Category Archives: Revenue Risk Management

CFO-Turned-Writer Patrick Kelly Talks Openly about Technology Start-ups, Sales, and His First Novel, Hill Country Greed

What do you get when you combine a tech startup, a management team ravenously fixated on a goal, an IPO, and a mysterious murder? Well, I won’t spoil things by giving up the answer. You’ll have to read Hill Country Greed, the debut novel by CFO-turned-writer Patrick Kelly. I will offer only one hint: the outcome is not what you think.

Kelly has deep experience in the technology and airline industries. He has served as interim CEO of a $750 million airline, director on two public company boards, and CFO five times for public and private companies. He imaginatively weaves his experiences into the novel, which takes place in Austin, Texas during the high-tech boom between 1999 and 2000.

I caught up with Patrick Kelly this week, and asked him about the characters and situations that inspired his novel, and how CFO’s view marketing and sales:

AR: At the beginning of Hill Country Greed, CFO Joe Robbins, and the head of Marketing, Gwen Raleigh, initially have a rocky working relationship. A vignette involves a rancorous staff meeting in which the two argue about whether the company is wasting its marketing investment, and it’s clear that Gwen isn’t accustomed to having her feet held to the fire. What are the biggest sources of conflict between CFO’s and Sales and Marketing?

Patrick Kelly: Joe is from a button-down old-line company where every dollar is scrutinized. Gwen grew up in a start-up environment where speed is valued more highly than solid controls. Eventually, Joe and Gwen settle their differences and establish a solid working relationship. This should always be the case with the CFO and the Sales and Marketing organization. A good CFO realizes that strong sales are essential to growth and that you have to spend money to make money. At the same time, the head of Sales and Marketing must understand that the sales group is accountable for generating an acceptable return for each dollar of spending. By recognizing each other’s contributions, the CFO and head of Sales and Marketing can establish a winning relationship.

AR: How do you make sure project risk—whether IT, business development, or anything else—matches what the company can absorb financially? In other words, how do CFO’s address the problem of business risks spiraling out of control?

Patrick Kelly: Every business has risk, and to create a truly disruptive business with high growth potential it is essential to assume risk. The biggest mistake I see small companies make is to bet too big on unproven concepts. The innovators of a company sometimes fall in love with their own inventions and become blinded to downside risk. They may be tempted to “bet big” on a new product or service before it has been proven in the marketplace. If the initial test fails this can lead to cash flow problems and an early demise for the business. A strong CFO can help the team decide to manage cash conservatively during the market test phase so that when the product IS finally ready, there are sufficient resources to finance growth.

AR: In your book, head of sales Jack O’Shea tells Joe Robbins, “a good CFO knows that all salespeople are coin operated.” But isn’t everyone, to some degree? And, aren’t millenials and younger salespeople motivated by more than just high income?

Patrick Kelly: I suppose everyone is coin operated to some degree, but it is the sales team, with their fine-tuned sensitivity to what the customer needs, that the company depends on to bring in the revenue. The combination of a good product, a well-designed commission plan, and a strong sales force will result in solid growth for the company. I can’t speak for millenials, but I certainly hope younger salespeople are still motivated by the promise of making money.

AR: I don’t want to give away the plot, but I’ll mention that insider fraud is part of the story. How prevalent do you think fraud is at tech companies, what are the warning signs, and what precautions should executives take to avoid fraud?

Patrick Kelly: Fraud occurs at every company, including tech companies, and most of it goes unnoticed. The most important step executives can take to avoid fraud is to set the right “tone at the top.” The CEO and the rest of the senior team will prevent most fraud from ever occurring by clearly communicating that fraud of any kind is unacceptable and by setting a strong example with their own actions. In addition, the CFO, with strong support from the CEO, must design and implement an effective set of controls to make the commission of fraud more difficult.

AR: Many generalizations have been made about what CFOs think—much of it written by people who aren’t CFOs. Is it possible to generalize? Is there such a thing as a “CFO mindset”?

Patrick Kelly: Yes. In my view adopting a “CFO mindset” means looking at the business in terms of the key drivers of success. For example, some software companies make little or no profit from selling the initial product but generate tons of profit from the maintenance and support services that follow the initial sale. The astute executive team will understand those drivers and ensure that the quality of the maintenance and support services is so high that customers never leave.

