Paula Price isn’t afraid of learning something new. The previous job for the CFO of $25 billion grocery-store company Ahold USA was controller and chief accounting officer for another retailer, but one in a much different niche: pharmacy chain CVS Caremark. Before that, she was finance chief for JPMorgan Chase’s Institutional Trust Services unit. Another career stop was at Prudential Financial, where she was general manager of the Retirement Services division.
While many CFOs remain in one industry for most or all of their career, Price sees finance skills as quite transferable. “It’s always how do we make money, what are the key drivers in the industry, how do we pull those drivers, and how do you get into the circle of influence with the decision makers?” she says. “And all of the industries I’ve been in have had a common focus on the customer and the shareholder, so you learn how to balance those.”
Ahold operates 760 stores, including Stop & Shop stores in New England and the New York metro area, and Giant stores in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Three years into her current job, Price recently spoke with CFO about challenges in the frenetic grocery-store industry. An edited version of the interview follows.
What’s unique about the grocery business?
It’s the razor-thin margins. Even though we’re big, we have to be very nimble and make fast decisions. We manage our business week to week. We huddle, talk about what’s going on in the competitive marketplace, how people are reacting to us, what we need to change. My big thought coming into the company was, “Wow, this business moves at such a pace.”
You’ve worked in a number of different industries. What particularly appeals to you about retail?
It’s fun: the most fun industry I’ve been in. The margins are thin, the challenges are great, you’re always on your toes because if you’re not, a competitor will be eating your lunch. And I handle not only finance but also IT, real estate, and strategy. On any given day going into work, I don’t know what’s in front of me. That is just fantastic.
Plus, everybody can relate to food. Working for Stop & Shop and Giant is a dinner-party conversation. When I told people I worked in structured products at JPMorgan, that was the end of the conversation.
With such thin margins, pricing the products must be highly significant. What is your role in that?
Pricing is handled in our merchandising area. My role is to review the overall investments and make sure they make sense for our company and shareholders.