Ep. 33: Jordan Savage - Becoming a CFO
Jordan Savage, CMA, CPA, CFE, is the CFO of the Challenger Group, a full-service construction and developer company. Jordan followed a rather traditional career path, starting as a project accountant, progressing to a senior analyst role, moving on to become a controller, then went from director, to VP, to CFO--all within about 5 1/2 years! In this episode, Jordan talks about the different roles and responsibilities at each level of his career and shares some insight into some of the challenges one can expect along the way. Most importantly, he offers advice on how to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves and shares his perspective on what it takes to ultimately progress through one's career. Download and listen now!
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
Welcome back to episode 33 of Count Me In, IMA's podcast about all things affecting the accounting and finance world. I'm your host, Adam Larson. And today we are going to hear from Jordan Savage, a successful CFO who quickly climbed the traditional corporate ladder to get where he is today. And his conversation with Mitch, he explains the risks he took and the opportunities he recognized to overcome some challenges and obtain the skills needed to progress in our accounting industry. Let's keep listening to hear Jordan talk about today CFO.
So it kind of looks like you followed a pretty linear career path as far as the different roles and responsibilities you've had. Can you talk to us a little bit about the different roles and kind of how each time things have changed as far as your responsibilities and the value that you offered to the position?
Sure. So when I first started my career, I started kind of with an entry level position as a project accountant. And what I learned early on is you know, you just have to do the best you can in the role that you're in. And once you prove yourself and you do a good job, you have good internal and external opportunities for growth. And in my case I've had a lot of good internal growth and so I went from a project accountant to a senior financial analyst with one company. And what you find as far as responsibilities, how they change is you really have to you understand the lower levels and so as you grow your personal responsibilities will increase every time you move up the ladder. And so you become responsible not only for your work but the work of the entire team and that's the biggest change as you work your way up up the ladder.
How about just the industry as a whole? I mean, I know you talked about how your roles change, but what have you seen as far as accounting and what do you feel has really affected those changes the most?
I think the biggest change within the accounting industry is long gone are the days where an accountant comes in, books a transaction and just keeps up with the daily record keeping. now the role of the accountant is much more value driven. You know, there, there's not a lot of value with day to day record keeping because most of our ERP systems are starting to catch up and allow us to book transactions that are routine or simple, you know, automatically. And so the role of the accountant has changed significantly. I think you have to possess more skills that relate to technology, you know, how to interpret and work with data. I think the IMA has done a fantastic job of kind of highlighting these changes with their you got to earn it campaign. I think we've all seen the commercials where, you know, there's the robot that's walking through the office and I think that's starting to occur. It hasn't hit every industry yet, but that, that change will certainly come. And so the value that we have to provide as accountants is just different in today's day and age.
In what position did you personally realize these changes? When did you see the technology and the automation really start to take some of your responsibilities away?
I think when I was a senior financial analyst, you know, when, when we first started, our systems weren't very robust. And so we had to do a lot of data manipulation before we could get to what we really wanted to study or, or look at. And over time as our systems became more robust and, and as they were able to handle more routine transactions and so forth, we were able to get better data out. And so we were able to spend more of our time doing the analysis and so forth. And so I think, you know, any of those entry level or you know, kind of second level above entry level positions will start to feel that transition the most.
Kind of going along this ladder that we're climbing here, you start to realize these different transitions in the role. I'm assuming that you've probably come across some new challenges also. Right? So can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges you have faced in some of these higher positions?
