“CFOs Must Be Able To See Around Corners”: An Interview With HelloWallet’s Aaron Benway
Few people are as familiar with the new role of the CFO than Aaron Benway. CFO of HelloWallet, makers of a third party financial software that helps employers and their workers manage their finances and benefits, Benway finds himself at the forefront of the organization’s business goals.
We interviewed Benway about how he got his start as a CFO, why he says CFOs need to “see around corners,” and how he gets the most out of his busy day.
Vantage Cost: What was your path to the CFO’s chair?
Aaron Benway: I am a Naval Academy grad with a degree in Electrical Engineering, then Nuclear Engineer-trained before joining the fleet. After Navy, I obtained a Harvard MBA, and then worked in venture capital/private equity at Deutsche Bank and later The Carlyle Group.
Importantly, I tried to do a startup immediately after business school, but it was 2001 and the company conducted lay-offs before I arrived after the summer break. So after a decade on the investor side, I determined I wanted to be closer to the action at a company, moved to Detroit to become head of financial planning and analysis at General Motors. After a year, I moved with family back to DC area and wanted to scratch the entrepreneurial itch. I saw an opportunity in mobile, data, software and behavior change and wanted to play those themes, hence HelloWallet. Important to note: Morningstar purchased HelloWallet a few weeks ago, so the hunch appeared to be a good one, with the benefit of hindsight!
VC: What about HelloWallet attracted you to the CFO position?
AB: It was early stage (Series B) and I would have the ability to play a number of roles, not simply report financial results and own the annual budget cycle. I could help formulate and execute strategy, find talent, conduct customer and partner contract negotiation, create and file patents, etc., all while training my team to replace me. Of course I also became the Chief Security and Privacy Officer and wrote many of our blog posts on behalf of the marketing team. Welcome to the evolving role of the interested CFO. VC: There’s a lot of talk lately about the changing role of the CFO, in terms of the CFO being much more involved in the business goals of the organization. How does that play out for you at HelloWallet?
AB: We could be a poster child for this. Business processes, in certain industries anyway, are accelerating, helped in no small part by the ability to turn ideas into products, particularly within the software space. Identifying market segments, performing business case analysis and resource allocation, while managing “enterprise risk” to cost effectively turn over the next card of product and market sustainability, is the life of startup management team. A CFO sits at the center of that, both referee and individual counselor. CFOs need to understand where the business is going and why to support the functional efforts of the departments, and, of course, pitch in with other duties “as assigned.” VC: What’s your best “life hack” for managing your day as a busy CFO?
AB: Your body is a machine, pure and simple. Reduce the caffeine and alcohol, exercise regularly, eat lots (and lots) of vegetables, nuts, etc. Minimize (no) junk food. Avoid TV, get to bed early and rise early. Try a stand-up desk. Finally, and most importantly, invest in your family, they are the ultimate long term, highest return investment. VC: How can CFOs do a better job of “managing up” with their CEO?
They need to be on the same page. Reporting numbers is not enough. CFO’s must be able to see around corners—organizationally, market competitiveness, macro economic trends, customer and vendor buying cycles, etc.
At the end a business is about more efficient capital deployment than the next guy. Not so much balance sheet stuff, rather culture stuff which translates to enterprise agility and, if you are lucky, some degree of sustainable advantage (though in long run no sustainable advantage exists, save monopolies). In any event, it’s all connected. Of course, if the CEO doesn’t feel that way, then the CFO’s views won’t count as much!
Note: This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.