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Q-and-A with Bill Swanson, global CFO and North America CEO, Cartridge World

Bill Swanson is North America CEO of Cartridge World, but he’s also the company’s global chief financial officer. I recently asked him how he came to hold both roles, how he balances and weighs those responsibilities, and how other companies might study a similar strategy and structure.

You have a finance background and came to Cartridge World as global CFO before adding the North America CEO role. What led to the decision to take on the second role, and how important was your background in that decision?

Cartridge World needed new leadership after the company moved its North American headquarters from California to Illinois in 2011. I came aboard as global CFO in May 2011 before adding the North American CEO title a little more than a year later.

Prior to moving to Illinois, the Cartridge World system wasn’t working. We were creating negative cash flow and had far more expenses than were sustainable based on our revenue stream. There needed to be a culture shift and roles within the company had to be redefined. At the same time, we needed to provide more consistency as a global brand. Cartridge World has 600 stores in North American and more than 1,400 locations worldwide. We hadn’t always taken advantage of our reach, and we knew communication was a key to changing that.

I’ve held a number of financial and operational management roles throughout my career, and have experience in an international setting as the CFO of Staples’ European Catalog Division. By having a leader work intimately in a global role as well as leading a region such as North America, we had an opportunity to improve synergy worldwide.

What are some of the specific savings/efficiencies/improvements that you and the company have seen? What are the continuing challenges?

When we relocated to the Midwest in 2011, we did so to be closer to our technology partners, suppliers and franchisees. We have benefited greatly, both financially and operationally, because of this. Our costs have decreased, and Cartridge World is in a position where it can grow again.

Our technological partners and technology staff have made a concerted effort to improve the quality of our products worldwide to ensure they are equal to or better than other sellers, including the printer manufacturers themselves. We have and continue to offer a 100% guarantee on Cartridge World-branded products, which save customers around 30% over printer manufacturer cartridges. This commitment to quality makes it easy to develop brand consistency worldwide and provides opportunities for greater global marketing impacts in the future.

These achievements had to start with communicating the Cartridge World vision throughout all regions, something we have been able to accomplish in part because of the dual roles.

That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges. Because I have two separate roles, that means I have two separate staffs in multiple time zones. It can be enough of a challenge setting up global conference calls and meetings, let alone trying to interweave multicultural organizations and systems into new and unified processes.

The roles, responsibilities and focus areas of a CFO and CEO can be quite different, and possibly even in conflict. How do you deal with that? How much does it matter that Cartridge World also has a global CEO (as opposed to being global CEO and CFO)?

I think it’s essential to have a separate global CEO. As you indicated, the roles and responsibilities of a CFO and a CEO are quite different and even conflict with each other when both are functioning correctly.

That may have been the biggest challenge I faced when taking over the Cartridge World North America CEO role. CEOs are thought of as visionaries. They are paid to think big and seek innovation, constantly looking for ways to drive business, improve perception of the brand and develop new revenue streams. In contrast, a CFO is more engaged in the current realities of the business and must counterbalance these often grandiose ideas with a more cautious fiscal outlook. That balance is important, and we simply couldn’t afford to lose it at Cartridge World.

Having a global CEO in place keeps that spirited debate alive, and it keeps me from viewing a situation through only one set of eyes. Likewise, having staff at the North American office willing to challenge me when I have my CEO hat on is equally as important.

Are there other C-suite roles you think that would be wise to consider consolidating? Why would these pairings be more beneficial than keeping them separate?

Trying to consolidate the CEO role with any other C-level role is probably the most difficult to pull off successfully.

Most other C-level roles — the chief financial officer, chief operations officer, chief technical officer, chief information officer, etc. — live in a world where improving efficiency in the current system is the main priority. In some ways, consolidation of some of these roles could be beneficial, because it would provide for a single vision to achieving that goal.

For companies with consolidated C-suite roles that must replace a departing executive, what is most important to assess as these companies decide to make one or multiple hires?

Perhaps the most important aspect to consider is how successful the company was under the incumbent or previous executive. If it wasn’t successful, determine why it wasn’t successful. Perhaps the lack of success was due to the previous executive not being able to manage both roles. If that’s the case, splitting it up again could be the right decision.

Of course, there are always financial considerations. Can the company afford two executives of the right caliber in both positions? If not, it may make more sense to pay one talented candidate to handle the two roles.

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