December 27, 2018

MBAF's Ileana Salort-Horta is included in the South Florida Business Journal for their recent CFO Roundtable where she discussed what makes for an ideal CEO-CFO relationship

The modern chief financial officer is responsible for far more than a company’s balance sheet.

These days, a CFO might be asked to take on the role of mentor, advisor, recruiter, innovator and, sometimes, fortune-teller – all while playing a key role as a member of a company’s C-Suite. It’s all part of the job in a fast-changing economy increasingly driven by convenience, personalization and big data.

Nine CFOs from South Florida companies reflected on these topics and more during a CFO Roundtable held Dec. 7 at MBAF in Miami. Moderated by Editor-in-Chief Mel Meléndez, the event was part of the Business Journal’s Roundtable series, where CEOs, CFOs and HR directors offer an inside look at topics of keen interest to readers. The conversation was sponsored by MBAF and Randstad Professionals.

Chief financial officers have a far greater presence in a company than they might have a decade or two ago.

But with that larger presence comes more responsibility.

As part of the C-Suite, the 21st-century CFO needs to be fluent in more than numbers. Understanding disruptive technologies, mitigating risk and using data to drive growth has become a larger part of the CFO job description. But the ability to listen, communicate and collaborate with others may be just as important for the role, said panelists at the Business Journal’s recent CFO Roundtable.

Jeffrey Ardizon, principal and CFO of real estate development firm The Estate Companies, said bottom-up communication is key to keeping staff engaged. And it’s up to the C-Suite to initiate that communication.

“If you don’t take time to listen to employees and see how they’re thinking and running divisions, you’re not being effective,” he said.

CFOs need to constantly touch base with various departments – including IT, human resources, sales or payroll – to stay effective, the panelists said. After that, they need to go back to the C-Suite to share what they’ve learned. That isn’t always a pleasant mission, said Lisa Duke, CFO of Walter Duke and Partners.

“CFOs need to be vocal – and honest – and give reports without waiting for people to ask us for feedback,” she said.

Wearing several hats in an organization can pose its own challenges. As managing partner/CFO of Ascendo Resources, Eugene Holzer said he always needs to remember that numbers should support, but not completely dictate, strategy.

“It’s like being in a marriage, where one person handles finances and the other person shops a lot,” he said. “Except in this situation, I’m filling both of those roles.”

Driving innovation with diversity

Facilitating innovation is an integral part of the modern CFO’s role.

Diversity in the workplace, including the C-Suite, is one way to foster organic innovation within an organization, said Camela Glean-Jones, CFO and executive VP of budget and administration for the Miami-Dade Beacon Council. People of different ages, genders and backgrounds bring fresh perspectives that could make a company stronger, she said.

Diversity can give companies a competitive edge. That’s reflected in a recent survey of executives from PriceWaterhouseCoopers, where 87 percent of respondents said employee and staff diversity was a priority for their organization.

A variety of viewpoints can also help companies figure out what their customers want. Ardizon, for example, said feedback from employees and property managers made The Estate Companies realize that convenience and automation drives sales with millennials.

“If it makes their lives easier, whether that’s through ‘smart’ A/C controls or security systems, they’re willing to pay a bit of a premium,” he said.

Anticipating industry disruptions

CFOs need to keep a constant eye not only on the evolving economy, but on disrupting technology.

And staying on top of new software, applications and fintech platforms can be a job in itself, said Wanda Ferrer, CFO of Power Financial Credit Union.

“We keep investing in technology, but it seems like, by the time we implement something, there’s already another update that we need,” she said.

Glean-Jones said CFOs are almost expected to be soothsayers, constantly monitoring the market, the economy, and the business itself to find windows and opportunities for growth.

For banking, that means anticipating how technology will alter financial services. For example, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning is set to to transform the way banks operate and interact with customers, said Dan Kushner, CFO of City National Bank.

So, understanding how to invest in digital technology to compete with emerging fintech companies that offer services traditionally provided by banks is another challenge.

