The following is from an interview with Vinay Mehra. Vinay became CFO of POLITICO in November 2015. Previously, Mehra served as Chief Financial Officer and Treasurer of the PBS/NPR media organization WGBH, as announced in CFO Moves. This interview was edited for clarity.
Samuel: You’ve embarked on a new role. Why is this exciting for you?
Vinay: The primary reason I came to Politico is because they have built a new business model. I love going into businesses that are creating and inventing new business models. Politico has redefined how to make money in the media business without just being dependent on the advertising side of it. That’s something that really attracted me– they not only created a new business model, but they are also hugely successful in this new business model, and I want to be part of that.
Samuel: You’ve had a good long run from your previous experience, in more of a television environment. And now you’re taking that to a new and exciting “new media” environment. What perspectives are you bringing to this new business from your years at WGBH?
Vinay: The first thing I can think of is that the most underappreciated skillset in finance is the cost-accounting mindset. The media business is heavily capital intensive. Having to understand the cost is really important. And thanks to my experience in accounting for 10 years, I had alot of clients – manufacturing clients, tech clients – one of the things they taught me was the concept of cost-accounting. Once you have a very good understanding of true cost, and once you can figure out how much of that cost is a standard cost, it make it much easier to manage and scale a business – rather than just focusing top line goals which is just the revenue side of it. And I think what TV broadcasting taught me is – that it is a business which is hugely capital intensive. For example, if we had 5 to 10 million dollars to make a TV show, we would have a very robust cost-accounting system. We would knew down to the penny, and down to an invoice, what everything was being spent on. And for which episode. So taking some of that same discipline is what I inherited from my experiences in the broadcast side of things and brought it into the “new media” side of things. And that was pretty hard to do – because you’ll have journalists writing their stories, and then they’re putting up their stories up on websites, or newspapers. And then you have to figure out how that translates to revenue – which are the stories that are actually driving traffic to the website, which are the stories that are driving revenue. And then figuring out the cost allocation system. So I think that going from old media to new media is where I found the benefit of having the ability to build a true-cost evaluating system.
On the revenue side, there is alot more diversity in the revenue field; more in new media than there is in the ‘traditional’ media space. Because the new media companies treat content as information, they don’t treat it as just content. The content that’s on the website should be driven by analytics. And they should decide what really makes sense to put on the website. But more importantly, let’s not just treat it as entertainment, let’s treat it as information. So there’s the mindset of it being an information company instead of being just a media company.
Samuel: What do you think makes you a good CFO?
Vinay: I think there are 2 kinds of CFO – there are CFOs who are very financial focused, and then there are CFOs like myself – CFOs who blend the financial and the non-financial data. What I have found in my career, what has made me successful is the fact that I am able to overlay the non-financial data with the financial data itself. So I can tell a story around what exactly is happening. And in every financial function I’ve had a small group of people doing data analytics. But they’re putting non-financial data and they’re trying to see if it tells a story. I think very often we CFOs forget that we are story tellers. And we need to tell a story with these numbers. Just by looking at the numbers it’s hard to tell a story, unless you have the non-financial information to overlay to show if there is some kind of a trend; or to show what is driving those financial numbers. So I would say that I am very much one of those people who loves to tell the stories behind the financial and the non-financial data.
Samuel: I also see that in your career you’ve been very involved in not-for-profits. How has that helped you?
Vinay: I think it’s very fulfilling. To be honest with you – one tends to forget, in life, we all have the responsibility to give back to society. And I personally found it very fulfilling to be involved in different causes – to give back to my city, my town, to my local cultural institution. And that’s one thing I would encourage everyone to try to do. It’s less about being on another board, its more about feeling how I’m able to give back. And giving back doesn’t necessarily need to be about giving money – it could be about giving your skillset, and your guidance to these organizations who don’t have allot of sophisticated management skills. They have a mission, and as long as you are in mind with the mission, you can help in many different ways. Helping to make it successful and running it like a business. Even a not-for-profit has to be run like a business and sometimes they lack the skillset. For me it was something very fulfilling, and something I’m glad I got involved with.
Samuel: And how did that benefit you? What impact did it have on you as a professional and as a CFO?
Vinay: Sometimes, as a CFO, you tend to look at things are pretty black and white. Things are just numbers. But when you get involved with a non-profit, the thing that I’ve come to appreciate is – sometimes, when you are making an investment, you don’t have a true ROI, from a financial perspective. But you will have ROI from a human impact. Or from the bigger benefit of the people, or of this country. For example – when I was in WGBH, very often we needed build TV shows and I would say “hey – no one is ever going to buy this show, no one is ever going to agree to do a big sponsorship for it”. And while that’s true, someone needs to tell the story of lack of diversity, or to tell the story of some other area which nobody else is willing to put the money in to do, because they don’t see the financial ROI on it. But we have a responsibility to tell that story. So we’ll spend money on it because that’s really our core mission is – to educate people. So I would say it’s given me the appreciation to understand that sometimes in business you will make an investment in something that may not have a true ROI, but there will be other ways to measure ROI beyond the financial terms of things.
Samuel: What was most surprising for you when you showed up at Politico?
