Ricardo Rodriguez started as CFO at Aspen Aerogels in April 2022. Aerogels are ultralight synthetics used in sensors, insulation, optics and more—including electric vehicles, now driving growth for the company. Aspen reported revenue of $214 million over the past 12 months, a 49% increase year-on-year. Rodriguez first joined Aspen in 2021 as chief strategy officer after a career in finance, planning, and profit and loss leadership at ClearMotion, GM’s OnStar division; Amazon; and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (now Stellantis).
Global Finance: You took over as CFO at a very busy time. What has been your main challenge?
Ricardo Rodriguez: As CFO of a well-established company undergoing significant expansion, one of the foremost challenges lies in the capital market. Since my tenure started, we’ve encountered an unprecedented increase in interest rates, reminiscent of the days when rates were raised during the tenure of Paul Volcker as US Federal Reserve chair—before I was even born. Navigating a period where the cost of capital rises with each meeting of the Fed poses a considerable challenge for a large company. This becomes even more pronounced for a company actively seeking substantial investment to drive meaningful growth.
GF: How do you keep the market on your side, in that case?
Rodriguez: The most effective approach to managing it is by clearly articulating your plans, along with the company’s ability to deliver strong operating income in the near term, along with the full utilization of existing assets. Demonstrating that you are a conscientious steward of capital and fully committed to repaying all invested capital with a favorable return reinforces the credibility and reliability of your business.
GF: How do you manage Aspen’s relationships with investors?
Rodriguez: Our investor relations team is highly proficient and, collectively, we actively develop and test our strategy with investors. It involves an ongoing dialogue where we continually test our plans. Recognizing the early signs of capital cost increases is crucial, as investors typically perceive these changes sooner. This proactive approach allows us to develop and maintain financially viable plans that align with market sentiment.
GF: Have you found that the role is increasingly strategic?
Rodriguez: No, I don’t believe that has changed. Corporate finance has always been a resource-allocation exercise and an assessment of investments to deliver a return that is higher than your cost of capital. That is strategic at its core.
I recall growing up and learning about the late Jerry York, the CFO of Chrysler during its rescue by Lee Iacocca in the early ’90s, and IBM during its turnaround with Lou Gerstner. He guided a lot of my career goals by being a technical leader who understood products at their technical core and shaped strategy, but happened to be a finance leader. He also joined the board of Apple upon Steve Jobs’ return in 1997 and was very actively involved at Apple until he passed away in 2010. I had a good chat with him as I was finishing business school in 2009 that I recall to this day.
When you plan how a company’s resources are utilized, how capital is spent, and how funds are invested, you inherently shape the company’s strategy. Finance and strategy are one and the same; whether overseeing a simple lemonade stand or a complex corporation, being the decision-maker in allocating the next dollar has always been a fundamental aspect of the role.
It seems that CFOs are attracting more attention for their involvement in conveying strategy due to increased interactions with investors and sell-side analysts. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the strategic nature of the role has always been inherent.
GF: What keeps you up at night?
Rodriguez: To be honest, the only issues from work that keep me up at night revolve around people, such as the composition of the team and my relationship with all our stakeholders; financial problems are relatively straightforward to resolve if you plan. Constantly ensuring that we have the right individuals in the right roles with the right level of direction and motivation is the one thing that can weigh enough to not let me sleep. A continuous self-assessment of myself in this regard can also sometimes prevent me from sleeping.