Transparency and flexibility are key to surviving inflation and rising interest rates, CFOs say

May 17, 2022, 7:50 PM UTC

In a time when the costs of goods and services continue to increase, and the Fed is trying to mitigate the upswings with higher interest rates, CFOs are faced with an array of difficult issues to tackle. Amidst economic pressures that haven’t been felt in decades, they have to worry about retaining employees in a highly competitive job market and keeping customers loyal while increasing prices, all without sacrificing profits. It’s an incredibly tough balancing act that requires adaptability, transparency, and, when it comes to planning ahead, creativity.

These issues were the focus of Fortune’s latest virtual event on Tuesday, which featured financial executives from widely different industries sharing their thoughts: Nicole Carrillo, the CAO of loanDepot, AT&T CFO Pascal Desroches, and John Diez, the CFO of Ryder. While mortgages, communications, and transportation and logistics don’t have much in common in their particulars, these three leaders all shared similar outlooks and strategies when it comes to dealing with inflation and interest-rate hikes.

At loanDepot, the pandemic housing market and formerly low interest rates created a massive uptick in business, with the company seeing refinancing account for 60% of their volume. That led to a surge in hiring employees and improving their technology to meet demand, which has since swung 60% in the opposite direction as rates have increased. 

“Obviously, when that much of your business declines, there’s going to be the impact on people. You need fewer people, you’re doing less volume, but we try to figure out how we can repurpose them,” Carrillo said. “We really start to focus on retention of the people that we need to continue to fund our purchases. It becomes a little bit of a balancing game with your workforce, but also a really huge focus on retention for the people that are there to continue to support that customer demand.”

At AT&T, the continually rising demand for 5G and fiber coincided with the increased flexibility afforded to them by their splits from WarnerMedia and DirecTV, moves that gave them more time to formulate a strategy for raising prices. Instead of just charging more for all of their services, they focused on incentivizing customers on older plans to switch to newer ones that included better features and options. 

“When we looked at the plans themselves, we concluded that there are more efficient ways for the consumer to address their needs through the newer plans we’ve introduced in the last 18 months,” Desroches said. “While there will be increases, they’re going to get more value than they have under the old plan.  We’re trying to cushion the blow by providing more value and more attractive returns for the incremental amounts that they’re paying. It was a very carefully deliberated decision because we understand every American is stretched right now.”

For Ryder, increased communication with customers has been key to softening the impacts of rising fees, especially as the costs for vehicles have doubled. “A lot of our time right now is being spent on educating the customer base, working with them and creating strategies that mitigate the inflationary pressures that they’re feeling so that they could pass it on to their customers,” said Diez. “What we’ve done commercially with a number of our businesses is introduced language that provides a transparent feed for our customers around what’s happening on the input side, both from a wage perspective and labor inflation, as well as on a raw-materials basis, so that the customer feels like number one, they’re paying a fair price, and number two, they’re getting full transparency into that price.”

That increase in communication is also a two-way street when it comes to dealing with Ryder customers who are taking financial hits due to inflation. As Diez pointed out, they work with around 50,000 businesses throughout North America, many of them small, and Ryder maintains those relationships through constant dialog. 

“When we see a little bit of slippage there, we reach out and have direct conversations with our customers,” he said. “Having a good understanding of their businesses and the challenges they’re facing is also important for us to be able to be successful through this period. The good thing here is we got a lot of practice when COVID hit, and a lot of businesses felt the impact of that negatively. We stood up a great credit process with the team, and we continue to execute that credit process today. I think it’s going to serve us well as we move through this inflationary period.”

Beyond these immediate concerns, executives have to worry about planning for the future with so much global uncertainty and a lack of data and modeling for the circumstances. All three agreed that, despite a slowing of the inflation rate in April, things aren’t going to get better for a while. 

“After this has persisted for three or four quarters more, I think the consumer is really going to be impacted in ways that it hasn’t been heretofore,” said Desroches. “I think we are just at the very early innings of this problem. When you look at the recent shutdowns in China and the fact that the Russian incursion into Ukraine is going to fundamentally change the supply-demand dynamics in energy, I’d be surprised if we are out of the woods on this in the next 12 months.”

As Carrillo pointed out, businesses can also use this difficult period to set themselves up for success when inflation is tamed and interest rates go back down. “We know our volume will be down,” she said. 

“We look at it as an opportunity to retrench and make some additional investments in technology and automation that are hard to do when you are in a period of extreme growth, when everyone is focused on meeting the increase in demand. We’re saying, ‘What can we do so that when the next cycle hits, we’re able to do that ramp-up for customer demand as it returns in a much more automated and technology-based way?’”

Even when supply problems improve, CFOs will have to account for the lasting effects of wage inflation because, as Desroches said, salaries aren’t going to decrease in tandem with the cost of goods. Diez agreed, saying, “When you look at the price of steel and other commodities, that will fluctuate up and down and the market will catch up to that. What we need to be prepared for is the structural shift. With wages being probably the largest component right now of the inflationary pressures we’re all feeling, I think that will be with us. That’s something all businesses need to plan for for the long haul.”

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