On May 6th, in an event titled “CPA to CFO: A Conversation with Colgate-Palmolive CFO Dennis Hickey,” Mr. Hickey discussed his outlook on his career decisions and how to succeed in the accounting world and Corporate America. Co-sponsored by the Executives on Campus (EOC) program and the Zicklin Graduate Accounting Society (ZGAS), the presentation was moderated by ZGAS President Charles Hwang. A 1970 Baruch College graduate, Mr. Hickey began his career at accounting firm Alexander Grant & Co. (renamed Grant Thornton in 1986), which focused on the middle market of the audit business. He decided not to stay at Alexander Grant for long, joining Helena Rubenstein, a subsidiary of Colgate, in 1977. As a CPA, Mr. Hickey was given new responsibilities to address current issues related to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and has since moved throughout what became Colgate-Palmolive’s subsidiaries and offices. Over the years, he has had roles related to auditing, sales, and supply chain manufacturing at the firm.
In his conversation with Charles Hwang, Mr. Hickey answered various questions about issues related to his career development. In regard to a question about his opinion on company loyalty, Mr. Hickey stated that loyalty is always a two-way street. “You need to make an assessment on both sides,” he added, commenting on the importance of evaluating both an employee’s loyalty to a company and the company’s loyalty to an employee. In the end, Mr. Hickey remarked that loyalty comes down to employee performance. In other words, one must exceed as opposed to only meeting expectations, and he advised people to get outside of their comfort zones. According to Mr. Hickey, being “inquisitive” was the single most valuable characteristic necessary for success—the desire to delve into complicated issues.
Presented with the question of how to evaluate the pros and cons of corporate versus public accounting, Mr. Hickey launched into a discussion. Corporate accounting provides accountants to target specific companies and become more specialized within particular corporate departments. On the other hand, public accounting provides a wider exposure to more areas and industries more quickly from the entry-level perspective. He emphasized that every accountant faces the same challenge: how to obtain “depth of experience,” and then develop “breadth.” On the definition of success, Mr. Hickey explained that this has transformed over the course of his career. In the beginning, he defined success based on financial reward. Today, he defines success based on what he gets out of his job everyday. Although this may not always translate into “having fun,” he related it to the ability “to work with other people,” which is what he said “builds a business.”
Mr. Hickey expounded upon the qualities that make a successful CFO. In becoming facile with the worlds of finance and accounting, he explained that it was vital to become skilled in analytics. He also noted that it was necessary for people to have a willingness to “roll up their sleeves” in order to keep up with the dynamic nature of the position. In response to a question from Charles about which classes have been most helpful in his career, Mr. Hickey interestingly named English, public speaking, and history as the three top classes from his undergraduate years. English taught Mr. Hickey to write clearly and “get his message across.” Similarly, public speaking helped him learn how to present in a clear and concise manner. Lastly, history taught him how to understand society and deal with diversity. Mr. Hickey named courage and humility as the two qualities most essential to becoming a great leader. He associated courage with “getting outside of your comfort zone,” and humility with appreciating that, “no matter how good you are, you can always improve.” Mr. Hickey mentioned that these qualities were related to the three core values of Colgate-Palmolive: continuous improvement, caring, and global teamwork. In regard to whether his responsibilities as a CFO were different at Colgate-Palmolive than at smaller companies, he explained that the role of a CFO is similar from one company to the next. The differentiating factor between CFO responsibilities from company to company is related to where the company officer is allowed to have particular impact in executive management.
There was also a broader discussion about Colgate-Palmolive and its operations. Mr. Hickey discussed the culture of the company, mentioning that Colgate was founded in 1806 upon ethics and credibility. The company believes in “living” its values everyday to improve the lives of consumers worldwide. Colgate-Palmolive may not be the biggest consumer products company, but it prides itself on being the “best” by delivering diversity through global markets. Colgate-Palmolive embraces sustainability as “a way of life,” with efforts such as obtaining LEED certification and operating property, plant, and equipment in the “right way.” As a global company, Colgate-Palmolive has different kinds of compliance requirements across various markets—employees in local subsidiaries are often brought up with a familiarity with local GAAP and are essential to this extent. In response to a question of how Mr. Hickey has managed his work-life balance, he discussed the importance of being “honest” with oneself. As a parent, he emphasized “never making a commitment to a child and breaking it.” He added that, “When you make a commitment, you must deliver” in both one’s personal and professional lives.
Mr. Hickey fielded several different questions from members of the audience. In response to a question about whether CFOs require a CPA or accounting background, Mr. Hickey answered that neither one is necessary for the job. One needs to “get with the right company,” and “be willing to branch out.” Ultimately, there is a need to “understand a business” and the fundamental “drivers of financial statements” as a CFO. One audience member asked why Colgate got involved in the pet food business in recent decades. Mr. Hickey revealed that the firm’s dental and pet food product businesses involve a similar marketing competency. Whereas the firm promotes product sales through its professional relationships with dentists, it promotes pet food sales through its relationships with retailers, breeders, and veterinarians. He also discussed Colgate-Palmolive’s longstanding multi-domestic strategy for competing internationally. The firm has the philosophy of “winning on the ground,” where local managers who are experts with regard to the local environment understand their customers. Concerning whether a master’s degree is necessary for the success of a CPA, Mr. Hickey stressed that advanced degrees can help accountants in the area of analytics. He was also asked how the role of an accountant has changed over the last 30 years. Interestingly, Mr. Hickey pointed out that accounting has become more automated. For example, receiving clerks rather than company accountants are often charged with making simple journal entries. In addition, the closing process which used to occupy 80 percent of the month has been shortened to five days for multinational corporations like Colgate-Palmolive. Technological and organizational advancements have drastically reduced the extent of accountants’ past responsibilities. For these reasons, corporate accountants have become increasingly involved in forecasting and analytics. In particular, they are embedded across multiple areas of a firm rather than working in specific accounting departments.
Mr. Hickey’s career has been one shaped by increasing global interconnectedness and corporate expansion. His work has ranged from public accounting to the heights of corporate executive management. Dennis Hickey provided a detailed picture of the CFO position at a multinational firm, and the changing expectations of accountants in today’s corporate accounting environment. If his experience teaches us anything, it is that a title or position is only as significant as the manager who carries it. Not only did he present his view of Corporate America from the perspective of Colgate-Palmolive, but he also outlined the myriad paths accountants may take in their careers.