Mark Dirsa is a seasoned finance professional having run the gamut of senior finance roles across multiple industries. He began his career in banking and later on moved to computer software and renewable energy at companies like Vendini, Mobile Complete and Simply Solar. With his 30 years of experience, he has probably seen it all, but these last two years will probably be ones he won’t forget.
In 2019, Mark once again shifted, this time assuming the CFO position at garten, the San Francisco-based health and wellness platform that aims to provide small businesses with delicious and nutritious food for better productivity. His time there also coincided with the COVID pandemic which brought about new challenges for him to face.
In this AHA! Finance interview, Mark shares his thoughts on how he views strategic finance at startups, what he has done to empower his finance team, and how automation with FP&A software has helped drive the collaboration between them and the other teams of the organization.
Since you joined garten 2 years ago, how have you empowered finance to be strategic and impactful business partners to the rest of the company?
When I came in, I wanted to evaluate the situation and asked what systems we were using, what worked and what didn’t. I then spoke to the team about their pain points, and it became very clear to me that we were using legacy systems that were not scalable. I saw a fast-growing tech company that was generating a lot of revenue but was still using Quickbooks. I think Quickbooks is great for a single location when you’re starting out, but we had operations all around the United States and it was just impossible to manage all that.
Another thing was that we were paying for the full installation of Netsuite and were only using it for inventory management. We needed someone to lead that migration from Quickbooks to Netsuite. One of my team members took that on and he worked really hard and pushed other teams to get on board with implementing it. Removing those pain points was empowering to the team and we did it the best we could.
How was that change management received by the rest of the company?
Everybody was really excited about that because we have a foundation now. A financial accounting system where we can bolt-on all these helpful things for the organization, whether it's supply chain or inventory. For example, we didn't have a centralized procurement – and we still don't. But having Netsuite there to be a placeholder for that helped us in finance and the other teams to manage things like fixed assets a lot better.
In your 30 years of experience leading the finance function, which skills have been most beneficial to your success, especially now in the health & wellness/startup space?
I would say humility. You must have a lot of humility when you do startups because it just never works the way you think it's going to work. Especially in finance, if you're the first finance hire, if something needs to get done, you can’t turn around and ask this person behind you. There is literally nobody. A lot of relationship building is important too and it comes with humility. You've got to build relationships internally. Go interview them and find out how you can do things better, as opposed to just typically helping with guidance and experience.
I believe being open-minded is very important and not any single skill. Raising money or doing modeling, all of those, I call them internal point solutions that I need to know how to do. But the reality is, they don't move the needle as much as just being able to do things when you need them in real time.
What has been unique in the B2B2C model and what challenges have you faced when it comes to getting strategic finance and forecasting right?
In the health and wellness space, I don't think it’s any different than any other space… and I've done a lot of different business models. I try to take certain things from certain business models and integrate them in, but they're all relative in finance. For me, strategic finance is having the right toolkit for performance analysis, finding insights that help grow the business, and also bringing a forward-looking mindset through modeling, scenario analysis and projections. That’s what makes it exciting, right?!
But really, a big piece of the puzzle is collaboration. Sending a spreadsheet to somebody, them filling it out, then getting it back to you again. The problem with that back-and-forth process is that it’s so fraught with waste of time. The question to ask yourself is how do you scale that?
Here I see two different problems: one is automating KPIs and dashboards, and the other is being nimble enough to get that information spread around. Most financial planning solutions mainly attack the first problem, but it never allows us to slice and dice and get that data out to others easily.
Investing in FP&A software that enables collaboration makes all the difference. By implementing a business partner model for finance, you can be more agile with getting data and feedback from other teams, and in turn be more impactful to the business.
When COVID hit, how did you and your team adapt to that change and what helped you stay afloat?
We were really doing well and then COVID hit. Like many other businesses, we were impacted - but we made it an opportunity to improve the business. What we saw was that we started to identify the expense structure of the company and look for opportunities to get more efficient after so much rapid growth. So we started to look at all our expenses and reduce on things that didn’t make sense. I think it’s an experience most companies went through.
But a part of expense efficiency was also looking where we could automate things, and this included finance operations. It doesn’t always have to mean cut, cut, cut. We also looked at it the other way around and implemented tools to automate and improve our performance. Michael, our CEO, always says to me that we’re now getting things done quicker because we cut out a lot of the middle manual work that slowed us down.
garten manages a lot of complex customer and vendor data which translates to complex business planning. What is something you wish you implemented earlier that would have allowed you to manage this complexity now and in this last year of COVID?
The conversion to Netsuite earlier would have been great, and building up the FP&A team right when I assumed the role. I say this all in hindsight but, if we got financial software implemented early on, then it would have helped us operate through COVID a lot better. Collaboration would have been easier, especially when we were all working remotely. The way we’re scaling now, it helps to have that automation implemented and working smoothly.
Ready to drive collaboration between the finance team and the other functions of your organization the same way Mark did at garten?.
With Abacum, we empower finance teams to become true strategic partners in the organization by driving time-to-insight with powerful automation and seamless collaboration. Request a demo now to see the product live and start your own journey.
AHA! Finance is Abacum’s interview series where we speak to finance thought leaders on all topics finance. Want to be interviewed or have an interesting topic in mind? Send us a suggestion at firstname.lastname@example.org.