10 Questions for Vibrant Media CFO Jeff Babka
-- Name: Jeff Babka
-- Age: 57
-- Time with company: 4 months
-- Education: University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, BS in Business Administration with a major in Accounting (Magna cum Laude, 1973); Manhattan College, Bronx, New York, MBA (1981); Stanford Executive Program (1990)
-- Company headquarters: New York, NY
-- Revenue: $100M+
-- Countries: U.S., U.K., France, Germany
-- Number of employees: 250
-- Number CFO oversees: 33
Where did you start in finance and what experiences led you to the job you have today?
I started my career in public accounting back in 1973 and passed the CPA exam in May of 1974. Just to show you how long ago that was, there was only one FASB pronouncement out then but it wasn't out for six months so we didn't need to know it for the CPA exam.
I was fortunate to have a wide variety of both financial and non-financial experiences over my career, all of which in combination seemed to prepare me well for becoming a public company CFO and taking companies down the IPO path. My longest tenure was with AT&T and then Lucent Technologies after the spin off in 1996. I had several financial roles there, including being CFO of a $6 billion business unit, and managing a very small team with the remit of taking a domestic product line to international markets. The international experience was invaluable in learning to deal with cultural and technical financial issues across borders.
My first public company CFO experience was with Indus International, an enterprise asset management software company, which had a major contract with the U.K. Ministry of Defense suspended right before I joined. We spent nine quarters getting the company back to profitability and were able to raise some capital on Wall Street and do a couple acquisitions, which along with some significant downsizing, brought the company back to profitability. I guess it was the job I did there that gave our financial sponsors the idea that I could be a good candidate to take a communications company in their portfolio public. That company was NeuStar, which we took public in 2005 and it was the Renaissance Capital and IFS IPO of the Year for 2005. That success got me to Sophos in 2009, which was acquired by a U.K. private equity firm just as we were about to hold our IPO organizational meeting. Since Sophos didn't need a public company CFO in the U.S., I like to say that both Lebron James and Jeff Babka became free agents on July 1, 2010! Lebron "took his talents to South Beach" and after a couple of months of relaxation, I took mine to the Big Apple when Doug Stevenson, Vibrant Media's co-founder and CEO, offered me the opportunity to join them as CFO on Sept. 1.
Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?
I am very fortunate to have worked for and with some very effective leaders and ineffective leaders over my 37-year career, and I have to say that I learned something from each of them -- either shaping what I do or not do! One of the most influential was Gus Blanchard, who headed a business unit for AT&T back in the late 1980s that I was CFO of. Gus was a very dynamic individual with outstanding interpersonal and presentation skills who was well respected throughout the business. I can trace back a lot of the subtleties of my presentation skills and skills in dealing with people and people issues back to what I learned from observing Gus. Another individual was Joe Trino whom I worked with at Indus International who is now an EVP at Starcite. Joe is a former public company CEO who was very experienced in dealing with Wall Street, public company boards and private equity investors. Joe knows the "art form" of life in a public company world and he was a great mentor to me when we worked together, and to this day I still often pick up the phone and call Joe to discuss an issue or get advice.
What are the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?
The job of a public company CFO is very complex and requires not only the balancing of a myriad of both internal and external pressures, but also addressing what he or she will do personally versus that which can be effectively delegated to others. Getting a team of highly skilled people who work well together as a team and with the rest of the company is key. Quite often a new CFO inherits a team that, although competent, doesn't work well together or doesn't mesh with his or her personal style and expertise. ... I am very fortunate at Vibrant to have inherited a team that meshes very well with my style in addition to being very competent and effective. That enables us to focus our time and attention on taking on new challenges as opposed to trying to find new talent.
What is a good day at work like for you?
