It’s difficult to find a company that isn’t in some phase of a major transformation these days. With advancements in technology—particularly cloud computing and A.I.—plus an increased focus on ESG metrics and the effects of the pandemic, businesses have had to reshape their operations drastically from what they were doing as recently as two years ago.
The role of the CFO has changed greatly in that time, too, going far beyond cash flow, investments, and P&Ls. “Ten to 15 years ago, it was scorekeeping. Even five years ago, it was scorekeeping with a lens to transformation,” said Amy Feirn, deputy CEO of partnerships and offerings at Deloitte Consulting, at Fortune’s virtual CFO Collaborative event this week. “Now, it’s scorekeeping with an active role in transformation, and a heavy emphasis on the influence of technology on the organization’s operating model.”
CFOs who approach their job with this mindset are the ones who distinguish themselves, according to Feirn. She was quick to note, though, that the traditional responsibilities of the job aren’t any less important now.
“I’m not discounting the scorekeeping at all, but through the scorekeeping, I think the CFO has a better sense as a leader of many other things that make these enterprise-wide transformations more successful,” she said. “CFOs get the nitty-gritty of what would need to change in areas of the organization during a transformation that are often very overlooked and really, really important to getting it right and keeping it on time.”
Another crucial aspect to the position, she added, is having a deep understanding of the changing technology that’s being employed to make the company’s transformation work as well as possible. “It’s critical for a CFO and the team surrounding the CFO and the finance function to be as tech-savvy as possible right now,” Feirn said. “That can come in many ways. You don’t have to be a cloud-native developer or a software developer in order to understand the influence of technology on how the organization’s business model is going to change.”
This modern outlook on the role of the CFO is the norm at H&R Block, where chief financial officer Tony Bowen has taken on a large role in addressing the tax-preparation company’s “crisis of relevance,” as president and CEO Jeff Jones put it. To remedy a loss of clients and lack of growth, Block’s leadership has put an emphasis on digitizing its services and broadening its offerings to attract a new generation of customers, while maintaining its retail presence. This initiative, which started in 2018, has involved the wide implementation of robotic process automation (RPA), with Bowen constantly collaborating with the company’s CIO.
“We have a reasonably robust RPA program that’s underway,” Jones said. “We have about 30 or 35 processes that we have now automated [so] that we’re saving 50,000-plus human hours a year. Those are everything from expense-report approvals to—we’re a very seasonal business—automating ways we hire and onboard seasonal associates.”
“I would say it’s been successful. It hasn’t been a home run by any stretch,” Bowen added. “The reality is, when you deploy 35 RPA models across the company, they require upkeep, and they require a lot of collaboration. You really need high volumes of processing. It’s definitely been successful, but I think you’ve got to be cautious when you get into it that the overhead is worth the lift.”
As Jones noted, one of the most significant aspects of Bowen’s job at this public company is helping devise a longer-term strategy that shareholders will support. “When you’re focused on a multiyear repositioning of the business, you’re going to be in zones that not all investors like,” he said. “One of the most important things we did at the very beginning was to tell our investors, ‘We’re going to lower our Ebitda margins from about 30% to about 26% in order to create the capacity to transform.’ That’s a hard choice. If you don’t ground that in strategy, it just feels like you’re playing with someone else’s money.”
When asked what makes Bowen such a great CFO, Jones had a simple answer, one that many in the role at other companies should take to heart. “I couldn’t imagine somebody who didn’t just tell it to me straight all the time. I rely on him to tell me what he thinks and to be straight about it,” he said. “It may be basic, but when you’re making a lot of hard decisions, you’re going to get a bunch wrong. You need to have somebody you can rely on to play that role for you and for the team.
“It’s just invaluable for Tony, on future decisions, to understand how the business runs at an intimate level like you would expect the CEO to know,” he added. “To have him wear both those hats at once, it’s a real gift.”
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