CFO to CFO Podcast: Bill Teuber

February 23, 2021 David Axson

The CFO to CFO podcast is hosted by David Axson, the CFO Whisperer.

This week's guest is Bill Teuber is a Senior Principal of Bridge Growth Partners, and he's also a director of both Accedian and Syniti. He's also Retired Vice Chairman of EMC.

 

 

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David Axson (00:09):

Hello, everybody. And I'm delighted to welcome you to this Syniti CFO to CFO podcast. My name's David Axson. I've been working in the finance space for almost 40 years now, working with CFOs around the world. And I'm delighted to be joined today by Bill Teuber, who's a Senior Principal of Bridge Growth Partners, and he's also a director of both Accedian and Syniti.

 

And I'm delighted that Bill's joining us today, because prior to his current role, he spent almost 20 years in senior leadership positions at EMC, including both Chief Financial Officer and the Global Head of Sales. And prior to that, he was partnered with Coopers & Lybrand. So we share a little bit of heritage because I used to work for Deloitte, Haskins & Sells in the UK, which ended up merging with Coopers and Lybrand, becoming Coopers & Lybrand Deloitte in the late 1980s. So a little bit of shared heritage there. I'm delighted that Bill's joining us today to bring his wealth of experience as a senior finance executive to bat. So Bill, welcome.

 

Bill Teuber (01:05):

Thank you, David. I'm going to one up you. I've been in the finance world for 45 years.

 

David Axson (01:10):

You've got the edge on me, which is why you're in Miami and I'm in Ohio.

 

Bill Teuber (01:16):

Yeah. It's been a long road. Two distinct careers, public accounting for half of my career. And in my mid-40s, I went to one of my clients. I did something you can't do today.

 

David Axson (01:26):

Yes.

 

Bill Teuber (01:27):

Because [inaudible 00:01:28]. I went to work for one of my clients and I loved every minute of it. 21 years at EMC until we sold it to Dell.

 

David Axson (01:35):

And you were right in the middle of the data space and the explosion that's taken off over the last quarter of a century or so. So maybe we can start there. Data has always been foundational to the CFO. How have you seen the role of the CFO evolve with respect to data during your career?

 

Bill Teuber (01:53):

Clearly what's transformed over the years is the access to more data. And when I think about the 14-column spreadsheets and the exquisite calculations you had to go through to do a formula or whatever back in the old days, in today's world you have the artificial intelligence and so much compute behind you. You have the ability to source so many more factors to understand what your KPIs are and how to come to the building blocks of the decision you have to make.

 

At the end of the day, you still have to make decisions as CFO, as business managers. But in today's world, you have way more data behind you to help you make those decisions, to help the business run more smoothly, operate more efficiently. And it's really fundamental to everything that, I would say, more than just CFOs do, it's fundamental to running any business.

 

David Axson (02:51):

Yeah, I agree with you completely. And one of the things I've seen when I started, probably like you, we basically only really had a small set of financial data to use, what sat in the general ledger and the sub ledger. Over the years, it's really expanded. We've not just got financial data, we've got whole hosts of operating metrics we can begin to look at. And increasingly today, we've got a really rich set of external data arounds markets and customers that can really inform our ability as finance professionals to explain those numbers. And I think that's been a fascinating experience.

 

Bill Teuber (03:24):

When you think about timeliness, too. Back in the day, it was you were batch processing, you'd have to close the books at the end of the month. Now we have the ability, and I would say not so much in the financial records but in real time, to understand what's happening in the business because of the interaction between the data and the users, between the IOT, the internet of things, the sensor scan, whether it's a monitoring system or whether it's a financial system. But you have real time data to inform you what happened today, not just what happened two or three days ago.

 

 

And it's having a little bit tighter steering wheel that really allows you to understand what to do next. It really allows you to understand what do you think is going to happen next? So looking backwards as well as looking forward is greatly enhanced by having the data of what's happening in real time.

 

David Axson (04:28):

Yeah, we don't have to wait to close the books to access that information and inform most decisions.

 

Bill Teuber (04:34):

You and I have been around long enough to know that was an excruciating process, right? But again, what goes through the set of books is a series of accounts and a series of actions. And it's those actions that really influence how the financials come out. And that's where you want to be. You want to be ahead of that game.

 

David Axson (04:56):

Very much so, very much so. One of the things that I think is really unique about your experiences, you started off very heavy in finance. You were CFO of EMC. And then you took what is perhaps a little interesting journey to then become the Global Head of Sales. How did the career in finance translate into then leading a global sales force?

 

Bill Teuber (05:16):

Well, I'm going to back you up a little bit, and just a little bit about... I was an English major undergrad, and I was an English major because I knew I was good at analytics and math. But the USA basketball analogy, I wanted to learn how to dribble with my left hand. Okay? And so I spent four years of being liberally art educated, knowing it would come in handy someday.

