How CFOs from Levi’s, Rothy’s and Macy’s are shaping business strategy

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To borrow an analogy from Rothy’s Chief Financial Officer Dayna Quanbeck: Consider the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears when thinking about the role of CFO. On one end of the spectrum is an old-school CFO who is defensive, budget-obsessed and always saying, “no.” On the other end is a CFO who is distracted by every new technology and allocates resources without having a business strategy in place.

But the “just right” retail CFO is one who is a combination of both: one who has a much greater appreciation around the magnitude of changes that are necessary, knows what drives short-term performance as well as long-term gains, and always has customers and shareholders front of mind.

“My role has continued to evolve, and I wear a lot of hats,” said Quanbeck, who joined sustainable shoe company Rothy’s in 2019 as CFO. Her role was expanded to chief operating officer in 2022 and president in January 2024.

CFOs are “no longer defensive, record-keeping, news-reporting individuals,” Quanbeck said during a CFO panel discussion moderated by Fortune Senior Writer Sheryl Estrada at NRF 2024: Retail’s Big Show. “Now they’re actually informing and driving strategy.”

When Quanbeck brought up the Goldilocks analogy, she was referring to the current transformation that Rothy’s is undergoing to become more of an omnichannel retailer, rather than a pure direct-to-consumer or bricks-and-mortar retailer.

But she could have easily been referring to the traditional CFO role compared with the modern CFO, and the need to be open to different ideas to accelerate growth.

“We’re math people first and foremost, and you can’t stop [a] rational math person from thinking rationally,” Quanbeck said. “But sometimes growth is not rational, and you have to be willing to make those calculated risks even when the returns are unknown.”

Not your grandfather’s CFO

With retail — and customer demands in particular — evolving at an ever-increasing pace, the role of CFO has also had to evolve. “The role of CFO is very different,” said Harmit Singh, chief financial and growth officer for Levi Strauss & Co., who has almost 30 years of experience with companies including Yum! Brands Inc. and Hyatt Hotels Corporation. “When I started, it was more about creating shareholder value, more about control, more about the glass half empty.” 

Today’s CFO needs to have a deep knowledge of all aspects of the business, the ability to make sound decisions, and most importantly, be a strategic partner with the leadership team, Singh said.

“It’s not about one person owning growth or one person owning operations. It’s about the executive team, supporting the CEO, supporting the board, and making a difference whether it’s the consumer or the stakeholders.”

They also need to embrace technology, including data science and generative artificial intelligence, said Macy’s CFO and COO Adrian Mitchell. “We’re investing, learning and experimenting,” he said about Macy’s three-year-long journey into best uses for AI and data science, which has included looking at pricing science, inventory allocation, personalization and automation.

So far, Mitchell says he’s learned two things about AI in retail.

“Embracing technology at the end of the day will allow us to go faster.”

Dayna Quanbeck, Chief Financial Officer, Rothy’s

“It can definitely make the business better. It can make the business simpler. It can help you execute better. It can help you make better decisions,” he said. “But what we’ve also learned is you have to lean in, because in retail — being in a disruptive space — if you stand still in retail, you’re falling behind with your customers, you’re falling behind with the competition.”

Quanbeck had a similar takeaway. “Embracing technology at the end of the day will allow us to go faster,” she said.

Balancing growth priorities

All three CFOs share a unique perspective as leaders in their companies with additional roles and responsibilities beyond the finance side. Quanbeck and Mitchell are COOs in addition to CFO and Singh is growth officer in addition to his CFO duties. It’s a unique combination of skills, Mitchell noted, that include enterprise strategy, finance and day-to-day operations. “It’s all connected and also incredibly efficient,” he said.

Wearing so many different hats can be a challenge, Quanbeck acknowledged. “One of the challenges that I find, in my day to day, is the tug-of-war between my two roles,” she said. “It’s interesting, the conversation you can have with teams, because you can see both sides, which helps me be a little bit faster.”

Being agile and moving fast is a key asset for a growth-focused retail leader, no matter what title — or titles — they may hold, Singh said. “I learned a long time ago, finance sees everything,” he said. “The real question is, can you impact everything?”

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