How a retail CFO/COO became an operations expert

Taking a risk on an expanded role “was one of the best things I ever did,” says Robin Beichman Helfer.
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Robin Beichman Helfer

· 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.

Robin Beichman Helfer is CFO and COO of Ashley Stewart. Before joining the plus-sized retailer in early 2023, she held the dual roles at both mattress company Casper and insulated water bottle company S’well. Helfer told CFO Brew how she developed her operations expertise and shared plans for the fast-fashion chain under new ownership.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We often report on the ways that CFOs are taking on greater strategic roles. Have you noticed a shift toward that in your career?

I’ve been very fortunate because even [before] I went into working for a corporation [and] public accounting was my first role, my director at the time in finance set the expectation that I needed to be adding value cross-functionally…that knowing the technical parts of finance and accounting was 10% of the job. Ninety percent was “What are you going to do to take your expertise and impart it to non-financial team members, so that they understand the situation and it becomes an impetus for action? How do you influence beyond your area? How do you learn other functions so that you’re adding that value way beyond just the technical part?”

You mentioned your admiration for Indra Nooyi, who went from CFO to CEO and chair of PepsiCo. What are some of the things you admire about her tenure?

She’s shown that she can be at the helm and deliver. I also think that she busted through boundaries. It’s not easy to become the CFO of a multinational, multibillion-dollar company such as Pepsi. And being a female, a minority—all of those things—I feel like she busted through those glass ceilings. And delivered. The company has delivered. I’m also a big fan of consumer products. It’s what I’ve chosen to do for the majority of my career.

Have you faced similar barriers as a woman in finance?

I never felt that I had to work harder just because I’m a female. I felt like it set me apart in the function. Some of it was the industries that I was in. For example, I worked for [trading card company] Topps, and there was a male tilt just because of it being [a] sports[-related business].

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I think it’s incumbent on you as a professional to effectively network and deliver and show your stuff. And I think if you do that, and you work hard and you pick something that you love and that you’re good at, regardless of if you’re a female or a male, your leaders will recognize you. For me, it was having really good role models, the right level of support, and working hard and loving what I’m doing, that people had the confidence in me to enable me to continue to advance.

Ashley Stewart was just acquired in April. Can you tell us about the acquisition and what you’re hoping the new investment [by Kinbow, an affiliate of RA Capital] will allow you to do?

I think that it really opens Ashley Stewart up to having additional capabilities, and for sure that’s on the manufacturing side because one of the businesses that is owned by the same owner [has] manufacturing capabilities in China, India, and Vietnam. So this helps give us a vertical integration arm that we did not have before. [That] not only opens up augmenting our assortment—it’s at a better price. In terms of some of our supply chain costs and infrastructure, I think they’re really going to be able to add value. I’ll also say that the strategy that [Kinbow] ha[s] articulated is to keep a balance between our e-commerce and store channels…whereas our prior leadership was more focused on growing e-commerce. I think that’s going to bode well for the franchise.

If you weren’t a CFO, what would you be?

A singer. In choir in high school, I was a soprano. I was in shows: I was Maria from The Sound of Music. And in business school, we had an ’80s-motif EMBA—I was in the Executive MBA program at NYU—rock band. We did a lot of ’80s stuff. Pat Benatar, “867-5309,” things like that. [It’s] contributed to having strong business presentation skills throughout my career.

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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.