Ep. 133: Hilla Sferruzza - The CFO's Four Lines of Sight
Hilla Sferruzza, MBA, CPA has been the Chief Financial Officer, Executive VP for Meritage Homes Corporation (NYSE:MTH) since 2016 and its Chief Accounting Officer, Senior Vice President, Corporate Controller since 2008. In this episode of Count Me In, Hilla joins the show to talk about the evolving role of the CFO and the four lines of sight they must possess. With experience ranging from hospitality to financial institutions and culminating in her current role in real estate and construction, she is familiar with a wide breadth of public company operational best practices. She is a subject matter expert on financial modeling, budgeting and forecasting, and process improvement opportunities. She also oversees infrastructure, application and development information technology, giving her great perspective on the topic of today's conversation. Download and listen now!
Hey, everyone. Welcome back to Count Me In. IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. Adam Larson here with you again, and I'm pleased to introduce today's featured guest speaker Hilla Sferruzza. Hilla is the CFO of Meritage Homes and spoke with my co-host Mitch about the role of today's CFOs. In their conversation, she explains why future ready executives must have a holistic view of the business and possess four lines of sight. Keep listening to hear more about finance, strategy, technology, and more.
So in today's episode, we are talking about the role of the CFO becoming more central, more complex. Let's start broadly, and then we'll kind of work our way into some more specifics. So first, what is it about today's business world and the way organizations are run that requires the CFO to have a more holistic view and a better understanding of the business.
So, thanks for having me on Mitch. In today's world everything is moving at an accelerated pace. So change digitalization, everything is causing technology to just move really fast. So the risk of taking a wrong turn can be really expensive. So I think the CFOs have to take a step back and kind of look at the entire landscape of a company and really understand all of the interconnectivity of what we're doing as a company, as an organization, and make sure that decisions that are being made really impact the organization appropriately. So whether we're looking at it through the financial lens or risk assessment lens, a technology lens, an investor stakeholder lens, you know, more recently ESG and DI lens. It's really important that we understand the implications of everything that's happening. We're much less siloed than we used to be. I think we were kind of along this path anyway, and then maybe the pandemic and working from home accelerated that where decisions are being made real time very, very quickly. I would say in the public sector, where I am the CFO, it's maybe even more accelerated and CFO is having to answer live, you know, kind of on the go conversations, whether it's from investors or from analysts, you really have to have that broad knowledge of what's happening in the market, as well as all your competitors. So you kind of are a co-leader of all this data and you have to bring it back internally and make sure the guidance that you're providing the rest of the executive team and the initiatives and strategy that you're driving as a CFO really encompass the entire company's organization and operations, not just, you know, what are we looking for on the bottom line? What's the EPS going to be, of this decision, the consequences of this decision.
Now, with this deeper understanding, this broader understanding as well that you just mentioned of the business, how are you better able to lead the strategic planning, the risk mitigation processes for the organization? We have a lot of these individual conversations about, you know, the role of the CFO, but what is it about the CFO of the finance team that really allows them to work cross-functionally and ultimately make these important strategic business decisions?
So I love to say that the finance team is agnostic, right? Our only goal is the success of the company as a whole. Every other functional area, maybe has a little bit of a different spin. Maybe it's conscious, maybe it's subconscious, but they're all driving to a different objective. Maybe if you're in sales, you're focused on a different metric and if you're in operations or in purchasing or in marketing, everyone's got a little bit of a different spin on what they think is most important to make the company successful. I think finance is agnostic, right? So we can maybe take a step back, see the entire picture, not get lost in the forest or the trees and then give counsel that is best for the organization. So I can share an example. So I work for a home builder. We always have a little bit of a push and pull on timing and on dollars. We break our teams between the folks that do what we call horizontal work, which is land and vertical work, which is the actual construction of the building. There's always a little bit of a tug of war between those two departments. The finance team can take a step back and say, well what's actually most beneficial for the organization is to take this approach. Sometimes it breaks or it's one department, other times it breaks towards another department, but maybe, you know, I keep on saying agnostic, maybe a different word is also arbiter, right? We're kind of the one that maybe can help negotiate between all the different departments and through dollars and cents explain why certain decisions are the best decisions for the organization as a whole, even though there may be not an ideal state from one department versus another.
