As part of my series about the “How to Navigate and Succeed in the Modern World of Finance,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason Cesare, CFO at NEST Integrated Facilities Management.
Jason Cesare joined NEST in 2018 as Chief Financial Officer and oversees the company’s financial planning and reporting, accounting, sourcing, investment strategies, mergers and acquisitions, tax and treasury functions. Cesare has a successful 20-year track record of strengthening companies’ profitability and effectiveness with a background in retail, real estate, facilities, acquisitions and system implementations. Prior to NEST, Cesare worked with national retail brands, including Sneaker Villa, Inc., Spencer Gifts & Spirit Halloween and A.C. Moore. Cesare has a B.S. in Accounting from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, and he has four children.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was actually the first person in my family to go to college — but that almost didn’t happen. I’ve always enjoyed doing things with my hands and was going to go into the construction business. But I decided to continue my education in the area of math which I considered my strongest subject in school. I took the path of earning a degree in accounting, since all businesses need a strong financial foundation to build upon.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Not sure any mistake a CFO or finance person makes would be considered “funny” when you’re dealing with financials. But I’ve made mistakes for sure. If we don’t make mistakes, we don’t learn and grow.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
For me, I like a variety of podcasts and books that focus on things such as honing your listening skills, thinking before you speak, having empathy, knowing your customer data, and managing up not down.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m always working on new projects. The most impactful are upgrades to NEST’s software. These upgrades allow our clients, providers, and employees to work more efficiently and communicate seamlessly.
Thank you for that. Let’s now shift to the central focus of our discussion. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you joined the company, what was your vision for the finance department?
My vision was to create an FPA (financial analysis) department with a client focus. When I was on the other side of the table, data and analytics was something I needed to manage for our retail operations on a national scale. Coming to NEST, I saw this as an opportunity to provide that value to the client — giving them insight into their business activity and enabling them to have the right information to make decisions.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running the financial side of the business?
Data isn’t everything, but it tells a story. Having full visibility, whether positive or negative, allows for proper decision-making. So, trust the data, but don’t get paralyzed by the data, and use it to guide your decision process.
If a fellow business leader would ask you for advice about whether to bootstrap or to look for VC capital, how would you help them weigh the pros and cons of that decision?
Outside of a purely economic decision, it’s a personality decision. There are many PE/VC firms out there, and outside of money, it’s what comfort you have with another firm having ownership.
To throw a few items out there — what’s their management style, and do you need to ask for permission on all decisions? What experience will they bring to the table verses your industry knowledge? What network will they introduce you to? Without a clear understanding of the relationship and the lines of responsibilities, it can be very challenging to manage as a business leader. And one may wind up managing the relationship vs managing the business if things are not clearly defined at the outset.
What measure do you use to determine the value of a company? What advice would you give to other leaders about how to get an optimal evaluation of their business?
This is a little bit of a loaded question as value can be subjective. Value means many things to different people. The value through the lens of an owner is different than the value determined through a potential transaction. An example would be when Amazon wasn’t profitable, did it still have value? Sure, they did, by connecting small businesses with the world, using their marketplace. It was just a matter of time before a numeric value could be determined.
A calculation I frequently use to value a business transaction is adjusted EBITDA, and growth potential. EBITDA is earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization. And adjustments to this number would be things that are more of a one-time or non-recurring, nature. To help improve a valuation is to understand all costs incurred and improve profitability. One of the best times to do this is during the budgeting process. Do a bottoms-up approach, reviewing and challenging every cost. I have seen many times where costs being incurred may no longer be needed, or contracts that have been on auto-renewal without question could be eliminated. Also, identify new avenues of revenue, where cross/up selling is possible. And as anyone who has sold anything understands, you make money on the buy. Review how you can improve your products’ purchase price, thereby increasing margins, and possibly provide savings to your customers, which could turn into more sales to customers.
What would you advise to a leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
Think differently — what may have worked for growth in previous years may not work for the future. One needs to continue to adapt and shift to the needs of their clients. As an example, years ago, it was enough to just have the right product to sell. These days, it’s having the right product and providing a customer with the best overall shopping experience. This is true whether selling at a physical location or online. Make the experience inviting, simple, and seamless to the consumer.
What are the most common finance mistakes you have seen other businesses make? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Worrying solely about the top line can be a limiting factor to future growth. The focus should be on profitable revenue and generating cash. If this past year has taught us anything, it’s the ability of a company to sustain through the downtimes, making modifications for internal efficiencies, and enabling the company to come out even stronger when the world gets back to a level of normalcy.
Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to succeed in the modern finance industry? Please share a story or an example for each.
These five points certainly apply to modern finance. But they also apply to other areas of business and life.
- Listen, learn, and be humble — no matter our experiences, we don’t know everything.
- Always be open to change — nothing is constant. One of my pet peeves is hearing the phrase ‘that’s how we’ve always done it.’
- Use data to help make decisions — data by itself is nothing. It’s how you use it that matters.
- Strengthen your soft skills — technical skills are a requirement for the role, but honing the soft skills will go a long way by standing out and elevating oneself, with setting the right example for your peers, and attracting and retaining talent.
- Surround yourself with talent — if you want to elevate yourself, your department, or your company, hire talented individuals with the same drive to succeed.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Hire smart people around you; hire people with a strong willingness to learn and be a mentor to those individuals; and make sure to take your time off to reset — It’s not a badge of honor to never take time off; we all need it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Giving back to our veterans who have given so much for our country. Providing more employment opportunities, and for those unfortunately on the streets, a chance to get back on their feet.
How can our readers follow you online?
Happy to connect on LinkedIn to share ideas and network.