Industry Immersion: CFO as Storyteller and Voice of Reason

Executives from AT&T and a veteran startup CFO advise students

For many MBA students in the CFO for Technology Industry Immersion course, AT&T's Michael Coffey disrupted their view of the communications conglomerate's business.

With rapid-fire intensity, Coffey, a UC Davis alumnus, shares with the students the breadth and enormity of both his company and the blurred markets it intersects: from telecommunications and media to entertainment and technology.

As senior vice president for global delivery and assurance, Coffey explains that AT&T now competes with Amazon, Facebook and Snapchat for sports coverage and is closely tracking the synergistic marketing that companies like Apple deploy across many services and technologies.

His colleague Shareron Willis, assistant vice president for financial analysis, brings a different perspective. As an AT&T division head, she balances a relationship with corporate headquarters on one end and on the other the AT&T unit her team manages the finances for, which she refers to as her internal client. Until recently, Coffey was one of those clients.

“I am the storyteller that goes: ‘Here’s what’s happening in the business,’” she says. “I’m this person that’s sitting in the middle, staying in constant contact with my client and I’m telling that story back to the business with my client, so we’re all on the same page.”

The larger story that AT&T is now telling the U.S. government, the courts and consumers is about the benefits of its proposed $85 billion merger with Time Warner.

The Three Paths to a Startup

“You started big with AT&T,” says Paul Bergholm, the afternoon speaker for the Immersion. “Now we’re going to go really small—we’re going to go nano small.”

Bergholm, the chief administrative officer for investment adviser Personal Capital, gives the class a primer on the role of a CFO in a startup. Like Willis at AT&T, he stresses that the CFO touches on every part of the business.

“The goal is to get the bus down the road,” he says. “And your job is to keep the wheels on the bus.”

Bergholm has over 20 years helping manage the financial activities of young tech companies, including eBay and Keynote Systems. He served as CFO of PassMark Security and CFO of Taxcient.

You’re going to board meetings, he continues, and you’ll go to investor meetings and talk to 100 different investors—and 99 are going to turn you down.

He says your startup will get to a point where it will take one of three paths. Perhaps you’ll be that rare unicorn and grow successfully. Or you may be a product, able to sell the company but not scale up. Or you decide to shut it down and move on.

Whichever path, the odds are against you, with 80 percent of startups failing in year one, he notes.

You have to be the voice of reason, Bergholm tells the students.

“When you start a company, at least from a finance perspective, you should go into it thinking you’re going to fail and how do you mitigate that risk,” Bergholm says.

“Because you’ve surrounded yourself with really smart and enthusiastic people who have all these crazy thoughts about what this company is going to be,” he says.

Bergholm explains that by being expected to fill a multitude of traditional roles as CFO—banking, brokering and advising—you adopt an arsenal of digital technologies and a data-driven approach that’s both uniquely customized to the company and holistic in addressing all of its needs.

For each cautionary insight Bergholm ticks through, he offers a personal example of a startup gone wrong and the message he carried into his next company.

By the end of the class, he has assembled a startup road map for the students, pockmarked with the financial potholes to avoid along the way.