This article is part of an ongoing project to profile the stories, struggles and victories of bold leaders who are redefining Corporate Finance from the frontlines of business. You can listen to the podcast, which has also been turned into a readable format here.
It’s the mid-80s. Peter Gebert, a freshly minted accountant from Saskatchewan, Canada, has just landed a job with a mining company. Part of his job requires him to fly out to mining sites in the Arctic Circle — an overwhelming, if serendipitous, experience that ends up altering the course of his career.
“When I went up to the Arctic Circle, the person — who I was going to be reporting to — told me that he didn’t want to see me again. All he said was, “Peter, do you see all these volumes behind me? They are old and dusty because I never opened them. They are the monthly financial statements and that don’t mean a thing to me,”” says Peter.
Why this became a defining moment is because it acquainted Peter with certain hard truths about his area of work:
“I realized that if you want to be an effective Finance leader, you have to get your hands dirty, understand the environment and forces beyond the walls of Finance, and become the right-hand person of the guy who’s running Operations, Sales or whatever area you happen to be supporting.”
From his beginnings as an accountant working at mining sites in the Arctic Circle, to his astonishing successes leading Finance departments for billion-dollar tech and biotech companies in the Valley, Peter holds the formidable record of helping companies improve their bottom lines by tens of millions of dollars. Peter, who has also lectured at Berkeley, Rutgers and the University of San Francisco, has a simple philosophy:
“Take the blinders off. If you’re in financial accounting, there’s tremendous opportunities outside of financial accounting and working with management to make the business decisions they have to make. What this means is that you’ve got to get out of your office. You’ve got to get on that factory floor. You’ve got to work with the managers. You’ve got to work with the line managers. You’ve got to understand the product. You’ve got to understand the entire bill of materials. The more you do that, you will proportionately gain opportunity as you go through your career.”
But let’s wind back a little. Before we take Peter’s advice, let’s examine how he came to hold those opinions. It’s the early 90s — Windows 95 is still a few years away, and the Semiconductor industry is still very much the holy grail of Venture Capital. In this backdrop, Peter, an upstart accountant who cut his teeth in the Canadian mining industry, has just bagged a coveted role as the Director of Finance at VLSI Technology — one of the early pioneers of ASICs or Application Specific Integrated Circuits.
“I was shunned by a lot of my coworkers in finance but the CEO, who was also the founder, pulled me aside and said, “Peter, I’ve got some issues here. I’m not getting the answers I want out of my finance department because they don’t intuitively fit what I’m trying to do.””
Peter distinguished himself easily, and, more importantly, quickly. His early experience balancing books in the frigid winds of the Arctic Circle taught him the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone. And to finance executives, that amounts to looking beyond the numbers and examining the company from an entrepreneurial lense. And, yet, even at a growing tech company such as the one that he was working for, Peter found both accountants and finance executives comfortably resigned to their desks. And so, Peter’s boss looked to him for answers.
“He didn’t understand why his sales numbers — his revenues — weren’t going up but his volume was. He wasn’t getting the right answers out of the traditional accounting reports he was getting. He pulled me aside…and asked me, “Could we develop customer PNLs? Could we understand where our money is coming from?””
Peter had a solution — ABC or Activity Based Costing. Even though ABC is by no means a novel approach, deploying it in a company in the early 90s was a revolution of sorts. As a young man, Peter had devoured the works of Bob Kaplan and Robin Cooper — two Harvard professors who had pioneered this approach. And so he went to work on this career-defining project.
“I had a chance to participate in the change of an entire business model. We went through that and then added approximately $50 million a year to the bottom line. I was able to do it because I took a totally different approach. In my opinion, traditional accounting is fixated on producing financial statements. They need to adhere to regulatory requirements in the United States such as Sarbanes-Oxley, which is a big big deal. There is an emphasis on FDA requirements in the biotech industry — there’s an emphasis on controls. But, you have to bring in the other side of the accounting equation, which is the management side.”
In the late 90s, the semiconductor industry began to plateau. Around the turn of the 21st Century, the Dotcom Boom — the predecessor to the current mania around Tech startups — began to reshape the contours of the American Dream. Peter, however, set his sights on the Biotech industry, which, was arguably less glamorous. But it offered the rare opportunity for tremendous growth and a chance to be at the vanguard of the kind of Change that would directly inform the day-to-day of the healthcare industry.
