Humanscale’s CFO On Why ‘Being a CFO Is Different From What It Was’

Humanscale’s Walther van Stipriaan on the advantages—and challenges—of today’s CFO.

Walther van Stipriaan draws from his experience racing cars when it comes to describing his management style as CFO at Humanscale.

“It’s the smallest changes that will make you go a lot faster,” he said. “It isn’t always about having a 100% perfect solution, it’s about, let’s get this resolved now.”

Van Stipriaan took that let’s-get-things-done attitude to Humanscale, which specializes in ergonomically correct office furniture, when he joined the company this spring after stints at Stanley Black & Decker and GE. He spoke with StrategicCFO360 about the future of working from home, sourcing environmentally sound materials and the CFO’s unique position in seeing across the entire company.

After a year when many people found themselves working from their kitchen tables, what trends do you see in the year ahead for ergonomics in general and Humanscale in particular?

People have found out that working from home is actually very doable. You’ll certainly see hybrid models going forward where people will be working from home two, three days and then in the office two, three days. So when we look into the ergonomics business it sort of expands the market as well because now you’re supplying for the home and for the office.

With ergonomics, there’s been an appreciation of its importance for some time now, but what do you see in terms of any new attention to it?

I’m 6’6”—having the right chair is such an important thing to be able to work. And now when you’re talking about working at the kitchen table or working at the dining room table, it’s just not enough. It’s not good for your posture. People will start to have issues with their lower back, with their upper back, with the neck. So focusing on the ergonomics and seeing what we’ve had in the office makes people want something different at home, and maybe it emphasizes that even in an office environment we need to do better.

You joined Humanscale this spring—what is that transition like from your roles at established brands like Stanley Black & Decker and GE to CFO of a more entrepreneurial company?

It’s been such an amazing first period simply because I really admire what Bob King has done with the company, working on sustainability, working on wellness long before it was fashionable. At our facility in New Jersey, we’re fully supplied by solar panels and by rainwater. Bob invested in that many, many years ago, before anybody else did. Some of our chairs are built from fishing nets that are recovered from the ocean. We’re looking into various options to build chairs from plastic that we are recovering from the ocean as well.

And as CFO, what is your primary focus right now? What do you see as most effective in balancing say growth with financial prudence?

I really want to make clear that being a CFO is different from what it was in the past. What I mean is you have such a unique vantage point over the organization to remove roadblocks, to spot the different linkages, to really be a part of that ownership of the company and be involved in a lot of different departments and drive that through the analytics and through the financials. That’s how I started with Humanscale as well, really as a change leader and being a part of that change leadership and trying to be agile, especially in the market that we have.

Can you give me an example of that “unique vantage point”?

I’ve only been in the company for a couple of months, but if you think about how you use different analytics, for instance, or how we start to layer sales with our supply chain, how our customer care and our tax application people are working together. There are so many different things that you can bring in and start to link up the different departments with each other to improve, whether that is forecasts to improve the purchasing of goods, et cetera. There are a lot of things that I’m touching through the financials that really link all those departments together. It’s more of a global view of the business for the CFO today.

You mentioned your supply chain. What kinds of challenges are you facing from a supply standpoint or manufacturing?

If you look into what Humanscale is doing, which basically is building a product on demand, the supply chain is quite heavily loaded because you’ll have unique products that you have to build on a daily basis. The configurations are almost endless, and to serve the customer better you have to optimize that. But everybody knows the most efficient way of doing supply chain is to build a particular standard product and multiply that by multiple times. If you have to fill a different product every single time, it’s a very hard and very demanding supply chain. And with Covid, with volumes down, with demand down, it’s much harder to optimize your supply chain.

Have you seen that demand shift even in a better climate for growth than we had during the height of the pandemic?

Work from home certainly has increased versus your bigger projects for companies starting up new buildings or buying new buildings. They’re still there, but it’s a lot less. The bigger projects are starting to come back, but the focus has also been on the panels we are making to safeguard folks in the office setting or in schools, for instance.

