Those were prescient moves. CFO Europe profiled Gentz in our June 1998 issue just weeks after the $70 billion German firm announced its merger with Chrysler of the US via a mammoth $38 billion share-swap. Having cleaner, more transparent numbers helped as executives on both sides of the Atlantic worked frantically to combine the two firms, which led to Gentz’s appointment as CFO of the new DaimlerChrysler, while delivering on the promise made to investors that they’d save billions every year through synergies.
But a transatlantic auto powerhouse never materialised. Nine years after the merger, in May 2007, Chrysler was sold to private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, and Daimler returned to focusing on manufacturing luxury cars.
By then, however, Gentz was out of the picture, having retired in December 2004. While he may no longer be in finance’s top job, he’s well placed to observe how CFOs have adapted to a new era of corporate governance — today, he’s chairman of the board of directors of Zurich Financial Services, while also serving on the supervisory boards and audit committees at Adidas and Deutsche Börse from his base in Berlin.
As he sees it, the changes in continental European corporate governance have happened “in parallel to the Anglo-Saxon world,” largely with a view to avoiding the “overly bureaucratic approach that was taken originally by Sarbanes-Oxley” after its ratification in 2002. But, on either side of the Atlantic, the factors affecting the CFO’s role are the same. Consider audit committees. They’ve been around for a long while, but in Europe, as in the US, “they were not taken as seriously as they are today,” and now directly address CFOs frequently when questions arise about internal controls and corporate performance.
CFOs also need to be “chief integrators,” Gentz says. Risk management, internal audit and so on are all essentially focusing on the same target. He warns CFOs, “if you create an organisation where these aren’t integrated [and sharing information with each other], you are killing the business.”
But it’s not just about governance, he adds. More so than in the past, CFOs also need to be enablers, providing the company with support and resources so the strategies developed in the boardroom can actually be implemented. “This is where the CEO and CFO need to work closely,” he says.
So has all this changed the role of the CFO for the better? “It makes the role even more challenging,” replies Gentz, adding after a reflective pause, “but a lot more interesting.”
Tim Burke is senior staff writer and Janet Kersnar is editor-in-chief at CFO Europe.