Photo by COURTNEY PEDROZA, AZ BIG MEDIA
NUMBERS GAME: “We don’t want our members’ money,” said Bret Lawson, president of the Financial Executives International (FEI) Arizona Chapter, “we want their engagement.”

FEI Arizona Chapter’s changes help drive growth

COUNTING
SUCCESS

Creation of FEI Arizona Chapter’s dynamic platform for financial leaders helps drive growth


For financial executives, it’s all about the numbers. And any way you look at the numbers, the Financial Executives International (FEI) Arizona Chapter is a success. At FEI’s 2014 Summit Leadership Conference in June, the Arizona Chapter will earn an award for the Tier 3 (100-200 members) chapter with the greatest growth in the last year. To put the extraordinary success of the Arizona Chapter in perspective, the group grew membership by almost 16 percent in the last year, compared with a high of about 2 percent growth for FEI’s 84 other chapters.

“We have been able to grow because this is not the same old FEI,” said Bret Lawson, CFO of Ipro Tech and two-term president of the Arizona Chapter. “People who came in the past thought FEI was a bit cliquish and boring. Those same people are coming back now and are finding an organization that is more dynamic, open and friendly.”

FEI is the preeminent association for CFOs and other senior finance executives. Members have access to unrivaled networking opportunities with their peers, continuing professional education (CPE) programs, career services and the opportunity to build relationships with other professionals in the business community.

“People think that finance people are boring,” Lawson said, “but a lot of us are a lot of fun and we’ve tried to create events that are both fun and great networking opportunities.” Because of the turnaround and growth of the Arizona Chapter, Lawson will be making a presentation at FEI’s national convention to share his success stories and advice with leaders of other FEI chapters.

Az Business sat down with the leader of FEI’s only Arizona chapter to talk about the impact FEI has had on his financial career and the potential impact it can have on future members.


What attracted you to the financial side of business?
Bret Lawson: When I was a child, I had a paper route and really enjoyed the business side of it. From an early age, I was always interested in how to make money and how to make a business grow.

Is Arizona a good place for finance leaders to build a career?
I didn’t grow up in Arizona. I grew up in Southern California. I didn’t go to school in Arizona. I went to UC Berkley. I didn’t start my career in public accounting in Arizona. I started in San Francisco. I moved here 13 years ago not knowing anyone in the business community. I think Arizona presents a great opportunity for people to come because the business community is very welcoming here because most people who live here are not originally from Arizona.

How has the role of the CFO evolved since the start of your career?
It’s not about just counting the beans and reporting the numbers. CFOs have to be a lot more strategic today, work more directly with senior management and have a lot more responsibility in regards to managing risk. One has to develop a greater skill set than just understanding accounting. You have to understand business. You have to understand insurance. CFOs today must be able to take the numbers and interpret the numbers in order to create a strategy to drive the business.

How did you become involved with FEI?
Because I didn’t grown up in Arizona, didn’t go to school here and didn’t really know anyone here, I had heard about the organization through co-workers in California who were members of the chapter back there. I got involved and met people, then joined the board and took on leadership roles. It’s allowed me to network, meet local business leaders, meet and build relationships with local vendors that — as a CFO — I do business with, and meet other CFOs that I can talk with about business issues or consult with.

Why should financial leaders become part of FEI?
There are great networking opportunities as well CPE programs that are required for most financial professionals. The greatest benefit is that FEI gives members an opportunity to build relationships. You can build banking relationships, insurance relationships and real estate relationships because all those folks are involved in FEI and they all become people you can add to your rolodex. For anybody in business, it’s too easy to get too involved in your career and not do enough to build relationships outside of your organization and network. FEI provides great opportunity to do that. The more people know you, the more opportunities will present themselves to you. FEI helps members add to their knowldge base by meeting people who experience the same challenges. It helps you do your job better because you have resources you can draw from and best practices you can learn by drawing on the experiences of other members.

How has your affiliation with FEI impacted you professionally?
In reality, I got my current job through my FEI connections. Our COO was looking for a new CFO and he had served on a board with one of our FEI sponsors who told him, “You need to talk with Bret.” He reached out to me, we met and I got the gig.

How has the CFO of the Year program impacted the visibility of FEI?
Each November, the FEI Arizona Chapter and its sponsors present the CFO of the Year Awards to outstanding CFOs from Arizona organizations at a special dinner and networking event. Being a member of FEI is not a prerequisite to being a nominee for CFO of the Year. But it’s a testament to FEI and to the reach of our sponsors that the CFO of the Year Awards have become a premier event and have become a prospecting tool for new members. Many of the nominees come to meetings and several nominees end up joining FEI. FEI Arizona’s CFO of the Year event has become so popular — we had 400 atttend the event last year — that many other chapters have followed our blueprint to put on CFO of the Year events of their own.

How do you see FEI Arizona evolving over the next decade?
We have been able to grow our chapter because we listened to members who said the greatest benefit of membership was networking, so we increased networking time. We have added a modified career development program and personal branding training so members can develop their personal brand. We will continue to grow by continuing to make sure there is a value added for our members, adding different types of education, dynamic speakers and webinars. We are the premier organization for financial leaders in the Valley and even though we are living in a digital age, at the end of the day, success in business is built on personal relationships. Beyond Skype, texting and email, face-to-face, one-on-one personal relationships make a difference in business. And that’s what FEI provides as a networking organization: the ability for members and sponsors to develop relationships that will impact the way they do business and their ability to become more successful in business.

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Michael Gossie

About Michael Gossie

Michael Gossie is an award-winning journalist who has earned more than 50 awards for writing, editing and design. He studied economics at Elmira College in Elmira, N.Y., and put his entrepreneurial spirit to work in 2007, using a 200-year-old family recipe to launch an Italian sauce company. He is a competitive marathon runner, Ironman triathlete and is most proud of being the founding president of the Steuben Arc Foundation in Upstate New York, which serves individuals with developmental disabilities, including his sister.