Crocs, Rothy’s and Other Big Shoe Players Are Promoting CFOs to Even Bigger Roles. Here’s Why

Anne Mehlman didn’t expect to become the brand president of Crocs. But as her role as the company’s chief financial officer evolved, the career move began to make a lot more sense.

“I was really given the opportunity to continue to take on different areas and grow around the business,” Mehlman, who last month was promoted from CFO to brand president of Crocs, told FN in an interview. “They’ve been adding to my scope and when this opportunity came up, it seemed like something that could be really interesting.”

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While it may seem unusual, Mehlman’s elevation from CFO to brand president is just one example in a growing trend across the corporate world: CFOs are increasingly becoming the leading contenders for top roles.

“It’s just a great position to have a total overview of the business,” Mehlman told FN in an interview. She explained how CFOs typically possess a “strategic view that others in the organization may not have.” This, she said, explains why some of these leaders are moving to roles outside of the traditional finance lane.

Stories like Mehlman’s are becoming more common. According to data from leadership advisory firm Russell Reynolds, CFOs in 2023 were three times more likely to get the chief executive officer nod than they were in 2021.

“This financial steward, and having financial grounding, for the top seat is so much more critical,” said Callie Bennett, consultant at Russell Reynolds Associates’ global financial officers practice.

The shift to operational CFOs

This new leadership pipeline is a result of the changing nature of the CFO role as a whole.

Gone are the days where a chief financial officer is limited to crunching numbers and spelling out risks. As in the case with Mehlman, CFOs are now more heavily involved in broader strategy and other business units outside of finance, which makes them stronger candidates for elevated roles down the line.

“We are seeing the role of CFO becoming much more broadened,” said Jenna Fisher, managing director and co-lead of Russell Reynolds Associates’ global financial officers practice. “CFOs are actually taking on a broader remit and swath of responsibility and that has created more demand for people who have this operational background because they’re being asked to do much more than — quote, unquote — just finance and accounting.”

This desire for operationally-focused CFOs — or leaders who see their role as a driving force behind other business units — have become increasingly prevalent across all industries. Year to date, there was a 300 basis point increase in operational CFOs being hired into the role in the S&P 500 compared to 2022, Russell Reynolds data showed.

As such, it’s not uncommon for CFOs to also serve stints as chief operating officers. Looking across retail, Target’s chief financial officer Michael Fiddelke was named the company’s chief operating officer in February. Macy’s chief financial officer Adrian Mitchell also serves as chief operating officer. And Dayna Quanbeck, who joined Rothy’s in 2019 as CFO, added chief operating officer to her title in 2022 before she was promoted to president in January.

The footwear CFO

The complicated nature of the footwear business model — which includes a focus on e-commerce, physical stores, customer acquisition, inventory and other unique challenges — forces its CFOs to require a more hands-on approach, Quanbeck explained.

“I think that is probably why it’s unique in this role — in the footwear industry, specifically — where you’re seeing a lot of finance people move into broader roles,” said Quanbeck, who still also serves as CFO in addition to her role as president. “It’s so complicated and you can’t roll the numbers up without knowing a little bit about all of those [other business units].”

Mike Baughn, who joined Foot Locker in June as its CFO, also said he has noticed the job become “increasingly cross-functional.”

“Today, CFOs must think and act like enterprise leaders, far beyond just reporting and analyzing the numbers,” Baughn, who previously served as executive vice president of finance and treasurer at Kohl’s, told FN in an interview.

While he said this emphasis on a deeply embedded CFO applies to all industries, he noted that CFOs in the retail industry have a particular responsibility to understand how external factors, such as inflation, changing work environments and new technologies can impact consumer preferences and how the business reacts.

“We must be able to understand the right technologies to invest in, how to adopt and implement them, and ultimately how to measure their value and ROI,” he said.

Increased visibility

As the role evolves, these leaders are becoming more visible to investors and consumers in the public eye. Since March 2022, there were close to 750,000 online conversations in the U.S. about CFOs in the retail or footwear industry, according to data from RILA Global Consulting, a consumer sentiment monitoring firm that tracks more than 100 million websites and social media pages per day. These mentions spiked from the end of October through March 2024 and showed that online users were looking for CFOs to be better at managing retail crime, predicting the market better and keeping prices down without sacrificing the quality of their products — all major headlines in the retail and footwear world in the last 12 months.

“CFOs emerged as extremely influential figures shaping financial narratives,” said Rila Global Consulting CEO Tsvetta Kaleynska in a statement.

This increased visibility, combined with the ability to make an impact at a company and progress to its top levels, has helped redefine the CFO job for the modern age.

“I think that this is the best job in the world,” Quanbeck said. “It’s fun, it’s got its challenges but it’s very rewarding at the end of the day.”

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