This CFO knows how to motivate employees

“Our objective is to deploy our capital to create,” CFO Dimitri Syrkin-Nikolau explains.
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Dimitri Syrkin-Nikolau

4 min read

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Dimitri Syrkin-Nikolau is not a typical CFO. In college, he studied history and biology, not business. And alongside his role as co-founder and CFO of design cooperative Ruca, which is mainly staffed by freelancers, he is founder and owner of Chicago-area pizza chain Dimo’s Pizza. He spoke with CFO Brew about motivating two very different groups of employees, and about Ruca’s approach to investing.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me about Ruca and how it differs from a traditional design agency?

With an agency you’re doing services for a whole variety of companies, but your primary driver there is, of course, revenue. But at Ruca, we build things: our own products, our own brands. We do projects for a variety of clients and then we take the profits, and instead of just paying them out directly to the owners, we reinvest them in those projects or brands. We’ve invested in probably six or seven different startups in the last four years, and built a couple of things ourselves. The biggest one is called Yorba. It’s a company that’s positioned to help you manage your digital life. The [closest] equivalent is Mint, but [Yorba is] for your digital footprint.

Ruca has declined external funding. Can you tell me more about that decision?

I think what it comes down to is: Why do you exist? [That’s not] a knock on anybody else for a direction that they might have taken. But for us…when you take on external funding, you now have another stakeholder whose interest is generally not aligned…We could grow much faster…[but then] we’d have to be focused on ensuring that we’re going to make a return, and our objective is not to do that. Our objective is to deploy our capital to create and to build.

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How do you motivate your two very different groups of employees?

[At Ruca] it’s freelancers that are already professionals that are already at the top of their game…and there, we have profit sharing…and so that’s the engagement mechanism that exists there.

At Dimo’s, it’s a foodservice business, and generally speaking, it is staffed by younger individuals and ones who don’t think that they are long for the restaurant business…and so the question is, well, how do you organize your finances so that—knowing that reality—you have the best possible chance to engage the team?

So in a restaurant business, the typical trajectory is you go from your base level—either server or back-of-house employee—to maybe a lead or supervisor position, and then maybe assistant manager, and then a general manager. Each time that people take that step, they become closer and closer to general management. And a lot of people are not excited about that…and so we created a separate path for individuals that are excited about, let’s say, brand or finance or HR or technology. [For example] someone just got a technology role inside of one of the stores. They’re not a manager…but they are in charge of ensuring that all the technology at the store is complete. They get a small raise. It’s not a large amount, but it’s enough to engage them in an area that they have a natural affinity for.

And that does cost us more money. But the amount of money that it costs versus the value-add that exists is such that it’s beneficial for the business and it’s beneficial for [employees] because they learn life skills, and they think, “You know what? Maybe I can stay here for a little bit longer.”

News built for finance pros

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