Q & A

The Broad Appeal and Customization Balancing Act: A Q&A With Beth Kurth

Kurth addresses the changing role of the CFO, what makes the Boston business scene unique, and the next big business disruptor.

FEI Daily spoke with investor relations and corporate communications professional Beth Kurth, Panel Content Lead for the MIT Sloan CFO Summit, about this year’s event which offers a day of cutting-edge programming that addresses the changing role of the CFO.

FEI Daily: How has the event changed through the years? Have the attendees changed?

Beth Kurth: The MIT Sloan CFO Summit has continued to evolve alongside the role of the CFO.  In the early years we were focused on financial reporting and compliance, in line with the role of CFOs at that time.  I think we had two panels on Sarbanes-Oxley the first year.  Now, however, our sessions are focused on growth and strategy.  Some topics are evergreen – M&A for example, while others are time-specific “Big Data, Big Deal” in 2013.

As to attendee make-up, our audience remains dominated by chief financial officers, but now they come from beyond the Greater Boston area, and they seek content that helps them extend their reach.  They want to hear how their peers are creating and sustaining value, and in turn how they can help their organizations remain competitive in a complex and global world.

FEI Daily: Through the years, what are the themes you’ve seen?

Kurth: Our conference themes align with the economic sentiment as reflected by CFOs. For example, “Growing Smart: Navigating a Rising Tide” in 2007 and “Back to Growth” in 2010.  We start planning for the conference, and developing a theme, a full year in advance.  Therefore we don’t always get it right.  In 2008 we knew CFOs were beginning to feel pessimistic and our theme was “Relentless Volatility.”  That was a bit too prescient.

FEI Daily:  What do you think makes the Boston business scene unique?

Kurth: The Boston business scene is unique because of its dynamic input with best-in-class universities and their professors and graduates, in particular MIT of course.  We also have a mix of large companies that spawn small newcomers – a critical mass of dynamic oaks and mighty acorns.  This combination of input and output, great colleges and innovative thinkers, combined with a pro-business mindset, leads for diversity of businesses and resiliency for the Boston economy.

FEI Daily: What’s been the biggest business disruptor of the last 5 years?

Kurth: The biggest business disruptor of the last five years is the use of technology not just by companies, but also by customers, consumers and clients.  And it’s not just that buyers are no longer price takers, but also that they are no longer product takers. Everyone wants a custom-built house, bespoke software, personalized medicine and individualized service. Preferably delivered later today. Or sooner.

Therefore businesses need to ensure the right mix of broad appeal and specialized differentiation. How do you design an offering such that your customer gets what they want, but as a business you maintain profitability.  Successful companies need to balance broad business lines with appropriate customization.

FEI Daily: What do you predict will be the next business disruptor? 

Kurth: The next disruptor will be the product takers 2.0 – when customers of all types explicitly advocate for specialized differentiation.  Businesses need to ensure the right mix of broad appeal and unique specialization. How do you design an offering such that your customer gets what they want, but as a business you maintain viability? Successful companies will need to balance broad business lines with appropriate customization.

FEI Daily: What are your thoughts on Trump’s election? What does it mean for business leaders?

Kurth: Everything you thought you knew was wrong.  Seriously, Trump will have to balance the competing demands of messages that have broad appeal, “we will lower taxes,” with services that have personalized appeal, “Hey, that’s my social security/bridge/subsidized college loan you’re talking about.”  That said, I am an optimist by nature and hope that working together, we will continue to prosper.