Sure. Well, and I think I'd first say, you know, in my opinion, the technical accounting skills, you know, those come with time and experience. And so from a challenge perspective you know, I kind of list it into three different areas. For me personally you know, with my role as a CFO now the first would be sourcing capital for our organization. The second would be managing the operations. And then the third is people management. And so in the, in the real estate and construction industry, good access to capital is absolutely necessary to achieve growth. We work a lot with our banking relationships to increase the amount of capital that they're willing to deploy with our group. And it's a constant challenge for us because we've got a tremendous amount of good projects but limited and constrained resources. So for us, that's a huge challenge. How do we increase the amount of capital that our banking partners are willing to spend with us? second, you know, for us it's, you know, our operations, which is, you know, processes, procedures, allowing us to scale. We've got three main operations at the challenger group. We do single family homes kind of traditional home building. And then we do commercial development, which would be mostly apartment complexes. And then we've just started modular manufacturing facility and of these companies, most of them are less than two years old. We've, we've got a lot of startups that we're doing. And what's interesting about, you know, our environment and our challenges you know, some people work on one startup and it's hectic and crazy. And in our case we're working at about or working on about seven of them all at the same time in various stages. So finding ways to streamline the processes and procedures and to make sure that the lessons we learn in one company are applied to our other startups I mean is very important for us. And it really does present a lot of unique challenges as we try to grow. And then the third, as you grow in your career you know, people management becomes incredibly vital. We talked a lot about servant leadership at the IMA and, and that's important. And I think in most cases the most important asset that a company has is not their intellectual property or the way they do certain things or the product itself. It's absolutely the people that they employ. So one of the missions of the challenge of group is making life better. And that goes for our customers, trade partners and employees. And I love that if we're actually servant leaders, we can have a positive impact, not only on our businesses that we operate, but also the lives of the people that would come in contact with. And I think that's one of the biggest challenges we face is how do we manage people, you know, customers, trade partners coworkers, you know, the list goes on and on. And I found that that people management to be the most rewarding and difficult endeavors that I face. there's a great book called the outward mindset that I'd recommend the listeners to read. one of the things I took from that book was that people aren't just simply objects to help us achieve what we're trying to achieve. Each individual has needs, objectives and challenges that they face, whether, you know, within their role or on a personal level and so forth. And the more we can look at them not as objects, but as people that have those, you know, needs, desires and challenges of their own, the more successful we're going to be collectively. And I think it's a really a great book to read and really a good opportunity for us to evaluate how we look and see and treat others. Because I think one of the things I've found, you know, with people management is people can really tell if you're being sincere or if you're being genuine. And they can tell if you're just trying to use them as an object. And usually the results are significantly better when you're being genuine and sincere because they can, you know, they can feel that and, and you can have a positive impact as opposed to just saying, Hey, you know, I don't care about you. I just want to get X, Y, or Z done. And I think that is a big challenge.
So in your role as CFO with these different challenges, you know, listening to you kind of describe each of these buckets I would almost assume that your priority is in the reverse order, right? I would think that you kind of focus on the people and then the operations and then that sourcing aspect of it. So how do you kind of prioritize, you know, what's in front of you and what you have on your plate in order to ensure that you are the one who's driving the company towards this sustainable growth?
That's a great question. You know I think you're exactly right. You know, my focus is on people. I've got a semi large team. I've got six people who work in the accounting department. And then we've got our partners, we're now in four different states. And so, you know, managing a startup remotely has been challenging and so you really do have to lean on people. And so it's a lot about, you know, managing the relationships and making sure that everybody's, you know, pushing in the right direction and doing what they can to support the operations. you know, we do a lot of coaching and mentoring here which I think is incredibly important. I think all listeners should look in and see who's impacted their career so far and try to connect with them and make it a long term relationship where they can bounce questions and ideas off of. As far as the sourcing capital and cash-flow management, I really just try to stay ahead of stay ahead of the operations. You know, that that basically means I'm just aware of what's happening and forecasting our needs in the future to make sure that I don't have any surprises of, Hey, we need $1 million tomorrow and you know, those types of items. And I think, you know, in any company creating good processes and procedures, that's going to be a very important aspect of our role as accountants is making sure that we're operating efficiently. But it's certainly much more so relevant within the startups where, you know, processes and procedures haven't been created because, you know, we haven't crossed those bridges yet. So like I mentioned earlier, the, the biggest thing that we try to do is to make sure that we, anything that we learn when we stub our toes in one company, we, you know, learn from that and we pivot and make sure that other areas are unaffected and that we can kind of get ahead of it. So we've been operating from a home building side with our out-of-state builders under an owner operator model which has been a really interesting experiment to see how that works and so forth. But one of the things that we've learned is we've done the model I think four different times now in four different States. And you know, the, the last person that we onboarded as an owner operator had a very different and much more pleasant experience with us than the first person that we started with because we just learned so many lessons along the way. And so I think just being able to understand and, and pivot and be flexible and adaptable to your environment is going to be critical and key to your success.
