3 Lessons Today’s CFOs Can Learn From The 2007 Recession


In the months since COVID-19 began its spread, little else has been discussed, dissected, and debated on such a national and global scale. From essential and newly unemployed workers to shelter-in-place orders, work-from-home mandates, and shuttered schools, the global pandemic has impacted every company in every industry.

For many CFOs, the current crisis draws parallels to the Great Recession. Beginning in December 2007, the Great Recession spanned over six quarters to become the worst downturn to face the United States since the 1930s. Over the course of the recession, eight to nine million jobs were lost and unemployment rose to 10%.

Compared with the crisis of today, there are, of course, differences. The U.S. went into the current pandemic with an unemployment rate of 3.5%, compared with 4.5% leading up to 2007. In sharp contrast, however, roughly 20% of today’s workforce have either lost their jobs or had them put on hold indefinitely.

During times of crises, employees look to their leaders for assurance and direction. In a recent Tesorio webinar, I sat down with three CFOs who survived the Great Recession — Jeff Epstein (former CFO of Oracle), Hope Cochran (former CFO of King, AKA Candy Crush), and Ron Gill (former CFO of NetSuite) — to understand how today’s CFOs can protect their company, plan for the future, and seize opportunities during COVID-19.

#1. Get comfortable with having hard conversations.

When it comes to managing a crisis, some executives are shock absorbers and some are shock transmitters. Right now, employees are looking to leadership to gauge their reaction to what’s going on in the world. As a CFO, you have to be comfortable having tough conversations. The health and safety of employees come first, but you also need to be as realistic, straightforward, and as transparent as you can.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep and keep your communication as clear and consistent as possible. Keep agonizing conversations between executives, and make it a practice to update your board weekly. To maintain transparency with employees, consider sending out a daily communication brief with updates from all relevant departments.

Think about what you’re communicating out to employees and whether it gives teams something to focus on, such as rallying around closing late-stage deals or re-prioritizing marketing efforts.

Remember: Daily communication might be prudent today, but over time the need for this will slow down and normalize.

#2. Right now is a time for action.

None of us can predict what’s going to happen next, but right now is a time of action and your company is looking to you to be in control. The best way to look like you have a plan is to have a plan. In order to do so, you need to understand the current state of your company.

During this crisis, companies are typically falling into four different categories:

  1. Profitable companies with capital where the current climate is not life-threatening.
  2. Companies that are losing money, but still have some cash. They will make it through this crisis and operate effectively.
  3. Companies with a good product that would be doing well otherwise, but haven't raised money in the last 6-12 months. (I.e. they have a liquidity problem.)
  4. Companies directly related to the hospitality, entertainment, and travel industries, such as restaurants or ticketing for live events, and other industries that have been catastrophically affected by the pandemic. (This is the most serious category.)

Get a sense of where you are by mapping out different scenarios at multiple levels, tiering up decisions, and understanding all of the impacts — on your business, your employees, and your customers. Then start planning your actions.

Remember: Keep calm in your demeanor and keep your team focused on what they need to get done.

#3. Great products and reputations are built in hard times.

Out of every crisis comes great opportunity. The most innovative products often come out of recessions and amid creative difficulties. Consider this time to be one in which you can focus strategically, adjust quickly, and spend properly. Cash is incredibly valuable right now, and a solution like Tesorio can help you quickly figure out how much cash you have, and how much you need in the future.

Use this time to think about how you can maximize the output of your business. For example, depending on your cash flow, right now might be the optimal time to hire available top talent. Mapping out your entire organization structure might show you that you have too many middle managers, which has hampered communication, or even execution.

Evaluating these types of strategies is a lucrative opportunity to set your business up for scale and success once you’re on the other side of this crisis.

Remember: Reputations are built in hard times. Right now, everyone is struggling. Look for ways you can be compassionate and build loyal relationships with your colleagues and customers alike. For example, if your balance sheet can handle it, think about proactively extending billing terms to customers affected by the hardship.

For more insight into how smart CFOs approach periods of unprecedented uncertainty, listen to our on-demand webinar.