“I joined Genentech, which was the granddaddy of it all. I was the senior finance person heading their Operations at a time when they were going through some dramatic growth and had to make some major decisions.”
Peter, whose entire philosophy revolved around looking beyond the numbers and getting your hands dirty with tasks outside the role of Finance, took a special interest in Procurement — that area of Operations which is often ignored but is ironically ever so crucial.
“You’ve got to ensure your suppliers are qualified. If they’re not qualified, you can’t use their product. You’ve got to go out and you’ve got to ensure that they’re doing everything right. We have to have a very very robust quality department. They go out and they do these vendor audits in order to be qualified. So, again, anything that touches the product has got to be letter-perfect. So, procurement becomes a very important way of life in the biotech industry. It’s got to be right on top of its game. Fortunately for me in my last job, I had a guy that a lot of people thought was very anal — he was the head of my procurement department. He drove us crazy sometimes; but, it was because of him that we never had a problem with audits.”
Notice how Peter pointed out that the Procurement person was considered anal by a lot of people in his company. Perhaps they were right, but try to put yourselves in his shoes: You are responsible for issuing Purchase Orders for things that your lab needs. And typically, given the time-sensitive nature of experiments within the Biotech and Pharma industry, these things need to be procured as soon as possible. No wants to be that guy who jeopardized years of research because the reagent that the researchers needed wasn’t brought in on time. But, alongside, the Procurement person is also answerable to Finance: it’s his responsibility to ensure that everything purchased for the lab has a clear audit trail and meets the quality requirements laid down by the FDA and other regulatory bodies. Whether it’s your Accounts Payable clerk who’s dealing with an onslaught of invoices and the snail-like pace of manual approval processes, the Controller who’s constantly fretting about cash flow and the accuracy of his financial reports — a single mistake you make will affect both the Research and Finance department in dramatic ways. And yet, these problems aren’t specific to Biotech companies alone. Indeed, one of the fundamental reasons why B2B technology came to dominate American businesses was the need to bring Procurement, Finance and the actual Operations of the company on the same page. Peter, however, believes that if technology has to be adopted, it needs to be flexible and easy-to-use.
“I was once involved in looking at a procurement situation that was run by the government. I could not believe it. It was still a manual process. First of all, I couldn’t believe they were still operating like they were 30 years ago. The amount of times that a manager would have to approve the same thing was at least three or four times. Guess what? At the end of the day, the order was 80% wrong. I think that if you’ve got a software process that can condense this process with precision, you’re going to have a competitive advantage over your competitors. You’ve got to have a product that is flexible so that that spend data becomes easily accessible.”
In 2017 alone, Venture Capital funding totalled $40 Billion. Out of this, 17% went to Biotech startups. The question, therefore, is how do Biotech companies spend all this money? Do they have a similar problem that the Tech industry does, where an enormous flush of capital has created a culture of massive overspending?
“I would say to that, Yes, absolutely. It’s not just the fact that you’re putting so much money into one product; let’s say the research department says, “Hey, I’m just going to spend $50 million on this project.” But, to get a drug to market, it usually takes you about 10 years and a billion dollars in some cases. In some cases, just to get the drug up to certain levels of clinical trials takes a hundred million dollars. It’s a very lengthy and expensive process. And spending money without doing your due diligence can really hurt you. You put your bets on one particular drug, apply for FDA approval thinking that it’s a sure thing. But imagine if the FDA comes back with a complete response letter, and you’ve got to go back and do another clinical trial or two to meet their requirements — that process would an additional two years, which also means an extra two years of burn in addition to the costs of the clinical trials. It’s an unpleasant situation but had you been disciplined and process-driven with your spending from the get-go, you would be in a better position to deal with it.”
Peter Gebert’s Career Summary:
Vice President, Operations Finance at Mannkind Corp
Vice President, Finance and Administration at Nektar Therapeutics
Director, Operations Finance at Genentech
Director, Operations Finance at Bay Networks
Director, Finance at VLSI Technology
Have an interesting story to share? We’re all ears. Write to us at email@example.com and we could host you on the next episode of the Spend Culture Podcast.