Jim Caltabiano, MBA/CFO, on Improvising Your Way to Success, Pt. I

SuccessJim Caltabiano, Vice-President of Finance and CFO of Campbell Company of Canada, explains how even the best-laid plans can go awry sometimes – and how he refused to let any such setbacks keep him from finding success.

There’s a delicate balance you have to strike in managing your career. On the one hand, it’s important that you consciously and deliberately plan out your career so that you’re not blindly casting about without any real sense of direction or forward progress. At Clarity Recruitment, we’re always telling candidates to look ahead, not to their next job, but to the one after that, so they can lay the groundwork both now, and in their immediately succeeding role, for that ultimate promotion.

Reality, however, has a habit of unfolding in ways you can’t always predict, which means you need to be flexible with your career blueprint. If there’s anyone who knows about finding that golden mean between preparation and opportunism, it’s Jim Caltabiano, MBA. “I definitely consider myself a planner,” admits Jim. “I’m always thinking a couple of steps ahead as to where I want to be in a few years.” Today, as the Vice-President of Finance/CFO of Campbell Company of Canada, Jim presides over the financials for the Canadian arm of the world’s largest soup maker, whose products are sold in over 160 different countries.

As Jim explains below, his current role at Campbell’s is very much where he wanted to be from the outset. However, the road  he took to get there proved, by his account, to be an unexpectedly circuitous route – one that he couldn’t have foreseen at the outset. I sat down with Jim recently to ask him how, through all the twists and turns, he was able to find his singular way to success.

How and when did you decide upon a career in Accounting and Finance?

Well, even before attending university, I had a keen interest in finance. I knew early on that I wanted to follow a career in business, so I entered Syracuse University as a finance candidate. I chose Syracuse because it had a well-established business school with a strong reputation, and had the added benefit of being close to home.

I had the option of pursuing a double major for my undergraduate degree. Despite my enthusiasm for finance, I resisted the idea of majoring in accounting even though it might have made sense on the face of it. Deep down, however, I knew that I wasn’t an accountant; it just wasn’t in my DNA. I’ve always been more about finance, decision support, and all the other sides of business — those are where my passions have traditionally lain. So I chose marketing as the second specialization for my degree since I felt it complimented my personal interests better than accounting.

“I definitely consider myself a planner. I’m always thinking a couple of steps ahead as to where I want to be in a few years.”

What did you do after you graduated from university?

I worked at Fleet/Norstar Bank, now Bank of America, for about a year after graduating. I originally expected to be out of school for longer, but on the other hand I was always committed to earning my MBA. I enrolled at Duke University, where the focus of the program wasn’t so much on finance or marketing as on general management and business strategy. That was a big selling-point for me — I wanted to be a well-rounded businessperson and finance professional, as opposed to being narrowly specialized in just one domain or another.

Plus, from a teaching and learning standpoint, Duke was ideal: it had the right combination of lectures and case study. The faculty was relatively young, and had an up-and-comer mentality that I found compelling. There was a real emphasis on group work and managing team dynamics — something I knew would be important for my own career.

And frankly, I just wanted to get out of the Northeast for a while. I always tell people that it’s good to travel, both for your personal and professional growth.

What did you end up doing after you’d completed your MBA?

Coming out of grad school, I had job proposals from several companies: IBM, Ford, and Procter & Gamble. In the end, I accepted the offer from Procter & Gamble, which more or less defined the shape of the rest of my career. I owe P& G a great deal — they taught me a lot of what I know about finance and business partnering, and showed me how to do business the right way.

From being at P& G, I also learned about working in a consumer packaged goods (CPG) environment. The CPG world is unique in that finance and marketing are so closely connected to one another. If you’re a finance professional in this industry, you’re expected to deal with many other elements of business, beyond finance in the strict sense; at almost every level, it’s always about consumers, customers, brands and marketing. It ended up being the perfect fit for me based not only on the choices I’d made for my education, but also on my personality and interests.

“I always tell people that it’s good to travel, both for your personal and professional growth.”

How long were you at P&G?

I spent five good years there. It was a performance-driven organization, built on tight communication and excellent execution, with a highly structured and competitive environment. As a fresh-faced graduate with little work experience, it was pretty much exactly what I needed at the time. The demands and expectations were very high. I was surrounded by an abundance of talent — lots of bright and ambitious people, who forced you to raise your game just to keep up. It was great for my growth.

P & G also offers its people extensive support: there’s an incredibly strong alumni network that you can access and lean on for mentoring and other professional opportunities. Also, many CPG companies employ some form of finance rotation, either formally or informally, in terms of positions: you’ll often have opportunities to rotate through various teams — from sales to marketing, and so on — which leads to a variety of work experiences. So, for example, at P& G I started out as a corporate financial analyst but also had roles in supply chain cost analysis, brand finance, and as a plant controller. That experience and exposure to different functions has really benefitted my career.

What kinds of challenges have you faced in your career?

After serving as VP Finance & IT / CFO of General Mills Canada in 2006 and 2007, I joined Campbell’s in the Philadelphia area. Barely a couple of months had passed since I’d started my new position when the organization I supported was restructured. The upshot was that the role I’d left General Mills for was no longer available. The company was very fair to me and put me to work on various projects including a major plant restructuring and an acquisition. However, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think that this wasn’t the job I’d envisaged for myself when I joined the company.

When something’s gone wrong and things haven’t gone according to plan, it’s so easy to wrack your brain over the what if’s.’ However,  if you let yourself get worked into a funk over those kinds of things it can be incredibly difficult to find your way out of it.

How did you cope?

That situation taught me some invaluable lessons. When you’re faced with a setback — and believe me, you’ll be faced with your fair share over the course of your career — you need to quickly regroup and refocus. That’s easier said than done, but it’s important all the same. Someway, somehow, you have to find a way to commit yourself to whatever tasks are at hand, whatever is immediately in front of you, and ensure that you deliver. When something’s gone wrong and things haven’t gone according to plan, it’s so easy to wrack your brain over the “what if’s.” However,  if you let yourself get worked into a funk over those kinds of things it can be incredibly difficult to find your way out of it.

Ultimately, I decided to leave Campbell’s to pursue my next opportunity, but I made to sure to leave on really great terms, which kept the door open for me to return in the future. The whole experience taught me about the importance of leaving a job gracefully. Never mail it in — always leave on a high note…

Stay tuned for Part II of Jim’s story. In the meantime, let us know what you think! At Clarity Recruitment, we’re always interested in hearing from accounting and finance professionals like yourselves, who are ready for new, exciting opportunities that can take their careers to the next level. And be sure to follow us on Twitter (@clarityrecruits) and connect with us on Facebook for more great tips and advice!