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Viceroy: Bean Counters - Vision Or Value?

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Upon peering into its crystal ball late last year, the Economist dubbed 2009 "The Year of the CFO"— which sounds like a pretty exciting prospect for a guy like me. But in its article, the magazine went on to posit, “Recession, credit crunch and the increasingly complex nature of global companies will all play directly into the bean counter’s hands.”

Excuse me … bean counter? I think of myself as having a pretty thick skin, but that’s harsh.

“We will hear less of ‘vision’ [from CFOs] and much more of ‘value." Clearly these people didn’t ask for my thoughts on the matter. Vision and value are hardly mutually exclusive. If solid value and values aren’t at the heart of a company’s vision, then it’s set up to fail. A company whose leaders can’t maintain strong vision while steering through crisis is a company that will lose value! Take a look at Jim Collins’ latest book, "How the Mighty Fall."

To be sure, this economy is forcing corporations into some tough decisions, and CFOs are often charged with making those calls. No CFO can wave a magic abacus and tell everyone that it’s all going to be OK. No CFO is happy that the recession is forcing us to cut costs and scale back. Not many would deliberately choose to be parachuted into the midst of a contracting economy with all the pain and distress we’re seeing.

However, amid all the woe, there is something I’m looking forward to, and it is in fact related to value. It’s a return to the acknowledgement of real and fair value. Exactly what constitutes real value is hard to say; the credit bubble played havoc with realistic valuation. Remember the $580 million News Corppaid for MySpace, and the eventual $3.1 billion eBayhanded over for Skype? Talking about the real value in those purchases sounds surreal at a time when we’re dealing with multi-billion dollar bailouts, Madoff’s $50 billion shenanigansand a U.S. budget deficit of more than $1 trillion.

All these figures are beyond the imagination of most people. What we all understand is the cost of a cup of coffee o a bag of groceries or a tank of gas, and whether the combination of price, quality and service is better value at this place or that place. When budgets are tight, we look more critically at what we’re getting for our money. Instead of pulling out the plastic for an impulse buy, we’re envisioning the characteristics that make something worth our cash. We’re reminded that we need to guide ourselves by markers that have value beyond money—things like family, friendship, community and betterment of society.

So yes, 2009 may turn out to be the year of the CFO, but in my world that doesn’t have anything to do with sitting behind a desk counting beans. To me it’s a year of remembering values, revitalizing vision and guiding my team forward with a steady hand.

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Anthony Viceroy, President of Global Operations, Porter Novelli