Being a top-flight, strategic CFO is grounded in gaining skills in so many areas, it’s sometimes hard to fathom that anyone is fully qualified for the job. But often, possessing “the right stuff” to act as a key driver of strategy is simply a matter of having sought and embraced new experiences throughout the course of a career.
A case in point is Rich Veldran, for the last three years the finance chief at business-to-business data provider Dun & Bradstreet. Over 22 years of working at Procter & Gamble, Automatic Data Processing and D&B before attaining his current chair, he systematically filled his professional quiver, one arrow at a time.
“My career choices have been about getting a variety of experiences,” Veldran says. “You have to be multi-dimensional in leadership roles within a company. It’s the only way to see things from all angles and take a balanced view in making decisions.”
At his first employer, P&G, he was in four different business units in seven years. The jobs were in four different locations, so Veldran got used to moving his household. His roles ranged from financial analysis to plant finance manager. “Procter does a good job of rifling you through different jobs so you get a breadth of experience,” he says.
His next employer, ADP, was “a little different, less formal in terms of training and doing background work. But there were opportunities to dive right into a business.” His roles included executing a number of mergers and acquisitions, being CFO of a new product division and running a business planning group.
ADP was, and is, a very financially driven company. A significant portion of its earnings flow from smart financial management, in that it invests the float gained from its payroll service, which accrues between the time its employer-customers send payroll funds and the time ADP disburses the pay to employees. “The culture there is very much about making smart financial decisions,” Veldran says. “It was a great training ground.”
Veldran came to D&B in 2003 as CFO of its North American operation. But the company is a very global one, and his path to the top finance job ultimately involved rotating through some other posts. In 2006, he was named treasurer and the leader of both investor relations and global financial planning and analysis. After that he was senior vice president of global reengineering and, finally, chief strategy officer.
“As the CFO, all of those roles come into play,” he says. “In treasury I learned about capital allocation. As CFO for North America I learned about managing P&L day to day.” The global reengineering function, which was about finding ways to optimize the business, was recently folded into the company proper rather than continuing as a stand-alone unit. “We believe we now have the skill set and discipline to look at every dollar as though it’s an investment and find the best ways to deploy our resources,” Veldran says.
The strategy role, which was focused on taking a long-term strategic view of the company, served as the final piece of the puzzle. Today Veldran is among six senior executives who report to CEO Bob Carrigan. “The seven of us facilitate decision making, and we’re always together spending time on strategic matters as a group,” says Veldran, whose biggest individual responsibility is allocating capital and internal resources.
The company’s key strategic priorities are both diverse and overlapping. First and foremost is investing in content.
D&B, with annual revenue of around $1.7 billion, has an enormous database of information on companies and consumers. It leverages the data to offer products that help customers manage risk (such as by making better credit decisions and gaining visibility into their supply chains); identify sales prospects; and design sales and marketing programs.
It makes for a high-margin business. “We deploy the data and the analytics behind it in many different ways,” Veldran says. “We’re not building widgets, so we don’t have a cost of goods associated with each thing we sell. We’re using that same data over and over and monetizing it with different customers and use cases.”
Naturally, the quality of the content is paramount. The company is in the third year of sizable investments in hiring new data scientists and building out its analytics team. The other main aspect of investing in content is striving to make sure the depth and breadth of its data is consistent throughout the world and on par with its U.S. capabilities.
Reaching that state ultimately must equate to being the leading commercial data provider in every country where D&B does business. In some cases, such as the United Kingdom and the Benelux countries, it already holds that position, Veldran says. In others, like Italy, the company is forming partnerships that involve combining databases with an existing number-one or -two player. “If an Italian company needs information on a U.S. company, we monetize that, and if it needs information on another Italian company, we feed that to the domestic partner,” he says.
That overlaps with another priority, which is taking more advantage of the company’s global presence and footprint. “Historically, though we’ve had relationships in countries across the globe, we tended to operate in a sense as a U.S. company and an international company,” says Veldran. “We had a U.S. sales force and an international sales force that in a sense were almost competing with each other, which didn’t necessarily maximize relationships with customers.”
So the company has done away with its U.S. and international president roles and replaced them with a global head of sales. The view now is to address each customer’s or prospect’s global data needs first.
Another key strategic priority is modernizing D&B’s delivery mechanisms. Historically, the company built products to deliver its data. “But thinking about where we want to head as content experts, we don’t necessarily care what the delivery vehicle is,” Veldran says. “The goal is to have our data be ubiquitous in the world, in best-in-class apps, regardless of who owns those apps.”
So while the company will still offer its credit-risk apps, because it has expertise in that area, it won’t try to, say, compete with Oracle or salesforce.com with customer-relationship-management apps. Instead it wants to embed its data into those systems.
D&B is also looking to modernize its 170-year-old brand. “There is tremendous brand legacy, but we’ve underutilized it over the years,” Veldran says. “We’re spending a lot of time reinventing the brand so that it stands for something that’s more modern and actionable.” The company didn’t even have a chief marketing officer for the past several years, a shortcoming that it rectified with a hiring just a month ago.
That effort is related to D&B’s final key priority, which is to be less internally focused and instill a new culture in which every employee understands what the company needs to do from a customer standpoint. A big piece of that is social networking, which it didn’t use much until recently. Now the company has picked 50 employees to be its social-networking ambassadors. “It will bring in more ideas from the outside, which should make a difference,” says Veldran.
What links the strategic priorities is that they are all designed to drive growth for a company whose revenue has been pretty flat for several years. Before the financial crisis, D&B was growing steadily at an average of 6 to 7 percent a year, Veldran notes. During and after the crisis, cost-saving efforts were foremost. “We’re now at a point in our strategic plan where we believe we’re going to return quickly to strong, sustainable growth,” he says.