Well, I think that kind of goes right along with, you know, where we're going with this conversation, right? Kind of being able to pivot and adapt. The finance function as a whole really is going from this, you know, service function or service delivery to this value creation. And I know you kind of talked about that is creating value with the people and you know, making these experiments work for new clients. I'm really curious on what you have done, you know, what do you attribute your ability to learn and grow as you go through this process? But what have you done to kind of develop the skills needed to really offer that value to your organization?
I think it's been a combination of things but I've worked really hard to progress quickly and learn quickly. And so for me, that means I've taken risks along the way in my career. I remember the first risk I ever took was back when I was in school. I had offers with all of the big four accounting firms and that's the more traditional route for most accountants coming out of university. And I decided, you know, that that really wasn't for me. And so I rejected that offer and ended up working for a company called red hat in North Carolina. And it was one of the best things that ever happened to me because I, you know, instead of auditing and you know, looking at kind of companies from an external lens, I was thrust right immediately into kind of an internal environment and industry. And I was lucky, and very fortunate, I had a great boss at the time who mentored me, who I worked very closely with that I learned a lot. And one of the most valuable things that he gave me was he provided really honest and direct feedback through the beginning of my career. And you know, thinking back on that, I, I think it's important to note that you shouldn't be afraid to ask for feedback and then you also shouldn't be afraid, you know, as you grow in your career to give honest feedback because that's what people want and that's how people learn and, and are able to progress quickly. And so I think, you know, that that first risk was really important for me because I learned a lot of lessons that I wouldn't have learned in another environment. And I remember when I was getting ready to leave red hat and look at a different opportunity, I had an opportunity to become a controller and a people manager for the first time. And sometimes it's easier to find those external opportunities versus the internal cause. Internal opportunities move a little bit slower than external, but you have to be willing to take that risk. And I remember I was called into an office of a senior vice president that I didn't really work with, but manage the entire department of probably 50 to 60 people. And after failing to convince me to stay with red hat, I'll never forget it. This senior vice president looked at me right in the eye and said, they're going to eat you alive. And I just thought it was really interesting that you know, the new opportunity here, I was being told I was valued. I, you know, I should stay with the company. But then in the, in the same breath, I was told if I chose something that I felt would be good for me and taking, you know, taking a risk on myself that I'd fail. And so I took that as motivation and took that risk. And I've learned over time that the only way that we can learn and grow is if you're pushing yourself outside of your comfort zones. And so for me, taking that other opportunity was kind of a sink or swim moment for me. And that's kind of one of the ways that I've been able to kind of stay ahead of the learning curve and develop the skills I need to provide that value. I think as far as the skills specifically, there's many ways to do that as well. One of the things I've tried to do is learn from others. So this Boston mentor from my first position in the accounting world, he was fantastic. He does a lot of things right that I really respected and appreciated. And there were some things that I didn't, you know, agree with necessarily. And so I tried to take always the good from people that I come in contact with and kind of say, okay, if there is a fault or, or something that I don't like to make sure that I'm not, you know, repeating those type of behaviors that I don't appreciate. so I think we can learn from others by experiencing the, or by learning from their experiences for good or bad. I'm also a very avid reader. I remember early in my career I'd read a lot of managerial books about you know, management and so forth, long before I ever became a manager. for me that was very important. it helped kind of set the stage of what type of manager I wanted to be. when situations arose in the environments that I was in, I'd think of, okay, well if I was, you know, the manager, what would I do? How would I respond to these different challenges that I am seeing around me? And so having, you know, good books that are written being able to read them and kind of study them and think about, well, how would you manage people? How would you do things differently and so forth. Asking yourself that type of question that can help you tremendously. So I'm a very avid reader and I think that's important to make sure that you're reading. One of the things I try to do is read at least one, one book a quarter. Sometimes I can do a little bit better than that, but one book specifically about business once a quarter that, you know, can help shape the way you think and the way that you operate. And then lastly, I think, you know, part of our careers, it's, it's largely trial and error. I think we, we do a lot of things and we experiment and the things that work well we continue to do. And the things that don't work well, we have to be adaptable. Like you were saying earlier, we've gotta be able to pivot and move quickly instead of digging in our heels and saying, no, this is the way I have to do it or want to do it. So all of those things, you know, everybody has their own methods, but those are kind of the three things that have worked for me. But the most important thing I think is to put effort into trying to develop, develop yourself as a professional and then also as a person. I think it goes without saying that who we are as people matters probably more than who we are as a business person. So I think if you focus and put effort into who you are and what you stand for and having honesty and integrity part of kind of your core values, you'll do very well.