A good day at work starts with a good workout and a good breakfast, and a brief visit with our CEO to see what is on his mind or agenda for the day. I always get through yesterday's e-mails while on the exercise bike in the morning, so I can dive right in whatever projects I am personally working on, or actively participate in meetings that are on my calendar for the day. I like a good balance of private time to work on my projects and interactive time in meetings. Normally, I eat lunch at my desk, and since I work in New York City and commute up weekly from Atlanta, I usually stay at the office until at least 7:30 unless there is a business dinner or function in the evening. I try to schedule a breakfast with a member of our sales or operations team once a week, and I enjoy business dinners with members of our team that are in from out of town. I learn a lot about the business in these informal breakfasts and dinners, and I get to know our team well in the process.
How would you characterize your management style?
I believe you should manage process and projects and lead people, and I am a very strong proponent of an accountability culture. Once I build up trust and confidence in a person, I am very empowering and will delegate the full responsibility for issues to members of my team. We'll agree up front on desired results, milestones and accountabilities, and I am available at any time to discuss issues and support them in any way I can. If someone on my team requires being managed day-to-day they probably wouldn't be a good fit for my style. I am not a slave to formal staff meetings, as I am communicating with members of my team every day and have a very "open door" policy.
What strengths/qualities do you look for in job candidates?
I look for people who view their stated responsibilities as just a starting point of what their contribution to the organization can be. Attention to detail is a must, as is outstanding interpersonal and communication skills. I normally look for a person who worked their way up from somewhat humble beginnings and excelled at a middle-of-the-road university as opposed to an Ivy League school. They also need to be comfortable socially with a good network in their profession, as I don't like to pay recruiter fees to find talent.
What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company?
I have what people have told me is a unique interviewing style that has worked well over the years for hiring at all levels, from those right out of college to those being considered for high-level executive positions. I first make sure that they understand the job, the company, our culture and my style. Then I say, "Look, tell me what you think I should know about you that would make me want to hire you. Start wherever you want in your life, end up wherever you want. Business and personal: What motivates you, what you don't like, what are your passions; go anywhere with this you want -- the floor is yours for the next 45 minutes -- sell me!" I will likely interrupt them along the way and ask questions, but I may just listen.
I have had people stop talking at 15 minutes -- I have had to stop people because they ran 15 minutes over their 45 minutes. It runs the full spectrum. For more senior positions, we will follow up with a dinner where the conversation will again run all over the map. At dinner, I will probe a bit more on how they deal with specific situations they have faced in the past and how they handled them.
What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn't be a good fit?
If they have a hard time organizing their thoughts in their 45-minute selling job or look to be uncomfortable in handling details, that would certainly set off the warning lights for me. Also, if they don't freely offer the names of individuals that I should speak with that can attest to why they would be a valuable person to add to any team -- that would also be a red flag.
What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?
I get my workouts in before breakfast, so for me unwinding usually involves a good dinner and a good bottle of wine with either my wife or business colleagues. I like to attend sporting events, so that is also a good way to unwind, along with a couple of beers, of course!
If you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing?
When I left Sophos, I really didn't plan to jump into a full-time CFO position and was rather looking to join Vibrant as an independent member of the board and chairman of the Audit committee. Had we gone down that path instead of my taking on the CFO position at Vibrant, I probably would be on a couple of boards by now and maybe trying my hand at teaching or helping out in the career development office of a university.
About Vibrant Media:
Vibrant Media is a world leader in contextual technology aligning billions of words across the Internet with relevant video, information, tools, and advertising. With over 6,000 premium publishers, reaching 207 million unique users per month (comScore, October 2010), Vibrant gives top brand marketers the opportunity to deliver highly targeted advertisements within premium Web content and offers publishers premium editorial tools to re-circulate users throughout their websites. Vibrant works with top brand advertisers such as Microsoft, Unilever, Warner Bros and AT&T. The company was founded in 2000 and has offices in London, New York, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Paris, Hamburg, Munich and Dusseldorf. Vibrant's rapid growth has been recognized by the Inc. 500 and Deloitte Fast 50 lists. In 2010, the company was named by Advertising Age as one of the "Best Places to Work in Marketing & Media." Vibrant CEO and co-founder Doug Stevenson was named Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year 2010 for Metro New York.