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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, August 11, 2014, 6:22 am

2014 CFO Awards: Hugh Robertson, Council on Aging

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    Chief finance and operations officer

    30 Kawana Springs Rd., Santa Rosa 95404; 707-525-0143; councilonaging.com

    Employees: 80, plus 350 volunteers

    Professional background: 30 years of experience in consulting, banking, management and finance

    Education: M.A. international studies, University of Washington; M.S., industrial administration, Purdue University; B.A., economics, University of Puget Sound

    Age: 56

    Hugh Robertson

    Mr. Robertson previously held CFO positions for a number of companies including Children’s Council of San Francisco; CleanFish, Inc.; and the French American International School. Prior to working as a CFO, Mr. Robertson spent many years in corporate banking with First Interstate Bank (now Wells Fargo) and consulting with Arthur Andersen & Co. (now Accenture).

    He and his wife, Kelly, live in Napa County.

    What do you see as the essential role of a financial leader in the current environment?: To be a strategic leader in an environment where the room for financial error is shrinking. To ensure financial sustainability while fostering a fulfilling and empowering corporate culture. To translate financial perspectives intelligibly and honestly to make sure all stakeholders are working consciously in the same direction.

    What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in your industry?: I have worked in and with numerous industries. Generally, the biggest change is how much closer to the bone most businesses and households are operating. This systemic lack of resilience concerns me. And wherever you look in our society, the rate of change and the level of complexity are also markedly higher. I am not sure these changes are to our advantage. I am sure they test management acumen.

    Tell us about the particular challenges and opportunities your organization has met in the recent past?: The deep recession put pressure on revenue from all sources. Council on Aging managed to maintain all 16 programs and even developed and launched a couple — the Sonoma Wine Country Games for athletes over 50 and our retail, gourmet-to-go product line, Stage — despite this pressure. COA is also championing a major Healthy Aging Initiative with other partners, including Sonoma County, to change the culture of aging.

    What advice would you give to young emerging financial leaders?: Half of being a financial leader is being a leader. This means paying attention to the human, subjective element. Pay attention to the power the financial function holds in an organization and appreciate the integrity and responsibility this influence demands of you. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this job? What do I hope to accomplish?” You must have acceptable answers to these questions. Ask yourself, “Do I support the mission of the company? Do I share the values? Do I fit in with the culture? Do I enjoy the tasks I perform every day?” Make sure you can answer yes to these questions. Your job satisfaction will be critical to your professional success and personal happiness.

    What’s the best advice for weathering today’s economic environment?: Our economy is heavily influenced by technology and short-term thinking. Therefore, it is essential to prepare for volatility on all fronts. Make sure you have reserves — both in terms of assets and contingency plans. Keep leverage low and liquidity high.

    How do you think your business will change in the next five years?: I would expect the portion of our revenue that comes from government sources — roughly one-third at the moment — will decline over time. This will require an entrepreneurial strategy and great creativity to develop new sources of recurring revenue and efficient operating practices to control expense growth.

    What is a decision you wish you hadn’t made? What did you learn from it?: As long as you learn from a sub-optimal decision, then there is some reason not to play the regret game. As the myna birds in Huxley’s novel remind us, “Here and now boys.” Still, I might have moved into the impact/cause sector of the economy earlier in my career. That would have meant more years of service, more positive externalities. Perhaps, I didn’t heed my advice previously mentioned.

    Here is a clear benefit of aging: If you stay awake and aware, wisdom may come to you! A society marginalizes its wisest citizens at its peril.

    What is your most memorable business experience?: My tenure as chief financial officer with CleanFish, a sustainable seafood company in San Francisco. It was an environmental startup that worked creatively in the most critical arena — food.

    The role drew on my passions for ecology, sustainable consumption and food systems. It was a young company trying to improve the world, so many days it felt as if I were working in a think tank.

    What is your greatest business success?: Successfully completing a series of debt, equity and convertible deals that allowed CleanFish to move forward with its mission. More broadly, making the professional transition to “triple bottom line” companies and non-profits — organizations that hold “people and planet” as well as profit as core values. Leaving behind the pressure to maximize market capitalization or profit, or my own net worth, at the expense of everything else is liberating.

    What was your toughest business decision?: The toughest decision must involve the most direct human cost: laying employees off. When CFOs manipulate financial projections, families may be harmed.

    Even when you know that a small number of layoffs will create stability for a larger number of employees, this is a heart-wrenching decision.

    What would your friends be surprised to find out about you?: I once lived off the grid in the woods to write poetry.

    Most admired businessperson outside the company: Elon Musk, for his companies Tesla and SolarCity and their prospects for significant environmental impact. And for his courageous and visionary stance on patents.

    Current reading: Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber, Should Trees Have Standing by Christopher Stone and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

    Most want to meet: The Dalai Lama. People who are passionate and brilliant and challenge conventional wisdom in some way: maybe E.O. Wilson, David Attenborough and Vandana Shiva. And Wendell Berry, a national treasure. If I held sway, I would award Wendell Berry the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Stress relievers: Long-distance running or hiking.

    Favorite activities outside work: Whatever I happen to be doing in the moment with my soulful and beautiful wife, Kelly. Hiking on the Marin and Sonoma coasts and drinking pinot noir are two favorites. Reading and writing. Travel, real or imagined.

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