
|Wal-Mart Stores||Thomas Schoewe||Manufacturer’s rep|