Operations, finance chief at Sebastopol’s Willow Creek Wealth Management wins North Bay CFO Award
Kelly Noonan, chief financial and operations officer at the Sebastopol-based firm, says, “The job of CFO can be fun! Having a material impact on the success of your company is so fulfilling.” She is a 2021 winner of the Business Journal's eighth annual North Bay CFO Awards.
What are the lasting changes your company has made as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic disruption?
One of the more lasting changes for us may be our thinking around the ability to expand the geographic area where we are able to attract and serve clients; and also the mindset change around hiring and recruiting talent from outside of our area.
What changes have come because of the pandemic in the industry you work in? Identify which changes are temporary and which, if any, are lasting?
I believe that one of the enduring impacts of the pandemic will be a renewed desire for personalized service from trusted investment advisors. The “robo advisor” model, for example, proved to be frustrating for panicky customers during the pandemic with no (or limited) access to a trusted advisor. Investment decisions made during the market drop in the early days of the pandemic via the robo advisor platform may have been very costly.
Personally, what changed about the approach to your job that’s related to the experience of working over that past year or so?
In my role as CFO, it became very important in the beginning of the pandemic to rely heavily on our stress-tested budgets. It was critical to understand the levers available to adjust expenses and to understand our priorities. One of our main priorities was our employees, and making sure there were no reductions in salaries or layoffs. I was spending much more time than usual meeting with our executive committee to evaluate our P&L.
Tell us about a recent success your company has had.
One of our biggest achievements in 2020 was the execution of our succession plan, which transitioned the majority ownership of our company from the founder to our current ownership group.
It was a long-anticipated plan, but nonetheless was complex to implement. We are proud that the succession plan will allow us to maintain the stability and sustainability of Willow Creek for our clients and our employees well into the future.
What advice would you give to young emerging financial leaders?
Put in the work to understand all the facets and components of your business. Be humble when you don’t have all the answers; but be bold when you believe you are right. It really helps to have a mentor, someone who can help you put things into perspective.
If you could change one (or maybe two) perceptions about the job of CFO or related executive position, what would it be and why?
The job of CFO can be fun! Having a material impact on the success of your company is so fulfilling. Working with a creative team to bring concepts and ideas to fruition is exciting and very rewarding.
What is a decision you wish you hadn't made? What did you learn from it?
The decision I wish I hadn’t made relates to pre-Covid expenditures that became unnecessary. The lesson is basically that the best laid plans can be disrupted by completely unpredictable circumstances, so stay nimble and have back-up plans to your back-up plans!
What is your most memorable business experience?
We had a celebration in 2018 when we reached 1 billion dollars in assets under management. We invited all of our employees and their significant others to a party at Lake Tahoe, and it was so rewarding (and so much fun) to share our achievement as a team.
What is your greatest business success?
We are extremely proud of the way that we were able to successfully shepherd our clients through both the 2008 financial crisis, and the recent 2020 market drop. Our team was able to keep our clients from panicking and making emotional decisions that would harm them in the long-term. We kept our clients in their seats and focused on their long-term financial goals.
Not only that, but we kept our company strong, and our clients were able to participate fully in the market rebounds.
What was your toughest business decision?
The toughest business decision I have made recently is regarding the acquisition of another investment firm and expanding our client base into other areas of the North Bay. We ultimately decided to pursue the opportunity, but the decision came with a lot of honest reflection and analysis of our strategic goals and objectives.
What would your friends and family be surprised to find out about you?
Ugh, I can’t think of anything. My friends and family know me inside and out - I have no secrets!
Personally, what is the biggest lesson you have taken from the events of the last few months?
Personally for me, how important family is, and that life is unpredictable – so don’t put off your plans waiting for perfect timing.
Tell us about your community involvement activities.I have participated in the Coastal Cleanup day, volunteered with the Humane Society and the Redwood Food Bank. I’m looking forward to joining in more post-Covid community involvement!