I think that's a great way to put it, the arbiter at the end that you mentioned, it really is, you know, just the understanding that we're talking about here from both sides of the equation and making sure that things balance, you know, when it comes to accounting, making sure that everything makes sense and works out. The way you explained it right there, the push and pull really helps clarify things, so thank you for that story and that analogy. I think, another interesting part of your role as we talk about these different decisions and different teams working together, obviously you have oversight over the finance team as CFO, strategy, operations, all the regular things that the CFO has a responsibility for, but you I understand also have oversight over IT. So what are some of the advantages of having IT under your umbrella when it comes to these cross-functional teams, cross-functional conversations and things like that?
So, obviously I'm a CFO. My first love was always numbers, but I will say that my current passion maybe almost bordering on obsession is the IT function. So I kind of inherited the IT function as I think a lot of CFOs do because the underlying system of record, the accounting system is kind of my general umbrella. And IT is a role that I guess it could sit with the CEO, the COO, or the CFO in a regular organization, but they're a little bit of a, you know, they kind of get tossed around. Nobody really wants to own it. It's a little bit intimidating to have a function roll up to you that's maybe not your core level of expertise. So when the IT team became part of my CFO team, I was nervous and excited. It's been a long time since I kind of didn't know something from soup to nuts, but I really dove in and the more I dove into the IT function, the more I realized that IT was going through a metamorphosis, right. They had kind of been the back office, keep the lights on part of the organization. Nobody even knew where they sat and call them if your password didn't work. And then they've really morphed into a key contributor and everything operations. Sure we still help you with your password, right. But the real core of what we do is operational efficiency, operational excellence, and, giving us that edge, that next differentiator. So for me as a CFO, this is the lens into the business. This is the lens into ops, all of the projects, all of the requests, whether it's a wholesale change where we're pairing with the business on providing self guided tours in our models during COVID or whether we're partnering through an accounting function, but still to help the business, obviously during COVID folks were not coming into the office, so we had to figure out how to process all of our accounts payable without folks coming in and signing checks and actually not even approving invoices. So we automated the entire AP cycle, so we're constantly pushing the envelope on how we can help the business. Number one, it's good to make the company more efficient, but on the operational focus initiatives, we're really gaining some insight as to how the business itself functions and I always say, IT shows us the art of the possible, right? Their brains maybe work in a different way than our brains work. They kind of see the world as a what if we can do right. If there was an unlimited amount of money, they could do a lot of really crazy stuff. So I think it's really interesting from my perspective, it's my window to the business, but then kind of layering in the finance piece of it. We have to pull back a little bit and say, okay, but what's the ROI. Cause there's a lot of really fun things that we can do that are certainly going to help the business, but maybe the return isn't there, right? I'll give you a silly example. There was a process that we wanted to automate. It was going to cost about half a million dollars. The person that does the job costs us about $50,000. So it's literally 10 years worth of work for that individual to automate something. I don't know if that makes sense, right. But probably not a good ROI on that investment. If we look at it in two or three years, it's probably going to be significantly less expensive to take on that project and just having one person do this process is probably not too detrimental for the company and it opens up the IT team to take on other projects that are probably more beneficial. So you have to be careful when you have IT, not to just take on projects and initiatives because they're going to make things better because they can, but also to appropriately look at the return and the efficiency, which is why I think, IT teams frequently fall under the CFO umbrella because we're always thinking of that, "Okay, but what does it cost and what is the return to the business of, of this proposal"?
Yeah, absolutely and, you know, just kind of backtracking a little bit. We did say in the very beginning, we were going to start broadly and kind of look at the holistic view of the business and work our way down. So as we take a look at some of these examples that you've shared is between finance and IT, I would like to go a little bit deeper if we could, you know, I think you mentioned the ROI and some opportunities that are there, obviously emerging technologies, you know, everything surrounding data continues to evolve at a rapid pace. So there may not be a definitive answer to this question. I'm just wondering if you have been able to implement anything or there are some innovations, opportunities that you're interested in pursuing, when it comes to digital technologies that do or will have that significant ROI for you, in the end. And you know, how does that really impact the finance function? What are some of the things that the listeners might be able to, you know, bring back to their organizations possibly and say, you know, can we do this also?
