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“Riding Shotgun”: The AVL CFO as an Integral Part of the Team

Chris Schwalbach  ·  September 25, 2019  ·  6 min

As a CFO with more than 17 years of experience, Heidi Huntington has worked with dozens of diverse companies. The pace and variety are what excites Huntington most about the job. She becomes deeply involved with each company, offering a tailored approach that goes far beyond the financials. 

Key to Huntington’s success is customizing her advice and assistance to fit the unique needs of each client.  This is supported by AVL’s commitment to becoming part of an organization’s operational team, even as an on-demand financial services provider. 

What does that look like? Let’s ride shotgun with an AVL CFO to find out.

The Operator

Huntington’s job goes beyond simply analyzing and reporting the numbers. Financials reflect a company’s well-being and tell the story behind a business, she explains. As she works through the transactions, she teases out the narrative for clients so they can take more control of their financial health and their story. 

“We don’t template people,” Huntington says. “We’re operators who provide a custom fit. Just like an in-house CFO, everything we do has to work for the support staff and for the leadership team in order to be meaningful and add value. By working from within the company, I understand the operational side of the business, the marketing side and can tie it all together.”

Stepping into the functional side of the business, Huntington can help find solutions that enable companies to meet their goals. 

For example, one company that Huntington worked with routinely missed its expected manufacturing margin.  

Seeing the pattern as a red flag, Huntington dug into all aspects of the manufacturing process and supply chain to understand the variance. Her research pointed to higher-than-expected rates of yield loss for the co-packer for the product’s most expensive raw ingredient. The co-packer estimated a 5% to 8% yield loss. But the company was experiencing an actual loss closer to 15% to 20%.

With her guidance, the company examined the co-packer’s production process. Were the kettles not being scraped enough? Was too much raw material being left behind in the line when it was transferred between processes? Was there unreported spillage?  

Understanding how manufacturing works and looking at the operational side is where, Huntington says, “we can really start to add value.” 

For other companies, this extends to marketing, sales or other departments. 

“Working collaboratively with sales and marketing teams is critical to accomplish KPI’s and financial goals,” Huntington says. “Did we get the result we expected? If not, why? If we did, how can we apply that strategy again for continued positive results?”

A few months back, Huntington was shopping at a large grocery store chain and found one of her client’s products by the vegan cheese section of the store, which is tucked out of sight from regular foot traffic. The next day during a schedule sales and marketing meeting, Huntington brought up that the product was in a low-traffic, low-visibility section of the store. She discussed with the sales team how to work with buyers to move the product to a higher exposure location, such as the deli section, where hummus and dips are showcased and considered competitors of the product. 

“We did not want to be trapped in food purgatory,” she says. Getting the product reshelved is only one step, she says; the marketing team has to move in tandem with the sales team to make sure customers notice the product. 

As a CFO, she works with the company to weigh the costs of a transition, from staff time to marketing efforts, against the potential for new sales to ensure the financial outcome is positive. Working together to answer these questions is critical to success.

Rather than accepting “what is,” Huntington digs in to show companies what can be improved. Even when something is outside of a company’s control, Huntington says, it needs to stay on the company’s radar. 

Picture it: Your CFO working for you, even at the supermarket? You bet.

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The CFO

Delving deeper and really understanding the inner workings of the business doesn’t just help the business, it’s also critical to the CFO role. It allows them to identify the impact that temporary changes in assumption can have on demand planning, cash flow and financial planning. Knowing this in advance allows for the CFO to build bridges and make repairs.

“You can make all kinds of decisions but unless you understand the financial underpinnings, consequences or upside of them, you’re just shooting in the dark with no clear target,” Huntington says.

Huntington works with early- to mid-stage companies. The reality is that at this stage, they just can’t do it all. And sometimes the sheer volume of financial information can be overwhelming. They may have even waited a little too long to get help.

For the companies she works with, Huntington provides a roadmap that highlights critical and time-sensitive concerns. Then she indicates what should be implemented over the next three months and again, over the next year.

Huntington will also identify areas “that can still derail us, but we have more time to reach a resolution.” Then, she adds, “there are the things that we believe are a value add. But we also fully understand that it is the company making the investment, and they make the ultimate decision.” 

At the end of the process, Huntington’s companies know where to start and what the timeline should look like. It feels a lot more manageable to them.

The Connector

Huntington is an accountant and methodical and organized by nature, but she has also been described as a people connector. Because of this, she sees her job as much more than simply examining numbers.

She frequently leverages her broad network to help the companies she works for. With a deep understanding of both companies and people, Huntington is able to match people with similar missions and interests. If her company is looking for an investor, she very likely knows an investor who focuses on that type of business or mission.  

For example, she has a trusted expert she frequently recommends for valuations. This is critical because the valuation process can make people very nervous. “He does a great job explaining the process, explaining his findings and doing it in a way that works for my clients.”  

This is the fun part for Huntington, building on her relationships to connect companies to the ideal expert.

“Instead of being nervous,” she says, “they’re happy with the outcome.”

By spotting when an expert is needed and knowing who to call, Huntington saves clients time and money. In one case, she recognized that a client’s accounting software problem might be easily solved by working with a software expert. Indeed, the expert quickly diagnosed and solved the issue.  

“What they were worried was a major accounting process problem ended up being a simple mapping issue that took one of my IT collaborators an hour and a half to solve.”

The Team

No CFO has been exposed to absolutely everything. Huntington is quick to point out that her companies do not just get access to her vast expertise and connections, but all of AVL’s team of 20+ CFOs with their own recommendations, data, templates and connections.

“If I don’t have the right investor or PR connection, I have 20 other CFOs that I can tap for information,” she says.

Huntington’s job as a CFO is to provide financial visibility, but it’s clear she does a lot more for the companies she is associated with.

“Our initial purpose is finance but very quickly the finances lead you down a path into the inner workings of the business. You have to be a collaborator and a partner in order to convert that value all the way through to problem solving and strategy.”