Thanks to their successful financial stewardship during the economic downturn, when aggressive cost-shedding helped keep profits at acceptable levels, many CFOs are now poised to leverage the full potential of their enhanced status and become leaders of broader strategic change.
The role of corporate strategist will be challenging, however — especially in a post-recession economy where revenue growth, not just profitability, will drive shareholder value.
Here are eight key considerations as we approach the New Year:
1. Avoid choking off revenue growth.
Corporate profit margins are close to a 50-year high. Yet the pace of U.S. GDP growth was only 2.8 percent for the third quarter of 2013, as reported by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Rigorous cost management and a disciplined drive for operational efficiencies helped fuel that profitability. But even as CFOs continue to drive the next iteration of cost take-out, to maximize revenue growth they also need to keep strategic reinvestment in the business on the table. That may require a shift in cash-allocation strategies. For example, strategic capital spending and market expansion may be needed in lieu of returning cash to shareholders or dipping into cash reserves to pay down debt.
2. Become a transformation agent.
CFOs’ cost-management successes have earned them the right to become transformation agents — and for many companies, a key to successful transformation will be finding the right balance between global and local operations that support the growth agenda.
To do that, companies should consider a globally integrated operating model that pulls back- and middle-office functions into a single organization agile enough to react swiftly in today’s volatile markets. Some are progressing rapidly toward such an integrated structure. Their efforts show that changing the operating model to balance local and global requires close collaboration between the CFO and an expanded ecosystem of peers, customers and suppliers.
3. Keep up with increasingly complex compliance requirements.
New markets can mean new compliance requirements. CFOs may need to ensure that their organizations are agile enough to respond to more complex government regulations, including management of the evolving International Financial Reporting Standards as well as mounting pressure to fulfill environmental and labor obligations across multiple geographies.
In the United States, as the implications of the Affordable Care Act become clearer, further standardization and streamlining of benefits enrollment and government reporting processes may be needed to boost efficiencies and reduce internal complexity.
4. Plan for better business-performance analytics.
CFOs may need to understand supply-and-demand forces more accurately if they are to drive the best possible business outcomes. Analytics can help them keep pace with the increasing volume and velocity of data as business goes digital. Analytics can also give them real-time, in-quarter insights into customer trends and preferences.
But at the same time, CFOs may need to move beyond the marketing promises associated with new technology/analytics in order to optimize the management of such critical facilities and functions as manufacturing and warehouses, billing, human resources, technology, and sales and marketing. Analytics investments should be carefully targeted and aligned with the organization’s strategy and specific risk-return profile in order to give CFOs a clear line of sight to return on investment.
5. Invest in the digital revolution.
Despite cost pressures, CFOs may want to boost their investment in digital technologies — or risk of being left behind. Accenture research in conjunction with Oracle shows that a clear majority (57 percent) of CFOs believe that investment in new, digital technologies will be a key source of competitive advantage over the next three years. Retail and consumer electronics are leading the way in leveraging cloud computing, mobile technologies and social media to deliver the personalization that their digitally empowered customers now demand.
6. Make sure that managing innovation is a priority.
CFOs can be stewards of innovation — a critical strategic enabler for almost all organizations. Unfortunately, Accenture research shows that fewer than 20 percent of executives believe they derive competitive advantage from their innovation strategies, largely because they are too risk-averse.
Our experience suggests that the fusion of analytics and risk management can help companies to plan better. The CFO’s understanding of innovation’s risk-return profile and clearly established criteria for abandoning less-promising projects can help mitigate risks and realize ROI.
7. Address mounting pressure on financial capabilities.
CFOs should consider expanding their skills and improving their business acumen by partnering more effectively with their peers across the business to better understand risk and other non-quantitative priorities. They will need the best possible people to help them. In the digital age, such people may not necessarily be accountants.
Indeed, CFOs need to consider sourcing talent from a variety of backgrounds — notably IT — and from a diversity of industries. A key to success will be to deploy these resources optimally, and to hang on to them as the war for appropriate talent intensifies.
8. Remember: You’re in the driver’s seat.
Many CFOs now sit at the pinnacle of their organizations. Their success in transforming the finance function has not only made them trusted strategic advisers to their CEO, it also has given them unprecedented visibility into cost structures across the company.
Armed with the ability to see around the corners of the business, CFOs are now building stronger relationships with their counterparts in other functions. In our research with Oracle, for example, 84 percent of CFOs surveyed are cooperating with the IT function to implement new digital technologies and enhance organizational agility.
Donniel “Don” Schulman is managing director of Accenture’s Finance & Enterprise Performance consulting group.