Sure. So we look at the world maybe in kind of three buckets, one from an IT perspective or a digitalization perspective, one is fix what's broken, right? So that you just have to do, you know, the report's not working, the data's not pulling through correctly and there's a team that does that. The next is how can we automate administrative tasks and free people up to do what they're supposed to do. So we have, you know, over time jobs evolve and they kind of become a little bit bogged down and have teams of folks on the finance group who just kind of data enter or their job is finance analysts, but they're doing no analysis. So my big driver, is to focus people back onto their role functionality and let's take all the administrative routine tasks and automate them through RPA and free people up to do their core functionality, whether it's a finance role through, APIs and having systems talk to one another so we're not literally just data entering, or maybe through something a little bit more sophisticated on our website. Putting a chat bot feature allows our sales teams to sell homes, versus I call them human Googles, right? They literally just read what's on our website. Well, the chat bot can read to our customers or potential customers what's on our website too. So let's take those routine tasks and move them into a computer automated process or robotics process and free up our teams and make the company more efficient. And then the third area is transformative. What can we do that's going to give us that leg up operationally, competitively that's really going to be a game changer. So, for us, again, I mentioned I work for a home builder. It's taking the design studio process and automating it. So that technology of course exists and, you know, in a car market you can go online and click here and there and look at what your car or a new part is going to look like, but it's a pretty complicated technology for home construction and interior design because of the variability in what you can select to put in your phone. So that is a big initiative that we're looking at, as an organization that's really going to drive it forward. So specifically what you do in every organization is of course going to be different. Every organization is in a different place in their life cycle, in their adoption of digitalization, of course, I mean, every industry does something a little bit different too, not everyone's going to be the digital design studio like we do, but I would look at that low hanging fruit to automate and give your team back the freedom of doing their job, especially in today's tight job market. It may facilitate a more efficient workforce for you if folks are actually doing their functional jobs rather than administrative jobs or being human Googles, and then keeping that long-term eye on the bigger vision, what do we do to move the ball for, for the entire company?
So I just have, you know, one more question and it's a little detailed lengthy question here, but I think it ties everything together really well. I think everything we've discussed so far kind of goes back to this analytical maturity curve that I know, you know, IMA has talked about and we've had some episodes, I know you contributed to an article talking about the different lines of sight and all of this really goes together. So to wrap up, I'd like to get your perspective and have you kind of explain how finance operations, strategy, risk, and now technology, everything we've talked about today really go together. When you serve as a CFO and for the organization, you have your hindsight, oversight, insight, and then ultimately foresight. So can you just tell us a little bit about what all that really means and how it comes together?
Sure. I love this question, Mitch, because I think that we probably do this all the time, but maybe we don't take a breath stop and think about it and see how it all lays out. So let's kind of attack them one at a time. So hindsight to me is really based on data, whether we're getting it from our system of record from county, we buy data from research farms that's just the aggregation of data. And I guess that's one part of the CFO umbrella. It's the data aggregation, it's the actual results, it's pulling all the information that we have available to us. And then that's really the what of the business and then you migrate into the why, which is really the kind of insight diagnostic phase. And for me, this is probably a marriage between operations and finance, right? They work together to kind of analyze what happens, say, well what were the drivers, why did this occur? Is it something unique? Is it a one-off? Is it within our control? Is this what we wanted? Is this what we thought was going to happen? So that insight is kind of ops and finance, holding hands. The next phase, I think is the real fun part, which is okay, well, what are we going to do about it? Now we have all this information and we know a lot of stuff about the business. How do we use it to a competitive advantage, right? We're a for-profit business. We're in a very competitive landscape in the home building area. We compete against other builders. We compete against existing market, existing homes in the market. So what do we do with that? And I think this is really where we harvest the power of data analytics, whether it's predictive or prescriptive. We're really kind of taking that strategic thinking that happens at the executive suite and marry it with all of the technology that we have at our disposal and how do we collate and aggregate that data, in order to help us make those decisions. And, you know, I want to make sure I'm driving home this point that the proactive foresight piece has to be a joint collaboration of the functional areas. So for us, our executive team is comprised of operations, finance, which obviously is also IT and technology, legal and HR and those core functions have to work together. So those, you know, function heads take all of that data, take all of that analytics that we've done and then we try to say, we call it internally skate where the puck is going, right. You don't want to be where you're at today because other people are going to overshoot you. You got to have that vision to say, well, where is the puck going to be and start to position yourself to be in that right place to accept it and score. So that's the foresight piece kind of underlaying it all from my perspective, I guess, is oversight. And, you know, the easiest throwaway answer of course is internal audit is the oversight, but I think that the answer is probably a little bit deeper than that. And that's just making sure that all of the data that we're using in making coming to our conclusions and making our analysis and decisions is good, right, cause it's garbage in garbage out. So if that integrity of what you're looking at is not solid, if the thesis that you're building on that data is not solid, the whole, you know, to use a home metaphor, if the foundation is going to break, the house has got to fall apart. So we really have to make sure with that oversight piece and we have a lot of controls in place, and they're not just controlled on the accounting side, it's controlled on the cleanliness and accuracy of the data, so that all the decisions that we make off of that data, you know, our predictive analytics are gonna hold true.
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