AR: Are CFO’s really driven by math and “hard numbers” when vetting business development projects? Or, is it really something else?

Patrick Kelly: CFO’s should carefully evaluate the numbers when vetting business development projects. If they don’t, chances are no one will. However, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be dreamers in the company. The R&D team must take into account where the market is headed and create new products that are ahead of those trends. That takes vision and dreams. But by the time the dreams have been fine-tuned into development plans there should be market analysis that supports the investment of capital required to make the dreams a reality.

AR: When prospective vendors pitch to CFO’s, what makes a positive impression—and what doesn’t? Are there any top “deal killers” people should know about?

Patrick Kelly: A lot of vendors pitch me with a product or service that sounds like the “idea of the day.” I immediately reject those pitches. I also dislike miracle cures. Never start a pitch with a line that sounds like, “Wouldn’t you like to double your profit in the next three months?” To impress me, a sale representative must understand my problems. Bring me a product or service that solves a real problem in a unique way, or lowers the cost of the business in a meaningful way, and I’ll take the meeting.

AR: Hill Country Greed takes place in Austin. What do you think of the city as a future tech hub or startup incubator? Will it overtake Silicon Valley?

Patrick Kelly: With its rolling hills, evergreens, and lakes, Austin is a great place to set a murder mystery and a great place for a high-tech company to base its operations. Technology companies have been in Austin for decades, even before Michael Dell began his start-up in the mid-eighties. With affordable housing, zero state income tax, and an abundance of recreational activities, Austin is a magnet for young professionals. In terms of size, we may never overtake Silicon Valley, but then again, Silicon Valley will never boast that it is the Live Music Capital of the World.

As author Tim O’Brien wrote, “A lie, sometimes, can be truer than the truth, which is why fiction gets written.” Whether you’re seeking a fabulous mystery, or an excellent “case study” about technology startups, you’ll find something to like in Hill Country Greed. Try out the first five chapters, free!


“Honesty is the Best Policy.” But, Is the World Ready for a CHO?

“Oh, and it doesn’t hurt to be honest about your capabilities and limitations. These will come out sooner or later,” Bob Thompson of CustomerThink wrote in a recent article. (Why Reps Can’t Sell. It’s the (Selling) System, Stupid!)
In other words, honesty is the best policy. But if you’re searching for succinct how-to’s for honesty, I’m sorry to disappoint. You won’t find any here. Wikihow already offers a practical, easy-to-follow 7-step process, and I won’t attempt to improve on it.

Besides, Thompson’s “it doesn’t hurt to be honest” admonition sent me on a slightly different tangent, piquing my curiosity to understand the cha-ching! –  the actual dollars-and-cents business value of honesty. Though I couldn’t calculate the exact amount, I will estimate it contributes substantially to our gross national product, and leave it at that.

Organizations casually talk the honesty-talk, but many conspicuously meander when walking the honesty-walk. Words, without will or motivation behind them, are just words. What’s missing is Corporate Muscle: a Kahuna of Honest Communication who wields power to make people stay within the lines of the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. If kahuna doesn’t suit your literary style, call him or her a Chief Honesty Officer, or CHO.Corporate honesty should be easy. But I’ll make a confession: it’s not. Sometimes it’s really hard to drive demand without stretching and distorting the truth like a glob of silly putty. What’s a sales pitch, “Business Case Study,” or ROI Calculation without cleverly stacking facts and figures? But despite the difficulties, honesty-is-the-best-policy can still be embedded into a business strategy. Remember how effectively Radio Shack used bold honesty to parody its own lack of innovation in the spot it aired during the 2014 Super Bowl?

JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs. Immediately following the banking crisis, I expected to see a CHO in their executive suites. But no. How about BP and ExxonMobil? The same. Some industries are more ripe for a Senior Honesty Champion than others. Oddly, instead of anointing a CHO, corporations large and small regularly plug other chiefs into the org chart. From the important, like Chief Financial Officer and Chief Marketing Officer, to the inane, like Chief Fun Officer. But alas, not even titular homage for Honesty (sigh).

