The CFOs who helped shape private equity: B-D

From LLR Partners' Noah Becker to Genstar's Melissa Dickerson

Noah Becker, LLR PartnersNoah Becker
CFO, LLR Partners

Noah Becker joined LLR Partners roughly 11 years ago, which might be considered boom times for the asset class, but over that same period, investor and regulatory demands “boomed” as well, adding additional pressure to CFOs. Becker made the list due to his reputation for handling all those new demands well and helping many of his peers do the same.

Becker notes that in a perfect world, he would have known from day one how important “organized, usable and repeatable” data would be to his job. “There are so many disparate consumers/constituents for information now, from fundraising to SEC exams, to ESG and DE&I initiatives,” says Becker. And while he’s found ways to deliver that data, it was never too early to solve that problem.

One of Becker’s key lessons as a CFO was the importance of transparency. “Be open as you can be with everyone, your team, vendors, investors, and understand there’s no reason to hide anything for the sake of hiding,” says Becker. “Be as honest as possible, and that includes sharing your thinking and what’s important to you and the firm.” Given the CFO’s increasingly strategic nature, stellar communication skills have become all the more crucial. The ideal isn’t merely transparency, but transparency with grace.

Looking ahead, Becker hopes that CFOs will play an even bigger part in IT initiatives. He wants to make sure that given technology’s growing role in the industry, the CFO can be there to make sure the initiatives are worth the time, money and effort, as well as be involved in the data design, as a direct consumer of that data, and as someone anticipating the needs and requests of LPs.

Blinn Cirella, Saw Mill CapitalBlinn Cirella
CFO, Saw Mill Capital

Like so many of the CFOs on this list, Blinn Cirella is here not just for her own accomplishments, but her willingness to share her expertise with the broader CFO community, and in doing so, to help shape how private funds CFOs think of themselves. Having entered the profession through an unorthodox route, she’s managed to help guide Saw Mill’s operations for over 16 years.

Along the way, she learned that no mistake is as important as how someone responds to it. “When I interview for a staff position, I ask them what their biggest mistake is, and if they can’t think of one, I don’t hire them,” says Cirella.

She expects that CFOs will increasingly be seen as project managers. They will have to build a suite of resources, in-house and elsewhere, to address the complex compliance, technology, tax and legal needs of today’s firms, even in the lower end of the mid-market.

Cirella has presided over a time of profound change in the industry, one that has only demanded more from CFOs, but she’s maintained an underdog’s drive and creativity. She joined the industry as a working mother and part-time college student. “Linda Costa was the CFO of a venture capital firm and hired me as a staff accountant before I graduated from college. It took 13 years part-time at night to get my Bachelor’s,” says Cirella. “When Linda moved to Common Fund, she hired me about a year later.”

And while she joined the industry later in life, she’s only picked up speed. Her current project is one of the most complicated of her career, and like so many of the challenges she faced before, she’s decided to be excited, rather than daunted by it.

Joshua Cherry-Seto, Start-Up HealthJoshua Cherry-Seto
Partner and CFO, Start-Up Health

Joshua Cherry-Seto served as CFO and chief compliance officer at Blue Wolf Capital Partners for nearly 10 years before moving on to his current role at Start-Up Health, an investment platform dedicated to supporting digital healthcare entrepreneurs in solving healthcare “moonshots.”

Cherry Seto became Blue Wolf’s first full-time CFO, eventually managing $3 billion of AUM. While there, he addressed the growing demands of LPs, the new, ever more strident regulatory requirements, and the infrastructure needs of a vibrant PE firm, all while being one of the most active members of the CFO community.

One of the reasons for his commitment to his peers is he remembers how isolating his first days as CFO were. “You felt like an island out there, and there weren’t a lot of folks to ask questions or advice,” says Cherry-Seto. “Dodd-Frank and SEC registration really accelerated the need to deepen peer-to-peer networks. The New York CFO Forum was a cornerstone of building those critical relationships, including the co-founding of the ACG PERT network, now PECS, and engaging other important networks like the PECFOA (Private Equity CFO Association).”

“Relationships matter,” he says. “CFOs tend to be a little more introspective, but we have to manage all kinds of relationships with staff, partners, LPs, and advisers in order to do everything required of us – and those demands are only growing.” He notes those relationships are all the more important in small, fast growing firms where demands and expectations change rapidly as the firm scales.

He expects the future will involve even better technology to communicate effectively with LPs and stakeholders, and the increasing complexity of every aspect of the business will continue to feed the growth of outside experts and advisers, positioning the CFO as the “aggregator in chief” of all this expertise into a centralized group that addresses all of a firm’s operational needs. “You can’t figure everything out alone,” says Cherry-Seto. And thanks to his efforts, today’s CFOs rarely have to do that.

Michael Chae, BlackstoneMichael Chae
CFO, Blackstone

Given Blackstone’s size and stature, it might seem obvious to include the firm’s CFO on this list, but Michael Chae isn’t merely the person with that title in 2022. He joined the firm 25 years ago, when the firm comprised 200 employees – a number that’s risen to 8,000 – with a market value that makes it the 80th largest US business. Chae has served in multiple leadership roles over the years, including head of international private equity, head of private equity for Asia-Pacific and as a senior partner in the US private equity business.

