Meet Athena member Carol Coughlin, an expert in board finance, M&A, and sustainable operations
Carol Coughlin is a seasoned board director and the CEO/founder of BottomLine Growth Strategies, a consulting firm helping companies develop the financial and operational expertise they need for sustainable growth. Previously, Carol was a skilled C-suite executive known for her leadership on financial strategy, turnarounds, M&As, and dynamic teamwork. She now channels her wealth of finance knowledge into her consulting firm, board work, and the “Finance for the Non-Finance Director” Salon series at Athena Alliance. We chat with Carol to hear more about her journey, the changing face of the boardroom, and how women leaders can prepare for board-level financial discussions.
Tell us about your executive journey up to this point.
My journey started with an opportunity to join a high growth healthcare company just out of bankruptcy. What I found particularly appealing was the potential to make an impact on both the top and bottom-line. I partnered with the CEO and management team to help grow the company from a $10 million start-up to a highly profitable $250MM revenue company. That was my first gig as a financial executive which transcended into CFO roles at three more high-growth and turnaround companies.
After a number of M&A’s and the sale of three private companies to public companies, I gained a solid understanding of how to scale, leverage technology for business intelligence, and create strong cultures. Twenty years later, I launched BottomLine Growth Strategies to coach CEOs and CFOs on profitable and sustainable growth. Around the same time, I added public and private company board service to my schedule. I’ve continued to focus on and develop my consulting and board service to this day.
What lessons did you learn going through the process of multiple M&As?
Clear and honest communication and maintaining a positive, strong culture are incredibly important after an acquisition is announced. Around 70% of mergers fail to be accretive to the bottom line, so effective communication is a big deal. I’ve been on the sell side several times and have observed where acquiring companies really blew it by not working hard enough to keep the most essential people and customers with the company.
What was it like walking into the boardroom for the first time?
My first board role was audit chair of a mutual bank, which was not an industry where I had any experience. This was one of the attractions of this role — to use my skills and learn a completely different industry. When I walked into their boardroom for the first time, I noticed what you might expect for a hundred-year-old bank: a board that was very male, stale, and pale. Aside from the composition of the board, the biggest adjustment was getting used to new acronyms (and there are a lot of them!) and volumes of financial and regulatory reports.
How does a woman know when she’s ready to serve on a public board?
I believe women need to be very honest about where they will find their best fit. These days, there are many types of board opportunities, and some of the more dynamic and interesting ones may not be public companies. Many private equity firms and family offices, for example, recognize the importance of and are looking for diverse board slates. I would advise many women to get coaching on the type of board they should go for and how they can effectively position their background to suit the board.
What advice can you give board directors without financial experience to prepare for board-level financial discussions?
You have to do your homework. Look at the prior financial filings and the management analysis to see the story behind the numbers. I would also recommend joining the audit committee, which is a great way to see the company through a financial perspective via the committee’s financial experts. Be sure to ask a lot of questions to anybody who can familiarize you with the space, whether that be a mentor, the CFO, or the audit chair.
What impact do you hope to have through your board service?
I am interested in fostering a dynamic board environment where we can really encourage the company to grow and provide a product or service that makes a difference in people’s lives. At the bank board I served on, I helped drive a number of changes: we added a third woman to the board, better leveraged our skillsets, added a number of best practices, and became more engaged in strategy. I believe staying attentive and nimble can best equip us for the greatest growth and impact.
How does Athena support you in your journey?
I’ve leaned on the Athena community several times to find new board opportunities, and I’ve made new friendships with wonderful women both in and out of finance. I’ve given back by mentoring women of all backgrounds who want to learn more about finance and fellow CFOs who are hoping to transition to board service. A year and a half ago, I started leading the “Finance for the Non-Finance Director” Virtual Salon seriesto share my financial knowledge more broadly. This has been a tremendous opportunity to become more engaged with the Athena membership as well as the subject matter experts presenting.
What’s next for you?
I am happy to share that I recently joined the board of a Canadian-based drug development company. I’m very interested in serving on another board, which may be a company getting ready to go public or a private equity board, and would consider working with a private equity firm as an operating partner. I have a lot of experience evolving and scaling companies, managing teams, and guiding corporate strategy, which are all skills I hope to bring to this next chapter.