Compliance! Change! Synergy! Value! Shout out most any trendy topic, and you’ll find a Chief-Something-Officer all over it, like a fly on poop. Only in America can we find Management-by-magazine so lovingly woven into a bureaucratic corporate tapestry. This seems so wrong. Did someone say, “Well, at our company, honesty really falls under Legal . . .”? Puh-leeeeze!

Today, “honesty is the best policy,” yields 14.7 million online search results. While I didn’t analyze how much of that content contains positive sentiment, it’s seems safe to say that people clearly lionize honesty. Not bad for a 415-year-old idea that traces its origins to an essay, In Europae Speculum, by Sir Edwin Sandys, who wrote, “Our grosse conceipts, who think honestie the best policie.”

Consider three common business situations involving honesty, and how a CHO would formulate strategy, manage risk, and provide governance to increase business value:

Not enough honesty.
As the General Motors Cobalt product liability case demonstrates, companies often use Marketing and Sales to obscure sinister truths about a company’s safety and quality issues. According to Keith Crain, Editor-in-Chief of Automotive News, “This issue is not about a faulty switch. Car companies have been dealing with defective parts and recalls for decades. This does not even rank in the top 10 recalls. Far more serious is whether GM executives knew about the defective switches and the crashes long ago and someone at GM tried to keep the whole issue quiet.”

Too much honesty.
In a recent article in The Washington Post, (College tour de Farce: 5 Ways not to Sell Your School, April 25th), Melinda Henneberger wrote about a tour guide she encountered at the University of California, San Diego. The “truth-telling tour leader dispensed way too much information,” and “soon had parents and progeny alike staring intently at our shoes as she talked about her steamy dating life and her preference for being the one who picks up guys when she goes clubbing.”

Exaggeration and distortion.
There are infinite examples. But here’s a current favorite of mine, a (barely) fictitious sales pitch from the HBO series Silicon Valley:

“The greatness of human accomplishment has always been measured by size, the bigger, the better, until now. Nanotech, smart cars, small is the new big. In the coming months, Hooli will deliver Nucleus, the most sophisticated compression software platform the world has ever seen because if we can make your audio and video files smaller, we can make cancer smaller and hunger and AIDS.”

Outsized marketing floats all boats, especially if you work for a start-up. As advertising executive Milton Glaser said, “If you don’t have a change-the-world outlook, you’re doing it wrong.”–Which is great, but what happens when braggadocio permeates every conversation?

In a recent episode of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert quipped, “Ladies and gentlemen, I believe honesty is the best policy, but a close second is lying about how honest you are.” Colbert’s comment harpooned a disturbing reality, hitting a nerve that needed to be hit. Could an honesty policy at General Motors have saved the lives of thirteen Colbalt drivers?

It’s hard to say, but without someone at the highest level within an enterprise responsible for establishing a culture for honesty, as well as creating a strategy for executing and governing it, we won’t see the end of criminal corporate liability, massive breakdowns in trust, and the implosion of business value that accompanies it.

Sales Governance and Compliance: It Takes a Village

Two hundred and thirty-six years. That’s the cumulative amount of prison time that Bernie Madoff, Dennis Kozlowski, Bernard Ebbers, Kevin Trudeau, Jeffrey Skilling, and Walter Forbes were sentenced to serve for criminal fraud. The shortest sentence was 10 years—sufficient time to practice yoga while chanting Om Namah Shivaaya, or Woulda Coulda Shoulda – whichever comes to mind.

We know how amorality spreads when a senior executive meanders onto the ethical low road. “A fish begins rotting at the head,” as people commonly describe the infectious chain reaction.

But a fish can begin rotting anywhere. This month The Economist reported that 70% of companies surveyed were affected by fraud in 2013, up from 61% in the previous year. If you’re curious to explore the sociology behind this trend, save yourself the time. Willie Sutton, the notorious robber, provided a terse, but insightful summation when asked why he chose banks as his preferred target: “Because that’s where the money is.”