His elevation to CFO speaks volumes as to how Blackstone sees the position at this time, which is as one of the key strategic leaders of the business, and not merely the head accountant to be left in the “back office.” It has to be acknowledged that Blackstone’s operational issues are unique to the firm (along with the resources to solve them), but the thinking behind who serves as their CFO and how that individual handles their position is inherently influential, in the same way that an outperforming team like the Golden State Warriors will influence how the game is played at all levels. And Chae is no exception.

As he looks at how the role of CFO may evolve in the coming decades, he knows that broad generalizations won’t work. “The CFO role is not a one-size-fits-all job,” says Chae. “That said, I believe that companies benefit when both the scope of the role and profile of person doing the role are broadened so that a CFO can maximize their impact on leadership, strategy, and broad-based management. In the case of a firm like ours, having the background of a senior investor and business leader here has greatly shaped what I do and how I approach the role.”

Chae credits the mentorship of Blackstone’s former president and executive vice-chairman Tony James for helping to shape how he saw his skills and the potential for a CFO. “He was known in the industry for uniquely combining investment and management capabilities, saw the value of that dual background and skill set in the CFO role, and inspired me to make that pivot myself.”

He recalls when he first joined Blackstone in 1993, “private equity” wasn’t even a term. “I was drawn to the work as a younger person because I felt like it combined the most interesting aspects of the work of more established career choices in banking, consulting, and law,” says Chae. “But I never expected how impactful the industry would become in the global economy.” And he surely didn’t expect to end up as the firm’s CFO in the way he’s CFO now.

Amy Coleman Redenbaugh, Thoma BravoAmy Coleman Redenbaugh
Managing director and CFO, Thoma Bravo

One of the main goals of our CFO Forum is to give finance professionals from across the country a chance to meet and share ideas. Based in Chicago, Amy Coleman Redenbaugh was eager to connect with the broader CFO community, so she traveled to the San Francisco Forum where she quickly made new connections and friendships and became one of the key contributors to the event.

That spirit of collaboration has served Coleman Redenbaugh well during her career. She learned early on that she couldn’t do everything as CFO and would need to prioritize what she focused on and when. “‘Delegate or die’ was something I learned in my time in public accounting, and this lesson was key as CFO,” says Coleman Redenbaugh. But she also knows that delegation is only part of a collaborative process.

“You need to collaborate in two dimensions: vertically with leadership and your staff, and horizontally with other departments and your peers,” says Coleman Redenbaugh. “I’m lucky that Thoma Bravo encourages sharing ideas early, so you don’t spend 80 hours on a project that’s not worth it.”

As much as she enjoys collaborating with everyone on her team, she is hoping that in the coming decades CFOs will be able to focus more on their core discipline. “Right now, CFOs are expected to cover a broad range of functional areas,” says Coleman Redenbaugh. “While it would be ideal for CFOs to devote the majority of their time to the finance department, there will always be cases where the CFO is also the chief operating officer, but that should be a specific choice.”

Still, she urges younger finance professionals to understand their firm’s business more broadly and learn as much as they can about areas beyond their department. Coleman Redenbaugh’s own approach in cultivating her team was influenced by Bill Hupp, a longtime CFO of Adams Street Partners. “He really gave me this example of a sage, calm professor who could capture the big picture but dig into the details. He also urged his firm to embrace technology in strategic ways, understanding that’s where the future was,” she says. And best of all, Hupp always picked up the phone when she called and found ways to help – something several CFOs could also say about Amy Coleman Redenbaugh.

Melissa Dickerson, Genstar CapitalMelissa Dickerson
Chief financial officer and managing director, operations, Genstar Capital

The Wall Street Journal already named Melissa Dickerson as one of the “top female dealmakers shaping private equity’s past and future,” which should surprise no one in the industry. While at Genstar, she expanded the firm’s operational infrastructure to meet the needs of its growth from $200 million in AUM when she joined in 2004 to $35 billion today.

The CFO role is naturally isolating, being neither a dealmaking role nor an administrative one, but 18 years ago she was one of the few women in the entire industry, and one of the even fewer female CFOs. Dickerson wished she knew at the time how many other women felt isolated at their firms, as they wrestled with feedback that was tinged with gender bias.

“But the culture has gotten head and shoulders better, and now there are more women in every category of the industry,” says Dickerson. “And I think the men appreciate leaving behind the hyper-competitive, closed-door culture for one that’s more transparent and collaborative.”

She’s also appreciated the increased specialization of the various disciplines, from talent management to investor relations. “Our cap markets partner adds so much value, precisely because there’s so much more to know. The industry is maturing, and increased specialization is one aspect of that growth,” she says.

Going forward, she hopes that the general market volatility doesn’t cause regulators to take an even heavier hand with the industry. “Regulation is not always the answer, and investors know this is a business of risk and reward, and I’d love to aim for a more stable regulatory environment in the years ahead.”

Like so many CFOs on this list, she didn’t thrive on her own. There might not have been a Private Equity CFO Association back then, and the New York CFO Forum was in its early years, but Dickerson had her own informal network of peers: her three older sisters, all in finance and software careers. “They helped me persevere, which was so important back then, and how to advocate for myself,” says Dickerson. Which no doubt inspired her to carry that forward and help so many in her network persevere and advocate for themselves.