Interview: Nik Rupp CA
Andrea Murad speaks with Nik Rupp CA, CFO at Papa Murphy's International, about entrepreneurial opportunities in multinational companies, political risk in the food industry, and using machine learning to market more effectively.
What interested you in accounting? How did you start your career while at university?
I wanted to be a pilot, but my eyesight was poor, so I pursued aerospace engineering instead. Engineering wasn’t for me, and I took a year off from college to work. I was good with numbers and did the bookkeeping for my father’s farm – I decided to study accountancy, which was a much better fit.
During the first year of my studies at Glasgow Caledonian University, I wrote to audit firms offering to work part-time for free, and Downie Wilson in Glasgow responded. I structured my classes to work two and a half days a week and study the other two and a half days – I shortened my degree to three years and started my CA apprenticeship a year early. After my first month, Downie Wilson started paying me.
What did you do after graduation? How did leaving Scotland change your career?
I stayed at Downie Wilson for three years while studying for my CA. I wanted to change from audit when I finished because I felt that in audit, I had little influence on a company. When the audit is finished, you make recommendations, and when you return a year later, nothing has changed. I wanted to have more of an impact.
My wife and I decided to move overseas, and I took a divisional controller role in Holland at Hercules, an American petrochemical company, overseeing finance for the Nordic region. GE bought a large division of the company, and I worked on that divestiture. When that was winding down, I took a broader controller role at Ashland, another petrochemical company – that’s where I was finally able to have more influence.
After 18 months, a recruiter called about a job at Nike implementing Sarbanes Oxley for their Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region. I went to the interview, and a few weeks later, they asked if I would consider the role that this positioned reported into, the Assistant Controller role, which was managing accounting teams across the 26 countries in the region, as well as the 35 people in the support centre. I was in my late 20s and though this job was daunting, my diverse experience and CA training gave me the confidence to take this on. The culture at Nike was amazing, and the environment fast paced – “Just Do It” was pervasive throughout the organisation.
Did you have any opportunities to work in a more entrepreneurial role at Nike?
Nike bought Converse in 2003 with licensed operations around the world so they didn’t have to manage sales and marketing. They wanted someone to lead finance and rebuild the brand in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and I joined this small team.
We spent the next three years buying back licenses and setting up international offices – we had near-endless resources from Nike compared to what we would have had at Converse. Revenues at Converse grew from about $10m to $200m as we transitioned from licensed to direct and rebuilt the business with more focus on the long term.
Rather than continue with Converse in Boston at their head office, I pursued an opportunity at Nike in Portland, Oregon, and my wife and I moved our family to the West Coast. Portland is very much like Scotland with regards to the people and lifestyle, and we have direct flights to Europe.
What was your experience at Nike’s headquarters?
I was head of finance for global IT and supply chain, and managed a team that I had to rebuild. I was under the spotlight because I interacted with senior leadership on projects and focused on more specialized areas within Nike. I also worked for the product engines in Nike – footwear, apparel, equipment, design and merchandising – and learned about the company’s long-term strategy and product innovation. I focused on the financials, strategic planning and forecasts of different product groups, manufacturing and design.
I became the global controller for Nike Golf and worked on the financial plan for that global business. That’s when Specialized Bicycle Components approached me to consider being their global controller with the potential of moving into the global CFO role – it’s a $1.2B company operating in about 40 countries and the third largest bike company in the world.
As CFO at Specialized, what new product launches did you work on?
Ebikes was a growing consumer trend in Europe and untapped market in the US, and this became a strategic initiative for Specialized. One of the first sales was to the Google campus as a one off with no profit, and that grew from a $5m business to over $300m. If you can bring focus through strategic planning, financial planning, the corporate structure, you can really drive a business idea and see teams flourish.
Why did you decide to change to the food industry?
The three years at Specialized went quickly. I was commuting between Portland and San Jose every week and wanted to stay in Portland full time. That’s when I became the CFO for Papa Murphy’s, the fifth largest pizza company in the US and an established food company that’s highly franchised.
Papa Murphy’s was a turnaround, and in the 14 months since joining, we focused on rationalizing costs and implementing new systems for ecommerce and to manage the business. For the first time in many years, we exceeded our EBITDA target by 20%, and we had our first positive sales month in over three years. Franchise owners were reengaged, and the business has started to turn. In the past month, we were acquired by a Canadian company, MTY Group.
How has the current political climate regarding tariffs affected the food industry? How do you manage these political risks?
We have to look at where and how we source each product.
We buy 50 million pounds of cheese annually, and potential trade wars between the US and Mexico or China cause the price of cheese to fluctuate up or down as much as 20%. Managing that volatility is challenging, but we work closely with suppliers and have good hedging programs in place that include forward contracts so that consumers and franchise owners don’t see significant price fluctuations.
Tomatoes from Mexico can also have large price fluctuations, and we have to be ready to change suppliers to take advantage of lower prices. Sometimes you can’t make changes though – the swine flu in China is pushing up US pork prices because China is importing more US product.
How do you manage sustainability concerns when cities and states have different ordinances?
Legislative changes are increasingly tricky to navigate at the city level, and ordinances are not the same across states. We’ve worked with suppliers to ensure sustainable products in place, which are more expensive, but we want to be prepared for any new legislation.
If one store is impacted by a city ordinance, we look at how to move towards that and what that means to other stores in the short, medium, and long term. In some cases, we’re ahead of the curve in meeting sustainability needs because that’s what consumers want.
How is technology impacting your business?
Rather than look at sales in a region, we market based on individual consumer behaviours and combine traditional marketing with consumer analytics to have a broader impact.
Machine learning can pinpoint consumers who regularly purchase pepperoni pizzas, but if that person hasn’t made a purchase, we use machine learning to send a text reminder – that’s an example of how machine learning is helping drive sales. Behind that, we can look at the effect the texts have on a consumer and understand their reactions when we offer new products. This analysis helps us use marketing dollars to more accurately target consumers.
Rather than just use last year’s results to project pizza sales, we use live data and do A/B testing to compare how individual consumers in different markets react to a product before scaling to the broader market. Projections are much more effective if you can tap into these analyses.
It’s important to take lessons learned from other industries about how they’ve engaged consumers. If you have a narrow view of the world, which is your own industry, you’ll miss those opportunities for how you can improve your company’s performance.
How has ICAS and the CA qualification helped you in your career? What advice do you have for new members and just-qualified CAs?
ICAS and the CA qualification are globally recognised as a high-level qualification, and these have really opened doors for me. CAs are seen as being level headed and able to drive organisations, and that’s come to life for me.
You have to take chances and take roles that may seem overwhelming at times, but I encourage people to take that risk because those learning opportunities will broaden your experience and propel your career. Your education and CA qualification will stand you in good stead, and you can always fall back on those.
About the author
Andrea Murad is a New York–based writer. Having worked on both Wall Street and Main Street, she now pursues her passion for words. She covers business and finance, and her work can be found on BBC Capital, Consumers Digest, Entrepreneur.com, FOXBusiness.com, Global Finance and InstitutionalInvestor.com.