The CFO as Chief of Objectivity

Celanese's finance chief strives to take the emotion out of decision making.

As the chief financial officer of Celanese Corp., Steven Sterin is much more than a numbers guy. Of course, his department has to produce timely, accurate financial statements every quarter for the $5.1 billion global chemical company. But he also views his role as providing unbiased input on the many decisions that flow through Dallas-based Celanese, which prides itself on encouraging ideas from its 7,400 employees.

In a recent interview with CFO, Sterin talked about his job, which he has held since 2007, and his company’s enviable position of being able to pursue growth opportunities this year, having set aside some $800 million in cash for “strategic purposes.” An edited version of the interview follows.

What are your primary responsibilities as CFO?
I critically challenge the business’s assumptions and plans and investments to make sure that we’re applying strict fiscal discipline, and that we’re being objective and not emotional in our decision making. I view my primary role as being the chief of objectivity.

What is it about your personality that allows you to be successful?
I’m a CPA, but the skills I bring to the table are not necessarily controlling and accounting, which I’ve done. Rather, it’s the ability to go from the details to the big picture and back again, and knowing you can’t get emotionally attached to ideas. Everybody has a tendency to do it. Another thing is being able to see patterns and trends where others see complexity and chaos. This could mean, for example, understanding what economic conditions would invalidate 20 assumptions being made in a proposal.

Has your role evolved into becoming more of a strategic partner?
Our finance organization is already considered strategic to the company, and that hasn’t changed. That said, I’ve worked with some CEOs and general managers who view finance as a necessary evil. This might be self-serving, but I don’t see how a company can be successful unless it has a strong finance organization. We’re here to deliver financial results with integrity, and finance and money are the language of business.

Celanese CFO

In February’s earnings call, you said the company had $800 million in cash available for strategic purposes. Is this a good time for acquisitions?
There are more strategic opportunities for investment today than there were two or three years ago, when the economy was robust. There are more sellers of assets, deal valuations have come down, and there are assets available that are strategic to us but might not be core to another party. We’re preserving cash today to allow us to have the flexibility to make deals without being dependent on the credit markets.

What do you do with the cash in the meantime?
We deal heavily in Treasury securities and the types of investments that allow us and our investors to sleep at night. You don’t get a lot of yield, but there’s nowhere else to get yield anyway. And frankly, the risk you take to get the yield was proved by this latest downturn not to be a wise choice. We invest more in Treasuries for excess cash than we did a couple years ago.

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