Well I think you've done a great job, you know, first talking about yourself and your progression. So I truly appreciate you sharing some of these stories. I think you also did a great job talking about the role of a CFO and kind of what you do on a daily basis. So you've really covered a lot of this already. I'm just curious if you have any closing remarks for the listeners, any practical tips or suggestions that you kind of want to end with here?
Absolutely. So the most practical tip I have is three fold. I've already, you know, kind of previewed it, but you know, first never stopped learning and investing in your, in yourself, read books, study up on your industry, become an expert and get professional certificates or licenses. I'm a certified management accountant, certified public accountant and certified fraud examiner, which I believe all have positively impacted my career. as I've mentioned before, I read a lot of books, both, both business related and otherwise spend more time investing in yourself and setting goals for your career. nobody's going to manage your career better than you can. So set goals and then be willing to invest in yourself because most people aren't willing to do that. And so if you're willing to do it, you'll go far. Second. I think one thing that we don't talk about, you know, as we think about taking new responsibilities or transitioning careers or transitioning jobs or companies, et cetera, I think the biggest thing that we should think about is instead of taking a new role because of what the role has presented, I think you, you should really think about the next opportunity as, okay, if I take this role, what will the, what will the internal growth opportunities be and what will the external opportunities be? And so for every position that I've personally taken in my career, I've always thought about not what the role was, but what would the next role look like if I took this job? And what that's allowed me to do is progress very quickly in my career because every move that I've made has prepared me for the next step with the ultimate goal of becoming a CFO, which is what I set out from the very beginning to do. And so I think it's very important to, to make sure that you always think about that because some roles have great internal opportunities but very poor external growth opportunities. And that can be scary because you might end up in a situation where the internal growth doesn't materialize and then you're kind of stuck. Conversely, if you have good external but no internal growth, you might get stuck in unless you want to leave or move or relocate or get a new job, et cetera. So I think finding roles that have both internal and external strong growth opportunities will be important to make sure that you don't get into a situation where you take a job and then realize, Oh no, I've, I've, I'm kind of in a dead end and I'm going to have to take a step backwards in my career in order to press you. You want to make sure that you can avoid that if possible. And then third and lastly is just be willing to take a risk. I would say relocate if necessary. Sometimes that's what's going to be necessary to take and take that next promotion. Be willing to do that most. Again, most people aren't willing to do that. So if you are willing, you, you'll be able to progress quickly in your career and then if you have a particular location that you want to go back to, you can always continue to look in the future for positions to come home to, you know, Colorado Springs for my wife and I was home for both of us. Both of our parents are still here and we always had a goal to come back to Colorado Springs, but it's very hard to come to this market, you know, with a entry level position because Colorado Springs can be an expensive place to live. So North Carolina was a great proving ground for me to grow in my career. And then when I was ready and the opportunity presented itself, I could come home. So just be willing to take a risk and learn from your failures, you know, strive to constantly improve and you'll have a fantastic career.
This has been Count Me In, IMA's podcast providing you with the latest perspectives of thought leaders from the accounting and finance profession. If you like what you heard and you'd like to be counted in for relevant accounting and finance education, visit IMA's website at www.imanet.org.