Given that you sell both directly to consumers as well as to companies, do you see that balance shifting one way or the other these days?

We’re definitely focusing more on the work from home stuff. And with companies incentivizing people or supporting them working from home with better ergonomics, you’ll literally shift from selling it to the company that will supply it to their employees for working from home. And now it’s going to be for folks that are working from home so directly selling to them.

It sounds like you are seeing a pickup in sales that is still in the beginning stages. Is there one metric that you see as being most important to track closely these days?

Our orders are obviously one of the biggest things to track. Cash is obviously always king in this situation. But the interesting thing is the lessons learned from other companies in the past, and especially from Jack Welch in the GE days. You can really slim down in an economic crisis, but once you start to get out of the crisis you’ll fully slim down as an organization as well trying to find that perfect balance of investing in the market, investing in your sales folks, investing in customer service and really the customer experience for that time when the economics start to expand.

So how do you then measure that? Well, orders is certainly one metric. You have to be relatively tight on cash with those investments, but the company still needs to roll. So your supply chain becomes extremely important, especially when those orders start to trickle in in various ways, you need to optimize that. There are several things that are becoming really important, but the focus at Humanscale is the customer experience.

A lot of those metrics are very, very important: speed of order, and, especially, the customization of the orders. Giving people exactly what they want in the specific color and then on time. For the company itself, obviously having the orders and having the volume of orders then becomes really important. And then how do you slot that into your supply chain?

What is the biggest obstacle to growth that you see in the economy going forward?

We’re going to see some very interesting times in Q3 and Q4, especially in the various states here where people have stopped wearing face masks. We’re going now into the phase that probably people will go back to the office without face masks. A lot of people have kids at home and when daycare and schools start really opening, that will be another phase. We already see recovery right now but once that happens, a lot will really start to open up again.

I don’t see an obstacle there.

The obstacle is to survive the period that we were in and to place the company in a position that when growth comes back, serving the customer is 100% there and ready for that growth. So are there obstacles? Yeah, a part of going back to where we were, let’s say in the end of 2019, or the first quarter of 2020—a lot of companies have suffered.

So investing in new offices and investing in new furniture and ergonomic stuff, you know, not everybody will have the capital right now to do that. Once we start going, I think in Q3, Q4, we will see that start to return.

It sounds like perhaps some of those larger orders may lag naturally just as some companies that have gone through a leaner time will wait on major capital purchases?

Well, a lot of these companies, you think about the Amazons obviously of the world, these guys are going nuts, so their investments are still there. It’s a bit dependent on the various companies and which of the markets have been hit. But the commodities are absolutely rockets. I think the investments for a lot of these companies, especially if they’ve been smart about surviving Covid, those investments will definitely happen. And if not Q4, then in the new year we’ll sort of start that off when budgets are being handed out.

Can you give me an example of a recent problem you’ve faced and how you addressed it?

As I said, the interesting thing about being a CFO today is the breadth of the job so, for example, I’m also in charge of HR, where so you have a wide variety of problems come up. For me, the main thing when I talk about leadership is to enable people, and that includes enabling them with problems—like the need to combine various departments and how to resolve that.

We’ve had an ERP implementation and they’re never great. I’ve been through many ERP implementations in the past and whatever company you are with, they’re never great. So if you go through those implementations that you’re talking about AR or cash apps or customer care, for instance, those are the three departments that should be really aligned with a lot of these things so getting on a call with all three and starting to develop a process and a way to go forward then structuring those meetings as well is all part of it.

We have informs, we’ve have actionables—who’s the owner and how do you move forward from that and get that resolved as soon as possible and make decisions. The thing that I’ve seen in the past is that you can keep talking about various problems and never have a solution because people are hesitant to take a stand. It doesn’t have to be 100% perfect. If it’s 85%, let’s go. Let’s implement it. And we’ll catch up with the remaining 5 or 10% later.

Elizabeth Harris has written about business and financial topics including behavioral economics for a range of publications including The New York Times, Worth magazine and SmartMoney. She got her start in small newspapers around Boston.