10 questions for SciQuest CFO Rudy Howard

Name: Rudy Howard

Age: 54

Time with company: 2 years

Education: Bachelor of Arts in Accounting from North Carolina State University

Company headquarters: Cary, North Carolina

Revenue: $54 million for fiscal 2011 is the analyst forecast

Countries of operation: U.S., U.K.

Number of employees total: about 300

Number of employees the CFO oversees: about 15

CFO's areas of responsibility: finance, corporate development and legal

About the company: SciQuest provides on-demand procurement software to help academic, public sector, health care, life sciences and commercial organizations of all sizes streamline their procurement and supplier management processes.

1. Where did you start in finance and what experiences led you to the job you have today?

I began in public accounting, first with Deloitte and then with PwC [PricewaterhouseCoopers] and I became a partner at PwC. Both of those were here in Raleigh. I grew up in this area, on a farm just outside of Raleigh.

I was fortunate enough to be in public accounting during a tremendous period of growth and innovation in the Research Triangle area [of North Carolina]. In the '80s and early '90s this area grew tremendously and certainly more on a percentage scale as compared to almost any area in the country. It presented tremendous opportunities for anyone in the business world to grow, learn and gain experience. A lot of the growth in the Research Triangle area was in high tech, as well as pharma and the biotech areas. My areas of specialty were mergers and acquisitions and the SEC practice.

In the mid '90s I was wooed away by a client that wanted to go public. They were in the biotech-pharma area. That's the beginning of my CFO era and, hence, I'm a CFO today.

2. Who was an influential boss for you and what lessons did they teach you about management and leadership?

As I mentioned, I grew up on a farm, and my mom and dad were unbelievably tireless workers. I gained a wonderful work ethic from them. They not only talked the game, they walked the walk too. They taught me that no job was beneath you or above you -- you did whatever you had to do to be successful.

I can remember starting with Deloitte and I was just so eager to be successful. If one of the partners asked me to sweep the floor, I'd have done it happily. I think that's a big part of my success -- being able to roll up my sleeves and do the work.

My managing partner at PwC and the guy who really helped me become a partner and move up is someone I learned an awful lot from as far as relationships go. He was the sort of guy who could be best friends with anyone in the world. I learned a lot from him about the value of building good relationships with the people you work with. His name is Lee Durham.

3. What are the biggest challenges facing CFOs today?

Clearly, the economy has had a significantly negative impact on a lot of businesses and I'm sure many CFOs are doing all they can to keep their companies afloat. Their challenges are different from ours. We are a growing company. During the last three or four years as the economy has tanked, we have thrived.

Back in the mid- to late '90s, CFOs could make many more risky decisions and you knew if you made five risky decisions, one might fail but the other four could take off and explode. But in today's economy everything has such a risk to it. Even for a company doing well such as ours, you have to tread much more carefully because the risks can be so much more impactful than they were in the past.

4. What is a good day at work like for you?

We have a very team-oriented culture here at SciQuest. We've grown significantly over the last few years and we still try to retain as much of the close knit, mom-and-pop culture as we can.

Being the CFO in the company, I guess in terms of hierarchy one of the highest positions, I take on a lot of responsibility outside of those areas I mentioned early on [finance, corporate development and legal]. So to me a good day is a day where I contribute -- that might mean helping out in operations or another area. I wish that every day could be a day we signed a new M&A deal or that we sign up a big, new client. But I think we take it in much smaller steps at a time. So every day I come to work, I look for a place I can really contribute and hope our company is better off because of it.

5. How would you characterize your management style?

That's really a question I've run into recently. We had a meeting probably a week or 10 days ago where we got some operational data and some of the data was just horrific. I can remember telling our CEO that if I had gotten that data when I began my CFO career in the mid-90s you would probably have been able to see a mushroom cloud from miles away. I used to be more quick-tempered and volatile and I think now I'm more mature and patient.

While things are moving very quickly at this company on a daily basis, I don't necessarily think that an impetuous management style is a positive thing. So I like to add a certain amount of even-keelness to the process. I think that's probably how people in the company view me in terms of my management style.

6. What strengths and qualities do you look for in job candidates?

I again go back to what I think has made me successful. I look for candidates who are hard working and ambitious. I did a lot of recruiting back in my public accounting days. Here I look at people in both the areas I'm responsible for as well as other areas of the company, and I'm always interested in those candidates who I think want to come in and work hard and really make a difference across teams or specific departments.

I've never shied away from the valedictorian types, but I'm not interested in the people who want to come into an organization and spend two minutes at the entry level and then become the next C-level officer. So I'm looking for someone who is eager to do something meaningful.

I think one of the other things that is important to us and that we look for is fit, because we do have that culture here at SciQuest. We look for people who are very hard working and can work in an organization like ours with a lot of close-knittedness and team work. I think we do have a certain culture at our company that as we grow becomes more difficult [to sustain], but we work hard to keep it instilled in our process.

7. What are some of your favorite interview questions or techniques to elicit information to determine whether a candidate will be successful at your company? What sort of answers send up red flags for you and make you think a job candidate wouldn't be a good fit?

I like to ask open-ended questions. I try to put the candidate on the spot. I'll ask them to tell me what their experiences are and about some of the things that they've done and the reasons they feel they could contribute to an organization like ours. I really hate the pat answers, so I'm looking for someone who is innovative. I also want to hear how they can help and do a lot of different things. I'd rather hear a candidate say that they didn't have as much experience in one area that might be important but they do have experience in others and that they would crawl on their hands and knees on glass to do what needs to be done.

Someone who gives me the pat answer, that's not a good thing.

8. What is it about your current job, at this particular company, that sets it apart from other chief finance positions?

I've had some great experiences as CFO of other companies, with some very dynamic companies. I think SciQuest is actually somewhat similar to some of the others. We are a great company with tremendous opportunity facing us and I think that we really and truly are a company where the sky is the limit. Certainly in today's environment, if you're talking about how we are set apart from other companies, I think those type of companies are few and far between. I know back in the mid- to late 90s when the Internet companies came along, there were literally thousands of them you thought had that same opportunity and then many of them flamed out over night.

I think that in today's environment where nine out of 10 companies are struggling, to be with a company that has the opportunity that SciQuest has is very unusual.

9. What do you do to unwind from a hectic day?

I live a couple of hours away at the beach. I have an apartment here in Raleigh. I'm here during the week. I work a lot of hours. I exercise -- I'm a fitness junkie, but sometimes that might be at 10 o'clock at night. I'm not a morning person, so I don't do that in the morning. My typical day here at work lasts until 8 or 9 o'clock at night and then I go exercise and grab a bite and get to bed. So most of my unwinding is on the weekends. I have two kids who are very involved in athletics, plus we do a lot of boating and beaching. My unwinding is generally spending a lot of time on the coast on the weekends.

10. If you weren't doing this job, what would you be doing?

Athletics has been a big part of my life. I would really have loved to have been a coach. I played collegiate baseball. My son plays both baseball and basketball and I've been involved in coaching him.

But it would be a little late in life for me to get into coaching, so I think if I were not a CFO and I were somehow able to retire from the CFO world, one of the things I would like to do is mission work. We are so fortunate in America to live the lives that we do. I've been involved in a couple of mission opportunities and I have seen the poverty and the struggles that take place in many parts of the world. I really would like to do more of that. Maybe someday I'll have the time to pursue that.

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Nancy Weil

IDG News Service

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