Insights into the experience, important issues and CFMA's new direction
Not even the tropical storm that stalled over Florida this June could dampen the mood at this year’s CFMA conference. The event was attended by approximately 550 registrants, not including the other attendees who came to be part of the social events and conference exhibition. “The neat thing about this year is that we had a lot of first time attendees,” says Erika Urbani, Chairman of the National CFMA Executive Committee.
Despite the dark skies overhead, the 2012 conference offered newcomers and returnees alike an exciting lineup of resources and connections to make their businesses stronger.
A popular new feature of this year’s conference was the Large Firm CFO Roundtable session, in which attendees were divided into groups of 10 for open discussion guided by a facilitator. Topics included what CFMA could do to make membership more valuable, information systems, succession planning and subcontractor prequalification—a hot button issue. More than 100 CFOs attended this session. “It was a resounding success,” says Stuart Binstock, president and CEO of CFMA, adding that participants requested more time for discussion next year. “We recognize that there are niches in the industry and that we need to serve them in specific ways,” he says.
Other noteworthy sessions included the always well-attended economic outlook from Anirban Basu, CFMA’s economic adviser and chairman and CEO of Sage Policy Group, an economic and policy consulting firm. “Everyone has heard people speak on the economy, but Basu moves so quickly with such a great sense of humor that you literally lean forward because you can’t afford to miss anything,” says Joe Burkett, immediate past chairman of the CFMA Executive Committee. This year Basu highlighted disappointing U.S. job growth as a major obstacle to a strong construction recovery, with other factors like European economic woes and the debt ceiling creating further uncertainty. The bottom line: “Another recession is not imminent, but the economy has hit a soft patch,” Basu said.
In “Emerging Trends in Highway and Heavy Construction,” Robert Davidson, CPA at DGLF, stressed how dramatically government budget deficits will affect heavy and highway contractors. As state and local budgets are squeezed, many more DOTs will seek out contractor or gap financing for large projects. He also predicted more consolidation in this construction sector as larger job sizes become more common, with a focus on maintenance rather than new construction. Contracts for paving will also increase, while grade and bridge work declines.
Not all topics were economic-related One of the most interesting sessions I attended was “Even More Google-licious: How to Find Anything on the Internet,” led by James Spellos, owner of Meeting U, a tech solutions company. According to Spellos, Google offers Google Consumer Surveys, a free tool for sending out surveys that can also be used as a fully functional conversion calculator and language translator. And through Google Alerts, a company can be notified any time its name is mentioned on the web—a great tool for managing PR.
Attending CFMA is an excellent way to learn about a broad array of topics in a compact amount of time. However, the value of the conference extends far beyond the knowledge gleaned from sessions. Urbani, in addition to being CFMA’s Chairman, is the CFO of Irvine, Calif.-based general contractor R.D. Olson and has been involved with CFMA for 18 years. She sums up the value of her participation this way: “Being a member of CFMA means there is always a friendly voice at the other end of the line when I have a complex issue to solve that no one else can help me with.” As Urbani points out, construction financial professionals are often one of a kind in a construction company.
Burkett, the CFO of Cafco Construction in Boston, Mass., agrees. “There’s no one sitting next to you who does the exact same thing you do, no in-house peer you can talk things through with. And that can be a lonely place. CFMA provides that guy or girl sitting in the next office.” He emphasizes that the value of membership is not just useful to CFMs: “I’m of the opinion that CEOs are the true chief financial officers of any company,” Burkett says. And because a construction business owner typically doesn’t come from the financial field, he explains, CFMA can be an incredible resource for owners as well.
A Look at the Future
Changes are underway to broaden the educational offerings CFMA members receive. “We’ve decided to focus more on providing member value than increasing member count,” Urbani says. “The value will provide the catalyst for growth,” Burkett adds.
This philosophical change has marked a cultural shift in the organization, as defined by their new strategic plan. “When we talk about our strategic plan, I want to make sure members understand we are not changing who we are—we’ve always been about education,” Urbani says. However, the educational offerings are now taking many different forms. For instance, CFMA is offering more webinars. Plus, they are pouring more resources into supporting local chapters. “We want to provide consistency in the local chapter experience,” Binstock says. The Chapter Summit, a day-long forum at the conference for chapter leaders to share best practices and brainstorm ways to grow, is a prime example of how CFMA is supporting local groups.
In addition, CFMA has formed an Emerging Issues Committee to examine important regulatory and legislative issues like revenue recognition—the subject of an ongoing dialogue between CFMA and FASB. “In the past we’ve shied away from regulatory issues,” says Binstock. “We are not going to go out and lobby for the highway bill, but we believe [the committee] should be speaking for the industry about financial issues.”
Even with all of the renewed energy surrounding recent activities, the best thing CFMA does is provide opportunities to bring people together to network. “Although it’s specific to the construction industry and has educational sessions very specific to what a CFM would need, the best part of the conference is getting to meet people who do the same thing you do,” Urbani says. “And you can’t put a price on that.”