Vinay: The energy and the passion around their mission of providing political information to their audiences. They are all uniformly passionate about this subject. You know, it’s not often you walk into a business where everybody – from the administrative assistants, to the help in the kitchen – are all uniformly passionate about this stuff. It’s amazing. And it make everything alot easier, because everyone is aligned with the mission. Everybody is very passionate about what difference they want to make.
And the second thing – which came as a bit of a surprise for me – was the millennium demographic, which is a large proportion of our employee base – between 25 to 28. They’re working at a much faster pace than you or I do! And I love working fast and changing things, but this work force wants constant change and they’re not willing to stay with the status quo. Therefore they are constantly adopting new technologies, or adapting to new way of things. And they crave it, and they keep pushing for it. This has been a big surprise for me, coming from big corporations where change is so hard, and it’s so hard to get people on board, or to follow new ways of doing things.
Samuel: It must be a big change, coming from NPR-type of background, where you were truly middle-aged, taking a look at everyone around you. Coming from an environment where you were one of the younger ones, to an environment where you’re one of the older ones.
Vinay: Yes – and the other thing is I think their desire and energy for staying in the forefront of technology and processes – it’s in their DNA. You don’t have to tell these people – they live this every day – how can we do things better. They’re built this way. And I think some of it is maybe because you don’t have the luggage of a traditional media company and all the headaches of running a traditional media company. But this is a company that continues to innovate every day. In every way – from how to come up with new revenue ways, to how can we become more efficient to how to use new technology. It’s just blowing me away. And it’s very refreshing to be an environment like this.
Samuel: And how does that translate for your finance team?
Vinay: That’s where I would say I have work to do. Because the rest of the organization is so forward thinking that my finance team hasn’t kept pace, with their level of change. In some ways I think the finance team got comfortable with the old ways of doing things. As if it’s the only way to be doing things
Samuel: So what are you doing to put change into a finance group that needs to be changed a little bit?
Vinay: The first thing I’ve done is to physically relocate people from my finance team into business groups. The people who do invoicing and billings and collection for my ad business used to sit in finance, in a central location, and I’ve taken them out of there and said go sit in the unit. Go sit in the business. Go see what they do every day and be part of their workflow, instead of sitting separated on a different floor and communicating through emails. I think that’s given them a sense of appreciation how the business operated, that they never knew before.
Secondly, substituting some of the skill sets that are lacking on the team, I bring in new people. For instance, somebody with more experience and or somebody who is an expert in certain areas is going to have expertise in their DNA of the finance function and will be able to figure it out as they go along. Which works to a certain point, but then a lack of knowledge and a lack of expertise because of the hindrance.
And the third thing is technology. They are very advanced with leveraging and using technology here. And because of that, the business units have gone off and made selections of technology products to streamline their operations and their processes. And on the back end of things you have finance working on QuickBooks because they haven’t kept pace with the evolution and change that has happened in the business.
Samuel: What are you ultimately responsible for, at Politico?
Vinay: I have Finance, I have HR, and I have Operations. I have pretty much ALL the business operations of the business. Basically all the non-editorial side of things.
Samuel: Have you always had HR responsibility?
Vinay: I have. In different forms. In WGBH I had business managers in HRO sitting in the business units, who reported to me. So yes, I’ve always had some HR responsibility. Planning, strategy, all those groups reported up to me
Samuel: How does it feel to be responsible for human resources in an environment that’s growing, dynamic and where culture is a key part of the talent pool?
Vinay: To be honest – the biggest assets here are the people. They don’t really have any physical assets here. And so preserving that asset base is extremely critical, for the organization. And we are thinking about additional approaches – until now we took for granted that we’ll have 20-30% turnover and keep hiring new people. My philosophy is we need to find a better way of keeping this from happening instead of constantly dealing with this turnover. And I get excited about the fact that I can help influence and be a caretaker of the culture of the organization. I feel that it’s a great opportunity for the organization to be able get what they are looking for, from a cultural perspective. Sometimes I feel that an HR reports directly to the CEO of an organization, and they tend to take a more of an administrative function. I really feel that HR is very strategic and probably is the most strategic department of this company. And we have to make the investments here. This is where we need to put the most focus – to help make sure that we can keep our employees.
Samuel: What advice would you give to someone in finance that’s trying to work their way up and wants to become successful in their career? Advice that you wish someone would have told you?
Vinay: I would say that having an understanding of the numbers and the context of the business, the strategy of the business is extremely critical in this day and age to be a successful CFO. Early in my career, when I was in accounting, I think the reason why I was so successful with my clients is because I was able to focus on their business problems, not just their financial problems. Additionally, in some ways the CFO is also kind of the chief sales person. He is the one who sets the tone of what the organization is doing. He needs to keep providing a positive spin on how the business is doing. To be able to tell people the story even in the worst situation. And so what tends to sometimes happen is that we forget that we have the DNA of a sales-person. We need to use that. Whether we are talking to our salary employees, or if we’re talking in external shareholders or investors. And I feel that anyone who wants to grow their career in a finance perspective, not only has to be a fabulous story teller, but also has to be a sales person.
A CFO Success Story is a feature of Samuel’s CFO Blog, where Samuel Dergel follows up on his book, Guide to CFO Success, speaking with CFOs featured in CFO Moves and CFO Moves Canada, Samuel’s popular and comprehensive weekly report on CFO Movement across the USA and Canada.