How Adobe Defined the Modern CFO

Tien Tzuo
5 min readJul 17, 2020

This is the second part in a two-part interview series with Mark Garrett, the legendary ex-CFO of Adobe. Under his guidance as Executive Vice President and CFO, Adobe completed the fastest transition to a cloud-based subscription in the software industry. In this section, we’ll hear Mark’s thoughts on the role of the modern CFO.

So if you don’t mind me saying so, you are a legend for how you helped steer Adobe’s transformation into a subscription business. And last week, we talked about what gave you the courage and conviction to pull it off: you recognized the problem, you gave yourself some room to experiment, and you stuck to your convictions. But I’m curious, was the idea of the CFO as a strategic partner in the business a familiar concept when you were starting off in your career? How has the role changed over the years?

Yeah, people used to throw around this idea that the CFO is a partner to the executive team and the CEO, but I don’t think it was all that genuine. It was always more the fiduciary responsibility, the forecasting, the budgeting and investors. And that’s important, super important, but not as strategic as I think it needs to be now.

Interesting, why do you think that’s the case?

The company strategy, and product offering consistent with that strategy, help drive the business model, M&A plans, partnerships, go-to-market structures and much more. The CFO today has to be instrumental in helping to formulate and implement the company strategy to be able to help with those follow-on initiatives.

What advice would you have for CFOs, or for that matter any finance professionals, that are starting to see red flags in their business model?

First, I would do a gut check on where you are today as a company, and where you’re going to be in five years if you don’t change something. That to me is the hardest part. For example, I don’t know where Adobe would be without the 2008 recession. I don’t know if we would have had the guts to make the jump or not. It’s really hard to do if your stock is trading pretty well, and things are relatively comfortable.

But once you make that assessment, then you can say, okay, if that’s what’s going to happen in three to five years, what should we do about it? And it all really starts with the product. It certainly doesn’t start with finance or pricing. It starts with: Do we have the right product for three to five years from now? And if we don’t, what should we do about it? And then everything else follows the product, but you have to start with the customer first.

So start with a best case scenario of who’s using your product in five years, and how they’re using that product. Then you work backwards from that scenario in order to make it happen across all your functions.

Exactly.

But once you’ve put a financial plan in place to support that effort, what does that look like? Because lots of times if you ask a finance person for a business plan, you’ll get back a spreadsheet with 17 tabs. And it’s really more of a budget model versus a business model.

No, you don’t want a budget model. Especially if you’re trying to communicate with the Street. You have to keep it simple: What’s top line growth going to be? What’s bottom line growth going to be? So, the top line growth is 20%. What’s your profit growth going to be? What’s your operating profit growth going to be? Is it going to be at least as fast as revenue? Or is it going to be slower than revenue, because you’re investing? You know, those are really the two things that you need. Everything else in between is just where the expenses go, but really, it comes down to top line growth and profit growth.

Who should own pricing: product or finance?

I moved pricing under finance at Adobe. This kind of came out of my IBM background. I said to Shantanu, you know, pricing is strategic and it should be all done the same way and we need to consolidate it. And it did two things: it made finance think about the customer experience, and it changed the kind of people we needed in finance, because they really needed to become much more data-oriented. For example, why are we having acquisition issues in this particular country? I don’t want you to just report all that, I want you to predict what’s going to happen, and then tell me what to do about it.

You’re a board member now for so many companies. When you’re talking to CFOs, what are the top two or three pieces of advice you find yourself giving them?

I’d say number one is think about what risks you have to your business several years out. And then two is how do you grow the business? With growth, almost everything is solvable. Number three, is how do you drive more recurring revenue? For some of the legacy companies, it’s more difficult, right? I mean, you may have both hardware and software, it’s not as straightforward. But for me, it always comes back to growth. You can solve a lot of woes with growth.

So why is the CFO uniquely positioned to do that? Because I’m sure you go to a lot of these companies and then they say, “Well look, growth is great but I look to my head of revenue or sales for that.” Why does it lean on the CFO?

Of course all those people play a part: head of sales, marketing, chief revenue officer. But I think it’s incumbent on the CFO to make sure that all those different pieces come together and make sense and work to drive that growth.

And that’s not a COO’s responsibility?

It could be. To be honest, I haven’t worked much at a company that’s had a COO. The thing that I always loved about the CFO job is that other than the CEO, everything can come across the CFO’s desk because ultimately everything leads back to P&L. Everything’s an investment towards driving growth, so you can get involved in any aspect of the business you want.

Curiosity is a big part of the job.

Oh, definitely.

Thanks, Mark!

You’re welcome, Tien. Any time.

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Disclosure: These opinions expressed are mine, not those of the company. The companies mentioned in this newsletter are not necessarily Zuora customers.

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Tien Tzuo

Founder and CEO of @Zuora (NYSE: ZUO) and the author of “SUBSCRIBED: Why the Subscription Model Will be Your Company’s Future — and What to Do About It.”