Driving a bus during a storm is a tall order; you’re tasked with keeping things on track, maneuvering with low visibility on slippery terrain, and making sure everyone feels safe. But that’s exactly what a good CFO does during a company transition. Whether it’s helping close an M&A deal, guiding through phases of rapid growth, or navigating economic crises, financial leadership in times of transition requires finesse. “I’d go to confer with the CEO, of course, but I had my hands on the steering wheel all the time,” says Tom Zelewski, the former CFO of Fort Worth’s Freedom Powersports, who helped lead the company to $225 million in revenue, then guided it through its sale to Irving-based RumbleOn in February 2022.
Zelewski says interpersonal skills have been key during times of change. Like many financial executives, he has coached his team members to be more than back-of-house accountants running numbers.
Zelewski has led several multimillion-dollar companies through large transactions. He was the VP of finance for AMR Global Services, a $550 million subsidiary of American Airlines, as it acquired several airport-focused businesses. And he assisted in the sale of AMR Global Services businesses through four transactions. He also helped Plano’s Safety-Kleen through a bankruptcy exit in the 2000s then helped pet product manufacturer Petmate reach $200 million in revenue and sell to a Chicago PE firm in 2011.
Now the vice president finance, corporate services at $1.8 billion powersports marketplace RumbleOn, Zelewski says the most challenging aspect of financial leadership during mergers and acquisitions is personnel moves. “Those changes are difficult, especially when you’ve worked with people, you respect them, and you see their value. But just because they’re good at what they do doesn’t mean they’re going to be a fit for the new company,” Zelewski says. That’s where Zelewski says keeping the lines of communication open becomes crucial. “The only thing I think you can do is communicate,” he says. “Tell people everything that you can as soon as you can and be honest with people that there are going to be things you cannot tell them.”
The biggest takeaway from RumbleOn’s acquisition of Freedom Powersports was the importance of financial reporting systems, accounting, and HR platforms, Zelewski says. “When you combine companies together, sometimes none of the systems that everybody’s using are going to work together,” he says. During major operational shifts, risk assessment and anticipation are critical. “It’s never going to be perfect, but it’s about figuring out those things as best you can to mitigate the risks and the harm from the change,” Zelewski says.
Moe Haidar, CFO of Dialexa, has also seen the importance of effective coaching and solid infrastructure during business transitions. Haidar moved from Lebanon to DFW to become the Dallas-based tech company’s first employee in its core business in 2011. Initially, he oversaw much more than finance. “Pretty much everything from running the operation of the business to cleaning out the toilet came to me, except delivery and sales,” Haidar says. He helped his brother Mark and Dialexa co-founder and CEO Scott Harper scale the company without external capital or investment. Ten years later, Dialexa doubles its size annually and sold to IBM Consulting in 2022.
When Dialexa successfully grew beyond survival as a startup, Haidar built a finance team and implemented a platform to manage and automate tasks. “The second phase was to transition from being one person with an Excel sheet, to eight people and an ERP system (enterprise resource planning system) ,” Haidar says.
His role shifted from having all the answers and running all the numbers himself to guiding others to success. “It’s pretty much creating that challenging environment for direct reports in a fair and healthy way, where I can help them level up,” he says. His team made the shift to an ERP—a transition that would normally take more than two years—in six months, during the peak of the pandemic.
Soon after that, Dialexa began its sale process to IBM Consulting, and Haidar essentially took on another full-time job doing the deal’s M&A finance. “We had to run our company, and we had to run the deal process, and both of them are extremely demanding jobs,” he says. Tech supplier shortages in the first half of 2022 and market slowdowns in the second half of the year made forecasting and maintaining growth even more of a challenge for Haidar and his team.
But the financial exec thrives in the space outside his comfort zone: he and his brother, Mark, grew up around explosions in Lebanon during conflict within the country. “We got used to finding an order within chaos,” he says. How do they do it? By focusing on others involved. “I always remind people that if you go in with a giving mindset, you are always going to get more from yourself and your team,” he says.
Once all the players are in the right frame of mind, Haidar says leaders can help their teams find the right method to make it through the madness. “We can easily die as individuals, or we can win as a big team,” he says, adding that these collaborative values, and their dissemination across Dialexa’s leadership, are part of what he believes made the company attractive to IBM.
Teamwork during transitions has also been key for Misty Kawecki, CFO of DZS. “I like to facilitate a lot of collaborative discussions with my team to make sure that we’re staying aligned with where we’re going,” she says.
Kawecki joined DZS in 2021 and led the Plano telecom networking equipment company through a follow-up IPO in November 2022 to invest in innovation with new tech products and acceleration to market. She also helped its global teams shift from four operations systems to one, plowing through the challenges presented by varying time and comfort zones during the past 18 months. “We talk about being buffalos and charging the storm and getting through it quicker and faster,” Kawecki says of her team.
At the financial helm of a global company, Kawecki has had the added challenge of assessing and revamping DZS’ approach to business in countries where currency is heavily fluctuating, including Korea, Japan, and Egypt. In economic transitions, patience and adaptability are necessities, she says. “You cannot learn everything all at once; sometimes you learn as it comes to you,” Kawecki advises when navigating shifting markets abroad. “Sometimes, economic shifts come often, and sometimes they’re spread out. Either way, the approach is the same—customers and employees first, and then figuring out how to go to market in those regions and tweak.”
Kawecki says she spends more time worrying about the knowns than the unknowns. “It’s never a straight line to growth,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a step sideways, sometimes it’s a step back, but you’re always working toward the step forward, and as long as you keep that path in mind, good companies will adapt to where they’re headed.”
She, Zelewski, and Haidar agree that finance, will continue to provide the info needed to make the best decisions when navigating a storm. “You can run a story through numbers to protect people’s lives without actually telling them you’re protecting their life,” Haidar says.
Zelewski, Haidar, and Kawecki are among D CEO’s 2023 Financial Executive Award winners. See the full list here.