Most fraud never gets reported. Some readers might remember Travis Doe, the pseudonym for a former sales co-worker, who I wrote about in a 2007 article, On My Honor as a Salesperson: Why Sales Ethics Matter. Travis scammed his company and its customers, until he inadvertently blew his cover. He didn’t bag as much cash as these convicts, and he didn’t go to jail. Instead, Travis was quietly fired, and he slithered off into oblivion, until resurfacing—on LinkedIn, of all places! I recently stalked his profile page, and wasn’t surprised to discover that he didn’t use Thief for any of his various job titles, nor did he list the company he scammed as one of his employers. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

Thinking like a fraudster will help prevent fraud. Let’s look through Travis’s eyes at the conditions he found ripe for exploitation:

1. High financial rewards for fraud. Travis funneled customer orders through a shell reseller company he maintained. Resellers received a price discount of 40%, and Travis reaped 100% of the margin.

2. Sales compensation skewed heavily toward rewarding revenue achievement. Travis knew that as long as he made his number, he could operate without tripping any alarms.

3. Lax internal audit controls and ineffective transaction monitoring. No one sought explanations about the “Reseller’s” business offering, or why a company was allowed a reseller discount when it had no resources, and no capacity to add value.

4. Siloed business operations. Travis reported through the reseller channel, and his activities were not scrutinized by direct sales management.

5. Remote monitoring without control. Activity reports were sent to managers working in remote offices.

The growing rate of corporate fraud should remind executives that Travis Doe was no low-probability, rogue employee outlier. There are plenty more Travises, many lurking behind cleanly-scrubbed LinkedIn profiles. And if Travis Doe had complicit parties to his fraud, it was his tone-deaf managers who had their heads immersed in sand. They tacitly allowed Travis to take full advantage of them. With effective sales governance and compliance procedures in place, Travis might have had to move on to find a different company from which to steal.

There are ten hallmarks for effective governance and compliance programs, adapted from US Department of Justice guidelines designed to help companies comply with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

1. Commitment from senior management. Top management must model the right behaviors if they expect others to behave similarly.
2. Documented code of conduct, and unambiguous compliance policies.
3. Oversight autonomy and resources. It takes a village—the oversight team must work without pressure for making revenue goals, and must be allowed sufficient time and power for investigation.
4. Ongoing risk assessment. Risk exposure for sales fraud changes as people, processes, and technologies change.
5. Training and continuing advice for employees. As one attorney told me, “companies that breach regulations have better cases if they can prove they have provided employees ongoing training about ethical and legal obligations and boundaries.”
6. Incentives and disciplinary procedures. Employees must be motivated to blow the whistle, and the consequences for non-compliant activity must be enforced.
7. Due diligence for business practices of third-party resellers and channel partners. Vetting and monitoring reseller sales practices is as important as ensuring compliance for internal practices.
8. Confidential reporting and internal investigation. The ability to expose the truth requires assurances for anonymity.
9. Continuous improvement, testing and review.
10. Mergers and acquisitions: pre-acquisition due diligence and post-acquisition integration.
Legal and ethical governance and compliance have evolved into significant issues for companies engaged in global sales. And tactics around revenue generation have percolated into almost every area that leaders must address, including cybercrime, money laundering, China’s bribery crackdown, and trade sanctions. Companies that educate their sales and marketing staffs about these issues and others will be better prepared for the challenges, and can avoid onerous legal penalties.

Organizations that implement a sales governance and compliance program should not expect to drive fraud risk to zero. As The Economist reported, “fraud within companies is a risk that can never be eliminated, just managed.”

Further reading: The Dow Jones Global Compliance Symposium, April 22-23, 2014, Washington, DC.

Is ‘Made in USA’ a Good Marketing Schtick?

“Your Honda isn’t welcome here. Go park it in Japan.”

In the US auto industry’s muscle-car heyday, it wasn’t unusual to see such xenophobic signs sprouting from factory pavement throughout the rust belt. Detroit was as much an automotive statement as a city. Today, figuring out how American your car is requires sophisticated sleuthing.

Turns out, Hondas are pretty darn American. In 2012, the company built 1.2 million vehicles right here in the good old US of A. In fact, every major Japanese auto manufacturer except Mazda has US production capacity. A US-built engine powers the Toyota Sienna, which is assembled in a Princeton, Indiana plant, not far from a gaggle of Denny’s and Cracker Barrel restaurants. More than 75% of the vehicle’s components are sourced from US suppliers. Compared to the Chevrolet Spark, which is built in Korea from mostly Korean parts, these Japanese nameplates are as American as mom and apple pie.