 

 

Now I graduated in '73 in the midst of a crisis. Oil was $100 a barrel, inflation was 18%, and it was impossible to get a job. I actually got a job what was then Burroughs Corporation, but is now part of UNISIS as a sales rep. And I was terrible at it. Really bad at it. So I had an opportunity to go back to graduate school full time after about a year, got an MBA and then went in... I knew I was going to be good at accounting. And I went into Coopers & Lybrand as a staff accountant, rose quickly, actually left and started my own business.

 

 

And so I had to actually sell the projects I was doing. I had to do it and then collect the money to actually make a living. And so you get used to being able to be customer-friendly. Even though you're doing accounting, you have to be able to be customer-friendly. Six years later, Coopers came and bought and made me a partner, stayed there seven years, but then I went to EMC and was CFO for a good part of 10 years.

 

 

What happened is I became vice chairman, and the guy who was running sales quit. Now one of the things that CFOs do, you're there at the end of every quarter, right? You are making sure that all the deals, A, they conform, and B, they get recorded. And you're there till midnight. You're there making sure that everything that should happen does happen. And so I obviously got very friendly with the sales force, and at the same time, because I was CFO and a lot of our big clients were the big banks, I got to be friendly with... The banks wanted to call on me, too.

 

 

So I just had these relationships with our biggest accounts so that after becoming vice chairman and after 10 years of CFO and when it was time to hand the reins to somebody else, the guy who ran sales quit. So I never said, I want to be CFO next. I was actually in the middle of putting together the syndicate to take VM Republic. And when the head of sales quit, Joe [Tucci 00:07:47], our CEO, came to me to go, "I want you to do that."

 

 

And I'd never really thought about it, but I said to my wife, "This could be fun. It may not be good for us," because I've traveled extensively. But it worked out for everybody, worked out for me, worked out for the company, worked out for my wife.

 

David Axson (08:07):

Yeah, I'm increasingly seeing that. People that have a strong finance background really apply themselves to many different elements of the business. I never thought when I moved to the US about 30 years ago that I'd be helping with a startup that went public in six years and doing all that sort of stuff. But having that basic finance, the accounting acumen, really allows you to try and understand how a business fits together. Because ultimately, every action of the business is going to impact a line item on the P & L account or the balance sheet.

 

 

And that to me is what's really been exciting about my finance career is to understand why the numbers look the way they do and how they get created, what actions are we taking and what decisions are we making. That, to me, is fascinating.

 

Bill Teuber (08:47):

And I never stopped thinking like a CFO, though, either. And that's part of the experience I was able to bring to the sales function. Now when I was made head of sales, it wasn't the most popular move of the industry. There were some people who said, "I forgot more about sales than you'll never know." I said, "Give me a chance." And having that perspective was really important. And let's go back to tie it back to data.

 

 

So one of the first things I did was, Mackenzie was already working for us, I said, let's find out where we sell, because we had a great deal of market share, but we didn't really have the crisp data around what were our best markets and where was the white space? And so we did this tremendously detailed analysis. It came back and said, in this pyramid of opportunity, you only sell in these spaces. And there's a lot of white space.

 

 

Now when I present that to the sales leadership, they all laughed and said the data's wrong, because that's the first reaction to people who are used to working in [inaudible 00:09:52], right?

 

David Axson (09:52):

Yep.

 

Bill Teuber (09:52):

The data can't be wrong. No, I can't be wrong. The data has to be wrong. So, of course, we went back and we fine-tuned the data. It wasn't wrong, but we fine-tuned it and we brought it back. We said, "Guys, we are missing so much of the market. Let's go here." And so we initiated a huge turn in our go to market to attack those segments of the market that we weren't actually selling, that we had no market share, that we had no products for. And so that's a tangible example of having the data and how it influenced strategy. That's so important.

 

David Axson (10:31):

It's also a great example of how finance acumen had with sales in this case can actually be one plus one equals three, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, through that collaboration and bringing different skillsets to bear.

 

 

One of the interesting things I think, and I'd be really interested in your perspective having spent so long in finance and then have senior executive roles in sales, what have you. What advice would you give to CFOs today? We're living in some fairly interesting times. We've got a lot more data. We've got some really cool new technology, but we've also got a market environment we're operating in that seems to be characterized by unpredictability and volatility of almost unprecedented levels.

 

 

So if you were stepping into a CFO's shoes today, what would you be thinking?

 

Bill Teuber (11:17):

How do I help the company grow? Because that's what people buy. All right? Everybody wants the value higher, a company that's growing, double digits, higher than double digit, depending on the segment of the market you're at. How to grow. So what does that mean to a CFO?

 

 

It's not, no. It's how. So when people come to you with ideas or whatever, I was not a no guy. I was like, "Let's figure this out, and let's figure out how to do this if it makes sense." And then secondly, cash is king. Cash has never been anything but king. And if you don't have cash, you're going to have your back against the wall at some point.

