The benefits of a nonlinear path to the CFO seat

Joint CFO roles will become ‘the norm, not the exception,’ says Claire’s CFO.
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Chris Cramer

· 4 min read

Coworking is a weekly segment where we talk to CFOs and other leaders in the finance space about their experiences, their companies, and the larger economy. Let us know if you are—or you know—a CFO we should interview.

When Chris Cramer took over the blended CFO and COO role at teen accessories retailer Claire’s last November, it wasn’t his first rodeo.

For the last two decades, he’s made specialty retail something of a personal specialty: Cramer has served as CFO (and later COO) of Bath & Body Works, as well as president of Parade. Previously, we talked to Chris about his first day at Claire’s, but there was just too much good stuff to cram into one article, so voilà.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What advice do you have for aspiring CFOs or people who want to make the pivot from another role? How did you use your previous positions at other companies to prepare for the CFO role at Claire’s?

First and foremost, be open to experience. It doesn’t always have to be a linear path to get to where you want to go. And in some cases, a nonlinear path can really help prepare you and ensure that you’re even more ready for success when you get into that CFO role. In my case, that may have been things like, even when I was in finance, taking on some things that were maybe non-traditional finance tasks so that you can build partnerships around the business or learn in different areas.

An example of that would have been having customer research and customer marketing reporting up through me when I was in finance. It’s obviously a non-traditional kind of situation, but it really helped me learn and understand the customer—which then, to tie into something like Claire’s, [it helped in] understanding the Gen Z-Alpha, as we call it, group and trying to get my arms around that group of customers—and having a baseline to be able to do that positions you to be an even better CFO when the time comes.

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As CFO for Claire’s, you’re really at the forefront of specialty retail. Where do you see the industry heading in 2024? What’s on the horizon for next year?

More generally for retail, I think you’ll see more and more experience-oriented [opportunities]. When you think about physical retail, what makes the physical experience unique? And how do retailers emphasize that more and more to create that differentiation that makes the physical part of retail attractive? Because customers of any age group—but especially the group that we’re focused on, that Gen Z-Alpha group...[have] a lot of demands on their time. How do you make a physical experience meaningful when technology is so much at the forefront for them? I think we’ll see that continue to be a push for retail.

Every CFO we interview talks about how the role is changing and how key job functions are expanding. How has your own definition of the job changed, and how do you think the job will continue to change in the next five years?

When a lot of us were earlier in our careers, the CFO role tended to be thought of with more boundaries around it. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen it change, and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of that change. While the fundamentals all still matter…it’s moved more toward the value-add-type functions within a business: How can we be good partners? How can we help drive business decision-making? In the case of a retailer, how can you drive things like promotional strategy, [which] means so much to the profit position of a retailer?

There have definitely been some transitions [in CFO involvement]. I think what we’re doing here at Claire’s—the CFO and COO role blend—will be more the norm rather than the exception because those operating decisions that a COO is involved in all have a financial underpinning, and being able to connect those operating decisions back efficiently and seamlessly with the financial plans actually creates real synergy for the business.

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CFO Brew helps finance pros navigate their roles with insights into risk management, compliance, and strategy through our newsletter, virtual events, and digital guides.