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Conversations with Jeffrey Gatt

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jeffrey Gatt. 

Jeffrey, we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
I was born and raised in Livonia, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit). I went to Detroit Catholic Central, a private catholic high school, and then went on to Hillsdale College, a small private division II college in Michigan where I earned a four-year football scholarship and graduated with a degree in accounting. I also met my wife of 33+ years, Elizabeth there. We got married and raised our two sons, Stefan and Joshua in Plymouth, Michigan. I started my career in Public Accounting with a firm in Michigan, Plante & Moran. I spent 11 years there before leaving for my first of many CFO roles. All of my senior leadership roles have been in the family-owned, closely-held private company space. I work primarily in technology, and food manufacturing and distribution industries. Seven years ago, after both of our sons had left the nest, we decided to make a major change and seek new challenges in the south. Michigan is a beautiful state but the winters can be extremely cold and brutal. We landed in Tampa, Florida via an opportunity with an E-Learning technology company. Unfortunately, that role was not as advertised and after a year, I was seeking a new challenge. Enter my current opportunity, Actsoft, Inc. – a SaaS GPS tracking and mobile resource management technology company. I currently manage all finance, treasury, and back-office operations. We are headquartered in North Tampa (Carrollwood). The company sells its services primarily in North America but does have international customers. We have over 175 employees, the majority here in Tampa with the remaining disbursed throughout the country. 

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
In looking over my career and the events/situations that led me to the place I am today, there have been some tremendous highs as well as some pretty challenging lows. Spending eleven-plus years at an amazing firm like Plante & Moran resulted in perhaps the best education one could wish for in understanding how small to midsized, privately-owned companies operate. I learned a ton of “do’s” and some glaring “don’ts”. I loved the level of experience and expertise of the people I was working with every day. Some of the brightest, most influential minds all under one roof. However, as a young father of two boys with a strong desire to be actively involved in their lives as they grew up, the hours required to be successful created some major challenges balancing work and life. I was putting in 75-85 hours a week, working every Saturday and Sunday, during the tax season. Fortunately, Plante converted their main conference room into a daycare so I could bring my boys to work with me on the weekends but it was still very difficult balancing the demands of excelling in the job and being an active, involved parent. That was a main factor in my decision to leave for the private sector. When you made it to 10+ years at the firm, you were then being groomed for the partnership. This was, when I began my career, my main goal. To elect to leave when I was within a year or two of my goal was the most difficult decision I made to that point in my career. Working in a firm with hundreds of peers to a senior leadership team in the private sector where they were 2 to 3 people making all the decisions created other types of challenges. The pressure was definitely greater. You and a select few were deciding strategy and tactics that affected all of those working at the company. Such is the case in life, you certainly cannot make all of the people happy all of the time. Major decisions made or strategies implemented were met with some level of resistance. The good learned from that was you developed thick skin and a mindset that if you do what you can and/or make decisions that benefit the vast majority, then chances are you have followed the correct course of action. It was also in the private sector that I learned how at times the business world could be downright brutal. In my first CFO role, I was able to facilitate a rapid growth environment that led to an acquisition of the company. It was a tremendous achievement and I was very proud of the role I played and the outcome of the transaction. However, shortly after that, I was dealt the harsh reality that past success did not guarantee future success. One of the first things the CEO of the acquiring company had me do was downsize the staff of acquired company (the one I worked for). I had to let staff go that had been with the owners from day one (fifteen-plus years). I also had to fire family members whose role was no longer required. It was harsh and cold. Later in my career, a company I was with was losing market share and therefore, not generating enough revenue to support the existing staff. The owners, instead of looking for ways to expand the company’s services and offerings, elected to stay with the status quo and fixed the issues not by being innovative, but rather doing a 30% reduction in force. Again, staff that had been with the company for over ten years, were asked to leave. I was the one responsible for letting them all go, not the owners. And, because there was no formal training and career advancement programs, many that were terminated left without transferable skills. These struggles paid a heavy toll on me emotionally. However, I am a firm believer that most major lessons are learned not from good times, but rather adversity. My most impactful takeaway from these experiences for myself and something I preach daily in my current role and with my children is that in life, the most successful people are always learning. Be better today than you were yesterday. This pays dividends in two ways. In the event there is an ownership change or a downturn, you have made yourself as valuable as you can be in your current role. And if that role no longer is required, you can transfer those skills to a new role and not be faced with the challenge of limited future options. 

