Innovation and engagement are part of this CFO’s “day job”

TrueBlue’s Derrek Gafford encourages employees to become “corporate entrepreneurs.”
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Derrek Gafford

· 5 min read

The CFO of one of the world’s largest staffing and employment firms doesn’t see himself as a finance guy.

“I never went into finance to be a finance person,” Derrek Gafford, EVP and CFO of TrueBlue, told CFO Brew. “I went into finance to be a business person.”

That comes through in the emphasis he places on strategy, innovation, and people. Gafford has been with TrueBlue for more than 20 years, 18 of them as its CFO. Over that time, he and CEO Steve Cooper grew the company from an $850 million general labor staffing firm to a $2.4 billion workforce solutions firm that has helped businesses find staff in more than 70 countries.

“Derrek has been a great partner for me over my career,” Cooper, who is stepping down as CEO this month, told CFO Brew in an email. “ I can count on him for sound, candid advice and to lead important initiatives. He can think with the best of them while bringing a grounded sense of humility.”

A commitment to employee engagement has underpinned Gafford’s success.

“My philosophy—both for [the] finance [department] and for the company—is if you want to have happy shareholders, you have to have happy customers, which means we have to start with happy employees,” Gafford said. Engaged employees drive innovation, Gafford said, creating better products and more efficient processes, which, in turn, leads to greater value for shareholders.

He’s also emphasized engagement during the multiple acquisitions he’s facilitated during his tenure, performing due diligence to ensure acquisitions would be a good cultural fit. “It’s really important to get good at that,” he said. “We can integrate processes and systems, but you don’t really integrate [corporate] cultures.”

Starting with purpose: Gafford knew very little about staffing back in 2002, when a colleague from the grocery business invited him to come join him at PeopleReady, the staffing services company that would later become a division of TrueBlue. He visited several branches and soon became inspired by the company’s mission.

Gafford joined the staffing firm as treasurer and vice president, and became its CFO in 2005. He and Cooper set out to grow the company, conducting “around 20 acquisitions to date, Gafford said.

Yet Gafford is quick to observe that the company emphasized cultural fit as it grew. “Ensuring that cultural fit” with acquisition partners “was really important for us,” he said. If a potential partner had a very different “outlook on employee development or customer relationships, on what we’re really here to do in the world and our purpose, those are really hard things to bring together,” he noted.

Employee satisfaction is part of everyone’s “day job”: When Gafford first became a CFO, he focused most on the technical aspects of the job. But he now realizes “that wasn’t what was going to really make me a successful CFO,” he said. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have…put less focus on the technical skills and put more on people and innovation.”

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Gafford is proud to note that the finance function has had the highest employee engagement scores at TrueBlue “for years”—all the more so, since everyone on the finance team works remotely.

He’s striven to create a culture where engagement is part of everyone’s “day job,” he said. All people managers in finance get an employee engagement score, as well as an internal customer satisfaction score, and a portion of their bonuses are tied to it. People understand it needs to be part of their skill set to advance, he said. “Part of your success of your job is your employees’ feeling engaged with you, their leader.”

Engagement starts with onboarding: All new employees receive a welcome gift with a note from Gafford, and he welcomes them personally to “set the right example for everybody else,” he said. Employees also receive gifts and a thank-you note from Gafford at year-end.

Cooper praises Gafford’s skills as a people leader. “Derrek is an extremely well-rounded executive that can see the big picture and organize teams to be successful with new ventures,” he said. “He has a way of explaining complex situations in simple terms and knows how to inspire the hearts of employees.”

Growing “corporate entrepreneurs”: Though good customer service is essential, to increase customer satisfaction over time, you need to be able to innovate, Gafford said. To that end, he encourages employees to become what he called “citizen developers” and experiment with robotic process automation and other technologies. That freedom has paid off: The finance group produces about one new bot a month, Gafford said. Recently, an employee wrote a bot that automates a large portion of the 60,000 garnishments TrueBlue processes a year.

For innovation to flourish, companies need to foster the right culture, Gafford said, and “[teach] people inside the company to be corporate entrepreneurs.” Employees should be encouraged to think like entrepreneurs who not only propose ideas but refine them, test assumptions, and put practices in place to reduce risk, he said.

TrueBlue’s finance function has processes that prompt staff to view innovation as part of their day job, Gafford said. They have a technology council that meets monthly to discuss in-progress ideas and create a pipeline of new projects.

And the finance group will soon implement two innovation metrics for managers, Gafford said: the number of ideas implemented per employee and value created per employee. In the first year, these metrics will be established and tracked, but in subsequent years, they may be incorporated into the bonus program.

“That’s an example of something that’s just brand new that will have a cultural impact,” Gafford said.

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The latest news and insights corporate finance professionals need to know to keep up with their constantly evolving industry.