10 questions for Emergn CFO Evan Cassidy
- 14 February, 2012 06:37
Name: Evan Cassidy
Time with company: 1 year
Education: Bachelor of Science, Master in Accounting, MBA from Babson College; CPA company headquarters: Dublin, Ireland; U.S. headquarters: Boston
Number of countries: Ireland, England, U.S.
Number of employees total: 55
Number of employees the CFO oversees: 3
About the company: Emergn is a global IT management consultancy that uses Lean and Agile-inspired methodologies to increase value, improve flow and advance quality across the enterprise. The company's customers are enterprise-level Fortune 500 and 100 corporations and government in the U.S. and Europe.
1. Where did you start in finance and what experiences led you to the job you have today?
I'm certainly a growth guy. There's a very strong entrepreneurial spirit that runs deep within me, which isn't always the norm for a CFO. It started early. My parents, who are probably responsible for it, like telling the story about when I was five years old I started to rent books to my family and friends from my personal library. When I was in middle school a friend of mine and I decided to start a boat-tour business -- we were going to give people tours of Marblehead Harbor [north of Boston]. I think the logic at the time is that he was supposed to provide his family's boat and I was going to do much of the rest. While it didn't quite get off the ground -- or into the water -- it was a first, fun stab at a business plan.
I had the good fortune of being involved in "real" startups as early as high school. I got neck deep into the Web-design craze back in the late '90s and was able to build a company working with some clients. Juggling the business with schoolwork was tedious -- I vividly remember sneaking to the phone booth to make calls to clients between classes. They had no idea I was 15. This was a great experience that helped me to learn how to deal with people and manage client demands. I think I did pretty well for someone who didn't have a driver's license yet.
Following my passion, I went to Babson College, the Promised Land for entrepreneurship. The climate there was electric with startup energy. The more I became involved in startups, the more I seemed to become the money guy. This probably guided my path through accounting, undergrad and master's, culminating in a CPA.
My first exclusive accounting job was at KPMG in the forensics practice in Boston, where I got to experience an interesting side of accounting by investigating fraud and helping to build out anti-money-laundering compliance frameworks. I always explain to people that it was a combination between accounting and "CSI."
My desire to move to the strategic end of financial consulting yielded a unique opportunity to join a burgeoning CFO advisory firm in Boston called Verge Advisors. There I worked with a great team and some fascinating, high-energy clients on turnarounds, funding, M&A and exit planning. It was there that I learned how to build out a rock-star accounting and finance organization from the ground up.
Emergn was a client of mine at Verge and we worked exceptionally well together so they offered me a job full time. It was not the first time that had happened in my career, but it was a combination of a great opportunity, a great company and great people that led me to want to focus all of my energy on Emergn.
2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?
I've been very fortunate to have had some great mentors in finance over the years but one stands out: Jonathan Iannacone, the founder of Verge Advisors. He was a huge influence and showed me that a CFO didn't have to be a stodgy old guy hidden away in the back room but more of a uniquely creative and dynamic force that drives growth in any company, particularly a young one still finding its feet.
The management team at Emergn has certainly caused me to think differently, constructively challenging some traditional processes, which has resulted in making them leaner, more efficient and user-friendly. Alex Adamopoulos, our CEO, has been an inspiration in what it means to be a leader. He was one of the biggest factors that drew me to Emergn in the first place. While I've worked for a number of people who talk a good game, Alex has a unique boldness of character and lives his values -- qualities I hope to emulate in my own leadership.
3. What are the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?
From where I sit, there seem to be two types of challenges. First, there are the micro and macro technical ones -- cash-flow planning, keeping ahead of the evolving political regulatory environments, risk management, evolving delivery costs, et cetera. Cash is king, but never more so than in a self-funded, high-growth company.
Secondly, there are the soft challenges. Developing important relationships within the company, with clients and key vendors. CFOs tend to be siloed and reluctant to scale barriers to communication, and I believe that to be one of the greatest but less visible risks. If you can recognize the need, it actually isn't that hard to surmount.
Bottom line, a CFO must remain strategic. It's easy to get caught up in the weeds but your eyes must remain focused on the horizon. That's not always the easiest thing in a high-growth startup. You can't take your foot off the pedal.
