CFO Move to Chief Profitability Officer
30% or higher of each company’s businesses are unprofitable
According to Jonathan Brynes at the MIT Sloan School, “the most important issue facing most managers …is making more money from their existing businesses without costly new initiatives”. In Brynes’ cross industry research, he found that 30% or higher of each company’s businesses are unprofitable. Brynes claims these business losses are offset by what are “islands of high profitability”. The root cause of this issue is asserted to be the inability of current financial and management control systems to surface profitability problems and opportunities. Why is this the case? Byrnes believes that management budgetary guidance by its very nature assumes the continuation of the status quo. For this reason, the response to management asking for a revenue increase is to increase revenues for businesses that are profitable and unprofitable. Given this, “the areas of embedded unprofitability remain embedded and largely invisible”. At the same time to be completely fair, it should be recognized that it takes significant labor to accurately and completely put together a complete picture on direct and indirect costs.
The CFO needs to become the point person on profitability issues
Byrnes believes, nevertheless, that CFOs need to become the corporate point person for surfacing profitability issues. They, in fact, should act as the leader of a new and important role, the chief profitability officer. This may seem like an odd suggestion since virtually every CFO if asked would view profitability as a core element of their job. But Byrnes believes that CFOs need to move beyond broad, departmental performance measures and build profitability management processes into their companies’ core management activities. This task requires the CFO to determine two things.
- Which product lines, customers, segments, and channels are unprofitable so investments can be reduced or even eliminated?
- Which product lines, customers, segments, and channels are the most profitable so management can determine whether to expand investments and supporting operations?
Why didn’t portfolio management solve this problem?
Now as a strategy MBA, Byrnes’ suggestion leave me wondering why the analysis proposed by strategy consultants like Boston Consulting Group didn’t solve this problem a long time ago. After all portfolio analysis has at its core the notion that relative market share and growth rate will determine profitability and which businesses a firm should build share, hold share, harvest share, or divest share—i.e. reduce, eliminate, or expand investment. The truth is getting at these figures, especially profitability, is a time consuming effort.
KPMG finds 91% of CFOs are held back by financial and performance systems
As financial and business systems have become more complex, it has become harder and harder to holistically analyze customer and product profitability because the relevant data is spread over a myriad of systems, technologies, and locations. For this reason, 91% of CFO respondents in a recent KPMG survey said that they want to improve the quality of their financial and performance insight from the data they produce. An amazing 51% of these CFOs, also, admitted that the “collection, storage, and retrieval financial and performance data at their company is primarily a manual and/or spreadsheet-based exercise”. Think about it — a majority of these CFOs teams time is spent collecting financial data rather than actively managing corporate profitability.
How do we fix things?
What is needed is a solution that allows financial teams to proactively produce trustworthy financial data from each and every financial system and then reliably combine and aggregate the data coming from multiple financial systems. Having accomplished this, the solution needs to allow financial organizations to slice and dice net profitability for product lines and customers.
This approach would not only allow financial organizations to cut their financial operational costs but more importantly drive better business profitability by surfacing profitability gaps. At the same time, it would enable financial organizations to assist business units in making more informed customer and product line investment decisions. If a product line or business is narrowly profitable and lacks a broader strategic context or ability to increase profitability by growing market share, it is a candidate for investment reduction or elimination.
Strategic CFOs need to start asking questions of their business counterparts starting with their justification for their investment strategy. Key to doing this involves consolidating reliable profitability data across customers, products, channel partners, suppliers. This would eliminate the time spent searching for and manually reconciling data in different formats across multiple systems. It should deliver ready analysis across locations, applications, channels, and departments.
Some parting thoughts
Strategic CFOs tell us they are trying to seize the opportunity “to be a business person versus a bean counting historically oriented CPA”. I believe a key element of this is seizing the opportunity to become the firm’s chief profitability officer. To do this well, CFOs need dependable data that can be sliced and diced by business dimensions. Armed with this information, CFOs can determine the most and least profitability, businesses, product lines, and customers. As well, they can come to the business table with the perspective to help guide their company’s success.
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