Made in America was once dependably rock-solid easy to grasp. But The Wall Street Journal recently reported a new confusion—the very definition of made. A new business model called factory-less goods producers (yes, you read that correctly) has become a trend. According to the newspaper, factory-less goods producers “handle every part of making their products except the actual fabrication. As industries have gone global, this model has proliferated – from furniture making to electronics . . . Now there is a move afoot among US government agencies to count these companies as manufacturers, which is a surprisingly fraught issue.” (Feds Try Redefining Manufacturing, March 15, 2014). An iPhone shipped from China with a proud Made in America emblem? Don’t laugh. Soon, the packaging might be perfectly legal.

Even America, once synonymous with US, doesn’t reliably mean US, at least for advertising and promotion purposes. Technically, the term encompasses our neighbors to the north and south, Canada and Mexico. NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, accounts for 17% of all global trade. And bilateral US-Mexican trade alone now equals $1.4 billion per day, according to former Mexican ambassador to the US, Arturo Sarukhan.

The fuzzification of American-made presents difficult challenges for US consumers. “Given a choice between a product made in the US and an identical one made abroad, 78% of Americans would rather buy the American product,” according to a nationally representative survey by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

The survey further revealed that “more than 80% of those people cited retaining manufacturing jobs and keeping American manufacturing strong in the global economy as very important reasons for buying American. About 60% cited concern about the use of child workers or other cheap labor overseas, or stated that American-made goods were of higher quality.” A 2012 study by another company, Perception Research Services International, corroborated these findings. Their research found that 80% of shoppers notice a Made in the USA label on packaging, and 76% said they would be more likely to buy a product because of the label.

But when money comes up, patriotic Americans sit down hard on their wallets. “Just 21% said they would definitely pay slightly higher prices to buy American-made products. 60% said that they would pay slightly higher prices to buy American made products only in some cases. And 19% said they wouldn’t pay more to buy American made products,” according to the Consumer Reports survey.

Does the case to Buy American help or hinder US producers? Does it help US global competitiveness if patriotic fervor becomes the primary consideration for a purchase decision? In a global economy, aren’t US producers best served when they win on merits of superior quality, better features, and wide availability? These are not easy questions to answer. After all, a revenue dollar is still a dollar—regardless the reason a customer decided to buy.

But beyond patriotism, there are compelling reasons that a Made in USA label drives demand:

Safety. In a widely publicized case beginning in 2007, pet food imported from China was implicated in sickening many dogs and cats in the US, prompting the FDA to issue a warning, updated in 2011. “The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continues to caution consumers about a potential association between the development of illness in dogs and the consumption of chicken jerky products. The products—also called chicken tenders, strips, or treats—are imported from China. FDA continues to receive complaints of sick dogs that their owners or veterinarians associate with eating chicken jerky products.”

Corporate Social Responsibility. Many Americans are troubled by the labor and environmental standards in the developing world, and want to make buying choices that are ethical. The factory collapse that killed 1,100 workers in Bangladesh in April, 2013, exposed the hazardous conditions that many workers outside the US encounter every day. Still, finding clothing with a Made in USA label isn’t easy. The American Apparel and Footwear Association reported that in 2011, just 2.3% of all apparel sold in the US was made in the US.

Profit. The competitive price advantage for offshore goods has started to fade. “’With rising labor and energy costs overseas, a few manufacturers have even told Walmart privately that they have defined the ‘tipping points’ at which manufacturing abroad will no longer make sense for them,’ William S. Simon, the Walmart U.S. chief executive, said in making the announcement at the National Retail Federation conference in New York,” according to a January, 2013 article in The New York Times, Walmart Plans to Buy American More Often. Last year, Walmart announced plans to increase sourcing of American-made products by $50 billion by 2023.

Despite claims that customers have more information power than ever, supply chains remain highly opaque. In February, 2014 The Wall Street Journal reported that “the top three canned-tuna brands in the US are foreign-owned, but that doesn’t stop them from bickering about which is the most American . . . StarKist cleans and cans tuna in the US territory of American Samoa. Last year it drove home that point by introducing a label depicting Charlie the Tuna backed by an American flag. Chicken of the Sea (owned by Thai Union Frozen Products PLC of Thailand) and Bumble Bee rely on plants in Thailand and elsewhere for labor-intensive cleaning, then ship their tuna to the US for canning.”