4. What is a good day at work like for you?
Fortunately, things are never boring and that's usually near the top of my list.
At the end of the day, I can walk home happy if I know I've added strategic value and taken our team and clients to a better place. And to me a good day is when I both learn and teach something, either at work or in my personal life. That transfer of knowledge is very important to me.
5. How would you characterize your management style?
I'm a very direct and open person. Everyone who works for me always knows what I'm thinking, positive or otherwise. I appreciate openness in my team as it fosters a great working relationship. I try very hard to inspire innovative thinking, that's very important to me. Since I do my best to select all stars in the interview process I have a very hands-off management approach, but at the same time I can be very hands on and jump in to help the team succeed whenever necessary. I'm a firm believer that with the right people literally anything is possible.
6. What strengths and qualities do you look for in job candidates?
I like bright people who are extremely into what they do and aren't afraid to take calculated risks. To me, that's what it takes for smart growth at both the personal and corporate level. I'm always looking for excellent communicators. What's the point of keeping meticulous books and spending hours on analysis if you can't coherently share that information with shareholders to make great things happen?
Most importantly, I need people who act with integrity and won't think twice to raise their hand if there's a question. Finance simply doesn't work without integrity. Honesty and an independent and objective mind are crucial.
7. What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company? What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn't be a good fit?
Unfortunately, they don't make flight simulators for accounting.
Generally, a writing sample isn't normally part of the interview process for an accounting job but for me it's critical in assessing one's ability to communicate -- tone, concision, word choice, et cetera. Like many global companies, we rely quite a bit on the written word through email, and someone who can write well is the right face of the accounting organization.
I also ask questions aimed at assessing critical-thinking skills. I've had success in asking "what would you do in this situation?" to better understand how a candidate thinks in routine and stressful scenarios, which will inevitably arise. But a hypothetical answer doesn't suffice -- the solution must be somehow tied back to a tangible and relevant experience the candidate has had. This technique is sometimes helpful in helping to draw out experiences that the candidate may not have otherwise mentioned.
I also give candidates information, sharing a lot about the company or myself since I view the candidate as interviewing me in the process as well. I'm not afraid to share my strengths and weaknesses if the openness results in an excellent hire.
In a company that is expanding like wildfire, I need people who can collaborate to build an organization that scales seamlessly. We just don't have time to stop and reinvent midflight. Accounting should never be the bottleneck.
8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief finance positions?
Emergn is all about challenging traditional thinking, which is a quality that I've absorbed into my group. In my last couple of roles, but here in particular, I've tried to reconceive the traditional CFO role. There's flexibility in terms of what we're able to use for tools and we're not bound by the limitations of a larger company.
I believe in constantly assessing and improving what we do. I'm proud to be different and it would really put a smile on my face if someone were to walk into our office and not recognize it as an accounting office. We're playing the Red Hot Chili Peppers right now in the background.
I make it a point to remain an eternal student of our rapidly evolving industry. There is just so much going on in the space and if you don't get it you can't provide well-rounded counsel to the team.
Keeping on top of compliance when operating in so many countries can be a bit tricky. I enjoy the complexity of structuring some complicated items to ensure they're done right.
9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?
Excellent question. I'm sitting in Dublin right now -- and so it really depends on where I am. I spend a lot of time here or in London with the EMEA management team. When I'm home in Boston, it's not unusual for my day to start at 4:30 or 5 a.m. when Europe turns on. I like to take a walk on the waterfront after doing emails and putting out any fires, which may have smoldered overnight. When I'm at home, I like to unwind by writing music, but unfortunately my keyboard is too big to fit in my carry-on, so when I travel I enjoy immersing myself in local culture and music.
As I mentioned, I have the startup bug and am passionate about helping entrepreneurs think through their challenges. I'm an adviser to a few founders and help them understand multiple, and sometimes unconventional, growth and exit paths. I love this stuff.
10. If you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing?
I've always had a great interest in transportation infrastructure planning. It sounds boring, but do you ever sit in traffic or waiting in an airport and think there has to be a better way? I was able to explore this particular passion when writing my honors thesis in college and hope to someday pursue traffic theory more. But, knowing me, it will almost certainly be within the context of a high-growth startup.