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Friday, July 1, 2011

CFO SPOTLIGHT – Renee Thomas Jacobs, Title Nine

We interviewed Renee Thomas Jacobs to showcase how her many years as a CFO prepared her for the role of both Chief Operating Officer and President. In 1991 Renee was hired at women’s athletic apparel company Title Nine as hourly help when the company was in its infancy. She was instrumental in growing the company from start-up to national multi-channel retailer with a robust e-commerce site, catalog business and eighteen stores.

In her 20-year retail career she has worn most hats including Call Center Representative, Shipper, Inventory Control, IT Management, Finance, Marketing, CFO, COO and President. She started at NapaStyle in 2009 as COO, jumping in during the economic downturn to restructure the company and re-start growth. Her career experience as a CFO enabled her to bring strategic leadership to the company at a critical time, and she has served as President & COO at NapaStyle since 2010.

Q. You didn’t have a typical finance background before becoming a CFO at Title Nine. Tell me about how you came into the role.

A. I never intended to end up in business. I had graduated from UC Berkeley and my plan was to go to medical school after taking a year off. I was introduced to Missy Park who was working out of her garage in Berkeley running a start-up called ‘Title 9 Sports’ that sold women’s athletic apparel. It was the first women’s athletic apparel company in the space. My first role was to answer phones, pack boxes and manage inventory -and it turned out that I really fell in love with business and never made it to med school. Missy was good at branding and merchandising. She needed someone to run operations, including purchasing IT systems and working side by side with the accountants to close the books. After 10 astonishingly quick years we were over the $20 million mark and I took on the role of CFO.

Q. Did that operational experience make you a better CFO?

A. Without question, having worked in every department made me a better CFO. When you are a CFO you are constantly dealing with financial metrics used to measure the financial health of the business. You are looking at questions such as “What’s the conversion in stores? What is the average order? What’s the ROI on your marketing spending?” But often a CFO will get stymied with how to actually change the business processes behind those metrics to achieve financial improvement. The advantage that I had was already understanding the business processes thoroughly and knowing which levers to push and pull.

Q. How could CFOs today supplement their operational knowledge?

A. I think it is imperative to experience your company. I laugh at that TV show, “Undercover Boss,” and watching the executives learn their own business. It’s kind of comical to me, because shame on you if you don’t know what really happens on the front lines. On a busy Saturday each year I will go to the store, put on a NapaStyle apron and sell. You learn a lot. You meet your customers face to face. You discover what sells and what doesn’t and, more importantly, why. You experience what you are setting your people up for with all the policies and procedures you have put around them. I think I get more out of the 8 hours I spend inside our store than I get from the face-to-face meetings with the department managers. 

The other piece, if you are someone coming out of school without an MBA, is developing the leadership, communication, and management skills, to be in a position of authority in the company. For me, when I came to a company the size of NapaStyle, I couldn’t just say, “Here’s a great idea. Go make it happen.” As CFO you have to be an advocate for the financial health of the business. I realized my ability to be effective in the company was tied to my ability to first develop a cohesive plan and then to inspire and lead. I took a Dale Carnegie class and improved my communications skills, including learning to be an active listener. I think an important part of being an effective CFO is to make sure you listen and learn.

Q. And then how did your experience as a CFO prepare you to become company president?

A. Learning to be an active advocate for the whole business was key. That’s the piece that prepared me the most for taking the leadership position in the company. If you learn to become an advocate for the financial health of the business, then you learn to become an advocate for the business overall, with employees, suppliers, the board and investors. It is that sort of advocacy that can propel someone to the next level.

For me the big change has been learning to not dive into the minutia of the business as I would have as CFO. As president I need to have my ‘head up’ most of the time and not be mired in the details. My job isn’t to see where we need to be today, but where we need to be in 2 or 3 years. My backgrounds as CFO helps me to formulate a better business plan with the team, and once we have that plan I need to sell the vision and inspire others.

Q. How did your experience as CFO help you as president in guiding NapaStyle through the recession?

A. During a recession, it’s the discipline you learn as a CFO that can make the difference in the business surviving or failing. In a tough economy it is a question of how you manage your cash. So during the downturn I mostly wore my CFO hat to get the business right-sized to match the new realities. But then when the economy stabilized, as president the key was being able to turn on a dime to uncover and support growth initiatives.


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