 

 

So it's those two things. How do I grow, and how do I make sure I have the cash? And those two sometimes very frequently are at odds with each other. Right? Because I can invest more to grow faster, but I either don't have the cash or I got bank cover. And that's where management comes in. Right? That's where skill comes in.

 

David Axson (12:16):

Yeah, but what-

 

Bill Teuber (12:18):

So I keep preaching that. If it was easy, anybody could do it. But that's where experience, that's where understanding the data, understanding where the growth paths are, understanding what it's going to cost to capture those growth paths, is so important. But you've got to have the cash. If you don't have the cash, your back is against the wall. You're in a weak position.

 

David Axson (12:40):

I often say that one of the CFO's primary roles is to create a financial capacity to invest in growth, and cash is foundational to that.

 

 

One of the things I've found most interesting is how CFOs and companies generally behaved over the last year. There was some research in the Wall Street Journal the other week that cash balances on balance sheets have gone up significantly over the past twelve months. I think that's really a testament to the speed with which finance and businesses reacted to the sudden downs we experienced. A lot of companies suspended share back programs, reduced dividends if necessary, and really focused on the serving act to help them manage the downturn.

 

 

Now obviously, we've had unprecedented government stimulus and many parts of the world evaded that. But I think that focus on cash conservation is going to equip many companies to really accelerate their growth and begin to see a degree of normalcy in terms of the marketplace. I think that's one of the most interesting things about being a finance professional.

 

 

I'd just like to add, I think about finance, I would say, is the most [inaudible 00:13:46] job in business. Maybe I need my head examined, but if I can look at the financial statements and understand why they look the way they do, and perhaps more importantly how do you influence those statements in the future, it's really a fascinating role to play.

 

 

So what excites you most about the future in finance and tech?

 

Bill Teuber (14:04):

I think the role of the CFO's going through a change. Right? I mean, I was the nuts and bolts finance and I knew the [inaudible 00:14:12]. I could write for the [inaudible 00:14:13], some of them. I probably shouldn't have said that. But anyway, in today's world you see backgrounds much more like investment bankers, people who don't have that tried and true come up through the ranks of the finance department. I think that's a good thing as long as you have the strong detail people underneath you.

 

 

And again, one of the greatest attributes of a CFO is building a team that can do all the financial reporting, do the tax, do the treasury, do the FP&A. So without that, you can't do the kinds of things that the CFO should do. You can't be the advisor to the CEO. And that's the goal of every CFO is to be in the room, in the meetings when important things are discussed, give the alternatives, and be a voice that's listened to. And if you've just got the green eyeshade on and doing the debits and credits, you've missed the boat and you probably won't have your job for that long.

 

David Axson (15:19):

I agree. I think it's fascinating to me that as technology and data are exploded and the options have increased significantly, talents is actually becoming more and more important. It's not less important. Some people feel the technology would obsolete the need for some of these roles. Well, the roles are changing. But rich finance talent that can translate the performance of a business into actions that business leaders can then take is really the essence of the role in the future.

 

 

You mentioned growth and cash conservation as being the two major roles of a CFO. Job one is still ensuring the integrity of the financial statements. It doesn't mean the CFO has to know everything about the nuts and bolts, but they have to have trust in people who do know nuts and bolts. And that's about building a prime team, being an effective leader, I think.

 

Bill Teuber (16:05):

Well, in a public company, your signature's on for [crosstalk 00:16:08]. You and the... And the CEO's depending on you. So the details better be right. The people better be quality. And when I get to people who ask questions about that, I never settle. I'd hold the position and if I couldn't find the right person, I'd figure it out before I hired the wrong person. I'd have people doing double duty. And the people I waited for are the people who came in and we built the EMC finance function on are still either part of my lives in other companies, are still there. It's like when you find a thoroughbred, you stick with him forever. Or her. Him or her.

 

And so part of my advice is when you're building a team, don't settle. Get the right person, because it's way more than 10X the wrong person.

 

David Axson (17:03):

That's great advice and wisdom. I just want to thank Bill Teuber again for joining us on this CFO to CFO podcast, sponsored by Syniti. The wealth of experience you bring to the table and very practical advice, sort of been there, done that, got the T-shirt or maybe it's the golf shirt, I'm not sure. It's been an absolute pleasure to speak with you today. Thank you all for your time and welcome to the next CFO and CFO podcast with Syniti.

About the Author

David Axson

David Axson is a global strategist, consultant, keynote speaker, and author. Known as the CFO Whisperer, he has worked in strategy, finance, and technology for more than 35 years, advising CFOs and businesses in more than 50 countries across multiple industries. He has served as a global leader, driving global mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures at a number of organizations, including Bank of America, Accenture, and Hewlett-Packard. He was a co-founder and chief operating officer of The Hackett Group, led Accenture strategies, global finance thought leadership for nearly a decade, and served as head of corporate planning at Bank of America.

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