CFO Corner: Ascent Industries’ Bill Steckel

Joining Ascent Industries in April, Bill Steckel brought his 25 years as CFO at other companies and 20 years in operational finance, planning and treasury. He talks to Global Finance about how the infotech revolution and intense competition for talent have transformed the role of the CFO.

Ascent Industries CFO Bill Steckel

Global Finance: How has the CFO role changed since you entered the finance arena?

Bill Steckel: All companies have experienced change in their employees and the available workforce, changes in transparency and controls—SOX [Sarbanes-Oxley] and audit standards—and ever-increasing globalization. I believe that information and data have been the most important change in companies, and therefore the CFO role.

The availability of information and analytics is truly game changing: in a positive way for those who have adopted new technology and used it, and in a negative way for those who have fallen behind. Data analytics is now a differentiator for companies and how they develop products, manufacture or provide services, and how they approach their respective markets.

GF: How does the role differ by industry?

Steckel: Manufacturing continues to be dependent on product development, asset availability and rigorous discipline in execution. In manufacturing, if you are not keeping pace with efficiency goals, social-related demands and an insatiable appetite from customers for newer and better products, it is difficult to be successful.

Technology companies tend to be most focused on human capital and intellectual property, and especially in recent times, the war for talent is front of mind every day. Execution is of course important but finding talent that has the required skills and knowledge is a significant challenge. Service industries face ever increasing demands from customers for differentiators, which means increasing offerings and constantly improving excellence.

GF: What are the biggest concerns of someone in your position?

Steckel: The need for resources and skills to anticipate problems and shape company strategies that will meet challenges which executives and all employees to think about the future and potential challenges so we can react in a timely manner and perform most effectively.

GF: Will AI change the role of CFO? If so, how?

Steckel: I believe AI will impact finance and the role of the CFO, but at this point I do not have a clear picture of how that will occur. I expect it will lead to some gains in productivity, but I also believe it will contribute to an already robust information flow.

GF: What keeps you up at night?

Steckel: The shortage of talent; global competition, including in some cases trade policies that result in import dumping into certain markets; and global conflicts in various regions of the world.

GF: How important are environmental, social and governance concerns for the CFO? Why?

Steckel: As a publicly traded company, ESG is a mandatory consideration for our executive team. Our businesses are largely old school manufacturing, but that does not exempt us from keeping up with ESG. At Ascent, we focus on the environment, the safety and welfare of our employees, and the diversity of our workforce.

GF: What background—experience, education—would you suggest for someone interested in the finance profession?

Steckel: Finance and accounting are of course prerequisites. However, I would suggest anyone who desires a career in the financial industry should also learn about social and psychological patterns, because interacting with people and understanding them is far more important than many people realize. The CFO, and really the entire finance organization, can only truly be successful if they understand the people they interact with and develop skills to work with a variety of personality types. I also believe communication skills, both oral and written, are a key to success. Without proper skills to communicate, a finance professional will often find it difficult to succeed.