If you think scientists find it difficult to track the migration of wild tuna, try tracking the product once it’s canned! But David Roszmann, COO of Chicken of the Sea, helpfully set things straight when he said, “We’re as American as any other major seafood company.” Good to know.

But the ultimate obfuscation comes from the American Glove Company of Dalles, Oregon. The Consumer Reports article I mentioned earlier shows a pair of the company’s gloves with a label showing a flapping, red white and blue American flag aligned at a bold diagonal, offset against a white oval background. One mention appears right above the flag: made in Vietnam.

Eight Common Myths about Business Risk

It seems everyone has an opinion about cholesterol. Most people know there are two types, good and bad. If you ask a friend, he or she will tell you to eat more of the good kind, and less of the bad. Makes sense to me.

Now, I’ve learned that’s bunk. There’s a bad version of good cholesterol that causes disease. And I learned there’s a good version of bad cholesterol. Confused? Me too. From now on, I’m just going to refer to cholesterol by its chemical designation, C27 H46 O. That seems so much simpler.

The word risk suffers from the same confusion. Like cholesterol, risk is a thing. Neither good nor bad. What gives risk its mojo is context. As The Economist reported “Though changing appetites for risk are central to booms and busts, economists have found it hard to explain their determinants . . . the willingness to run risks varies enormously among individuals and over time.”

What is risk? Webster defines it as “possibility of loss or injury.” In most business contexts, risk has broader meaning, which I describe as uncertainty toward achieving a goal. Risks live in the gap between predictions and the actual result. The outcomes can be positive or negative.

Marketers and business developers have long used risk as a competitive weapon. “Buying from our company right now will protect you from falling hopelessly behind your competition.” Such a great pitch! We’ve all used a flavor of it. But risk has always been a two-edged sword. Myths about risk skew assumptions and drive expectations into weird places.

Myth #1: “Customers decide based on facts!” Facts are only part of the decision-making apparatus. “Any decision relating to risk involves two distinct and yet inseparable elements: the objective facts and a subjective view about the desirability of what is to be gained, or lost, by the decision,” wrote Peter Bernstein in his book, Against the Gods.

Myth #2: “Most customers perceive risks the same way.” If every person had the same risk appetite or capacity, our financial markets could not function.

Myth #3: “Anything a vendor can do to mitigate risk will be rewarded with more and faster sales.” If only it were that straightforward. Using that logic, wouldn’t it be compelling for many executives to simply stick with the status quo? While most buyers don’t want to absorb unnecessary risk, every solution creates new risks. So promoting the singular message of risk reduction might ring hollow. The key is to help buyers identify opportunities for eliminating unneeded risks, and to help them identify intelligent risks that are likely to return value to the company.

Myth #4: “Products with short time-to-value are less risky than those with longer time-to-value.” Contrary to some sales assertions, there is rarely certainty about value achievement. If you latched onto this logic, buying a lottery ticket for next week’s drawing would be less risky than buying a US savings bond.

Myth #5: “Showing a prospect the cost of inaction will lead to a sale.” But that’s only one side of the coin. Once funds are committed and a project has been initiated, companies often can’t turn back. That can put them in a riskier position than companies that have retained their financial and technological options.

Myth #6: “Our strategy is fine. We just need to execute!” Strategic risk can have devastating consequences for shareholder value.,, The Learning Company. During the Tech Bubble, these companies and many others suffered significant losses in market capitalization because they had strategies that proved disastrous.

Myth #7: “My company doesn’t have ethical risks.” I often hear, “that sort of problem can’t happen here.” But it can. Almost everyone knows of a former co-worker (or more) who pushed the ethical envelope when selling to customers.

Myth #8: “Most risk can be managed with careful measurement.” Measurements help, but not every major risk can be easily measured or predicted.

Just like cholesterol, what’s bad risk in one context might be good in another. So it’s best to recognize that the labels people slap on aren’t necessarily accurate in every situation. Debunking myths about risk, and moving beyond its pejorative meaning will help people think about risk in new ways. Not as something that always has to be faced down and avoided, but as something that, when embraced intelligently, opens new opportunities.

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