EY Center for Executive Leadership CFO Roundtable – April 2022

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Chief financial officers (CFOs) from major US companies joined the EY CFO roundtable in April 2022 to discuss digital investments, geopolitical context and inflationary outlook.

Key takeaways

  • Nature of digital investments have changed and require full C-suite ownership
  • CFOs can play a vital role in driving the return on digital investments by creating oxygen for the projects, providing cost visibility and being digitally curious. 
  • Along with its terrible human cost, the war in Ukraine could lead to greater economic uncertainty and continued inflationary pressure  

Corporate boards and executive management teams increasingly realize that achieving the returns from digital investments require a full ownership from the C-suite. In particular CFOs can play a vital role by creating oxygen for digital investments, helping the CEO and board understand the longer investment horizon and by being curious enough about digital to ask the right questions.

Those were some of the key messages delivered by two leading Chief Digital Offers who engaged in a spirited dialogue with the (~20 Fortune 500 Corporate CFOs) who attended an EY CFO Roundtable on April 6, chaired by Julie Boland, US Chair and Managing Partner and Americas Managing Partner–elect and CFO Network Sponsor, and led by Juan Uro, EY CFO Program Leader.


Held against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, the roundtable also touched on the implications the war will have on global supply chains as well as rising inflation and economic uncertainty. Some CFOs said they expect inflation to worsen over the second half of the year and some also believed that a recession might be on the horizon.


Offering their views at the roundtable were two leading chief digital officers: Bobby George, Senior Vice President, Carrier, and Hernan Tabah, Senior Vice President and Chief Digital Officer, Altria. Pat Grismer, EY Center for Executive Leadership, CFO in Residence and Gregory Daco, EY Chief Economist also joined the roundtable from Ernst & Young LLP. 


Nature of digital investments have changed and require full C-suite ownership


Both digital chief officers said that the key to driving a lasting digital transformation is to secure to the full support of the C-suite, advocating that companies form a transformation committee to deliver against the changes that digital can enable across the enterprise. Given how the nature of digital investments have changed, they added that CFOs should act as venture capitalists, provide seed capital and help to prioritize digital investments.


They also stressed that investments in a digital transformation should be viewed differently than IT projects.  For example, at Carrier, George said digital investments were leading the company’s expansion into new services and products and that strategic programs accounted for some 30% of Carrier’s total digital spend.

More than 50% of the CFOS said they evaluate and quantify benefits of digital investments through KPIs and with rigor, but only a few formally measure a return on digital investment.

Driving returns on digital investment

To that end, CFOs continue to play an important role in driving the return on digital investments. Both digital leaders said one of the most important things a CFO can do is to create oxygen for investments and secure the support of the C-Suite for digital projects.  In addition, digital investments are moving from capital expenditure to operational expenses and CFOs can provide greater cost visibility on this transition to the C-suite and impact on key metrics, such as Earnings Per Share.

CFOs also need to help others on the C-suite understand that digital investments have a different investment horizon. George said that some leadership teams still have the mindset that they want to “see a fixed result, at a fixed date and at a fixed cost. That’s very hard when you are  trying to mix certainty with going fast, what’s important is to establish a trade-off, do I need to be more agile and quick versus spend a certain amount.”

Added Pat Grismer, EY CFO in Residence, said, “investments in technology sometimes require a leap of faith. Management teams and board members view rich digital platforms as table stakes and there is less of a need to build an explicit business case,” he said. To that end, companies need to consider the long-term view that, if done properly, a digital investment will result in increased revenue and reduced cost.

CFOs should be curious about digital

Tabah also said CFOs need to be curious about digital projects. “I want curiosity from my CFO on what transformation means and on what digital means. They don’t have to be an expert, but I want them to be dangerous enough to ask the right questions to understand what the transformation will mean for the organization.” In fact, Tabah said may want to add consider adding the title chief future officer as well.  

George added that CFOs need to work with the digital team to establish a strong data foundation that will provide executives with accurate information that reflects “the ground truth,” not something that’s been massaged for a power point presentation. 

Geopolitical uncertainty

After the discussion on digital investments, EY Chief Economist Greg Daco talked about the implications the war in Ukraine will have on the global economy. The executives were split on which scenario they believe to be more likely: either a negotiated stand-down or Cold War II. Either scenario, however, would result in a stalemate that would lead to continued economic uncertainty and further strain global supply chains that had just begun to emerge from the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Inflationary and macroeconomic outlook

Combined with the inflationary forces already in motion, the executives said they expect inflation to continue through the year.  CFOs discussed that some sectors may see continue inflationary pressures in the second half of the year, driving by continue economic momentum. While some believed that higher inflation would continue, others noted that they thought the worst was over. Unlike in past years, Daco also said that the central banks in the US and Europe would act in concert to against inflation this year. This would likely result in higher interest rates, though it was still too early to determine the long-term impact on inflation. When planning budgets for 2023, more than 50% said they expected inflation to run between 4-5%.

CFO views on recession

The CFOs also briefly touched on the likelihood of recession.  70% of them believe the probability of a recession in the next 12 months is 50% or more, while only less than 10% said they considered the risk of a recession to be less than 20%.

A new era of globalization

Some of the executives also wondered about the future of globalization, specifically, the role global supply chains play in many existing corporate operating models. Daco noted that the trend toward rethinking existing supply chains started during the pandemic and is now being exacerbated by the events in Europe.

To that end, the financial executives believe more companies will try build in greater resilience in supply chains, balancing out cost by moving production to the original country or moving the supply chain closer to the final consumer. “We’re moving from just in time, to just in case,” he said.  This new era of supply chain resilience will likely emphasize creating closer ties with stronger, more trusted partners.


CFOs can help drive digital transformation by creating oxygen for the investments and helping the C-suite understand the longer investment horizon. That was one of the key themes at the April 2022 EY CFO roundtable. Participants also discussed the likelihood that current geopolitical uncertainty will lead to higher inflation and force companies to rethink global supply chains. 

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