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I am the Chief Financial Officer and Senior Executive VP of Back Office Operations. In a nutshell, I oversee all finance, accounting, and treasure functions of the company as well as manage all other back-office operations including Human Resources, Order Processing, and Information Technology. Those that have worked with me and know me well would say I am a businessman that just happens to be an accountant. As much as I enjoy the numbers that are a major part of my role, I would say that understanding and impacting all aspects of the company set me apart from a “traditional accountant/CFO”. 

The role of the CFO has evolved greatly in the last 10-15 years. The days of the super bean-counter coming out at month, quarter, and yearend wearing his/her green visor and pocket protector and reporting the numbers, then retreating to their dark office in the back of the building are long gone. 

The position is very unique in that other than the CEO and perhaps the President, the CFO is privy to everything that goes on within the Company – the good, bad and ugly. 

With that knowledge, instead of a reactive historian of the RESULTS of the company’s strategy and vision, the CFO can and should make a significant contribution to the development and implementation of the company’s strategy and vision. 

For those that work with me at Actsoft, they know that the odds are slim to none that they can get out of my office without at least one sports metaphor. 

In the sport of baseball, you cannot make it and stay in the pros unless you can hit. With the CFO position, you cannot sit in that seat without having excellent financial and technical abilities. However, in baseball, the most impactful players are what they call “FIVE TOOL PLAYERS”. They not only can hit, but they can hit for power, run, throw, and field. 

With today’s CFO, along with financial acumen, the CFO needs to be multi-dimensional – a strategic thinker, visionary, entrepreneurial, and as is the case in most companies, because he/she is either directly or indirectly responsible for Human Resources, an enhancer, and protector of the Company’s cultural DNA. They also need to be a strong leader and coach – Both peer-to-peer at the executive level and management to staff. 

I am very proud of the fact that I bring a lot more to the table than just financial acumen. I wear many hats that impact all aspects of the company and knowing I have a voice that I can use at the “adult’s” table is very fulfilling. 

Where we are in life is often partly because of others. Who/what else deserves credit for how your story turned out?
I firmly believe that a lot of who I am today and the skills that I have been able to develop, hone and perfect, were learned during my time while I was competing on sports fields, specifically football. I played all through high school and college at a pretty competitive level. I was on some extremely successful teams. I certainly did not realize it then and candidly, at times disagreed, but the demands, discipline, and unbending rules that were part of every practice and game, driven home by the coaching staff, had a major impact on my growth as a person and professional. I learned that it is OK to compete and demand personal excellence. That it is critical to hold oneself accountable and accept that if you take on the responsibility, that your teammates and your coaches will also hold you accountable. That it is the team goal(s) and not individual accolades that make the competition worth it. In today’s day and age, “winning” and “competition” are getting a bad rap. However, I believe that to be successful, it is ok to want to win. It is ok to compete and expect to succeed with this one caveat – it can not be about winning at all cost. Compete as hard as you can and accept the outcome. Sometimes in life, you do not win. Knowing how to accept and live with that is an invaluable lesson. My high school and college coaches pushed me to the limit to be the best I could and except nothing less. My parents supported this and demanded only one thing. That if I were willing to commit to being on the team, then make the commitment 100%. This was truly foundational. As I entered the business world, there were three partners at Plante & Moran who had a major impact on my professional growth, John Mach, and Dan and Tom Doescher. They understood who I was, my background and provided the guidance to use those foundational skills learned from sports and translate them into being a contributor and leader in the business world. They taught me that great leaders are also great learners and to never stop learning. To all of these folks, I will be forever grateful. 

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