Accounting firms are also keeping an eye on advances in A.I. and robotics, said Ileana Salort-Horta, CFO of MBAF. That technology could eventually be tasked with handling repetitive, time-consuming tasks, increasing company productivity and freeing up employees for more complex assignments.

“We’re looking at different ways to audit more efficiently and make the accounting department more effective,” she said. “We have to figure out how to keep up with these changes.”

CMX Cinemas CFO Luis Castelazo said his industry has already come face-to-face with a disrupter that’s left major chains scrambling: streaming services.

But for CMX, technology wasn’t the answer to competing with streaming giants like Netflix, he said. Instead, the company realized old-fashioned creature comforts could persuade customers to watch films on the big screen.

“We fight back by giving customers what they can’t get at home. That’s why our theaters have servers, bartenders and restaurant-quality food. At CMX, you can order a steak from your seat,” he said. “That’s how we’ll get people off their couches and into the theater.”

Operating in South Florida comes with benefits, challenges

CFOs from several prominent South Florida organizations were unanimous about one point during the roundtable discussion: There are distinctive opportunities and challenges that come with operating a business in South Florida.

As a gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean, the Miami metro area is one of the nation’s most diverse regions. The city is a hub for international business leaders and disruptors, and a growing number of companies are interested in setting up shop in the area as they explore potential expansions into South America or neighboring Caribbean nations.

Similarly, Latin American businesses may establish themselves in Miami as a test run for tackling the greater American market. That’s the case for CMX Cinemas, which opened its first U.S. location at Brickell City Centre in 2017. After a successful launch, the high-end movie theater company acquired rival Cobb Theaters, and is now the eighth-largest movie theater chain in the U.S.

“It all started in Miami, so the city was truly a gateway for us,” said Luis Castelazo, CFO of CMX, a subsidiary of Mexican firm Cinemex, with 37 locations across 10 U.S. states.

Proximity to Latin America comes with benefits and risks. While Latin American investment, for example, has strengthened the local economy, The Estate Companies CFO Jeffrey Ardizon said it can dampen the market for local investors. Foreign investors sometimes overpay for assets, he said, which could raise the price for other investments in the same area.

Intense competition in the South Florida market means only top-tier organizations will survive, said Dan Kushner, CFO of City National Bank. Companies eyeing the area need to understand that the region isn’t for the feint of heart.

“Mom-and-pop companies with little equity are disappearing,” he said.

There’s another risk unique to South Florida: sea-level rise.

Mainstream investors are increasingly asking companies to disclose the risks of climate change to their business, according to a recent Environmental Resources Management survey of CFOs and chief sustainability officers.

Camela Glean-Harris, CFO of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, an economic development agency, said the group is getting more questions from out-of-state businesses about how climate change and sea-level rise could affect their operations. Glean-Harris said South Florida companies need a plan for confronting that issue sooner, rather than later.

“People ask questions about it. They ask if they should be concerned,” she said. “We should be aware that this will be a checklist item, and we can’t shy away from being responsive.”


QUOTABLES

What makes for an ideal CEO-CFO relationship?

Holzer: “Trust and two-way communication is key.”

Brock: “The CFO has to make the CEO look good. They also need to have a true business partnership and mutual respect.”

Ardizon: “Trust and effective communication from the bottom up.”

Duke: “Real talk and details.”

What’s been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned as CFO?

Glean-Jones: “The importance of mentoring and delegation. Being a role model and accepting that as one of the responsibilities that come with the job.”

Ferrer: “Before becoming a CFO, I worked really hard. But as a CFO, I need to be able to empower others to do their jobs to work toward our goals together as an organization.”

Salort-Horta: “You have to wear multiple hats. Sometimes, I’m a psychologist to partners who reach out to me. Other times, I’m dealing with financials, with people or the recruiting side of the business.”

Castelazo: “I’ve learned that the board and CEO place a lot of trust in the CFO. Our recommendations can really steer the ship toward where the company is going.”

Kushner: “Follow up on everything, find ways to measure performance and never take anything for granted.”

Click here to read the article on the South Florida Business Journal.