For the past two years, we've been living in constant uncertainty. The conditions we're living in these days make it exceptionally difficult to engage with your team in strategic planning and forecasting for the future.
Welcome back to CFO Weekly, where we're talking with financial leaders about how to build efficiency in their teams, create time for strategy, and ultimately get results, with your host Megan Weis. Let's jump right in.
Megan Weis: Today, my guest is John Cappadona. John is the chief financial officer for School of Rock. He comes to School of Rock with extensive experience, building and leading high-performing finance teams in a range of industries. John oversees the financial activities of the organization, directs the preparation of current financial reports and summaries, and creates forecasts predicting future growth.
Prior to joining School of Rock, he was the vice president of finance at Sentient Jet, a leading private aviation company where he was responsible for the accounting and finance function. Before that, John was the director of financial planning and analysis at the WB Mason Company, where he built the function. He has also held key financial positions at Olympus, Boston Scientific, and several additional established companies. John received his BA in finance from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and his MBA from the FW Olin School of Business at Babson College. John's favorite musical artist is Bruce Springsteen. John, thank you very much for joining me on today's episode.
John Cappadona: Thank you, Megan, glad to be here.
Megan: Today we're going to be talking about planning for the future. The conditions we're living in these days make it exceptionally difficult to do, but with the right team and tools, it can still be done well and it's obviously a critical component of success. John, I'm looking forward to your advice. First, let's learn a bit about you.
John: Okay, sounds good.
Megan: Okay, let's start with your career journey and how it is that you got to your current position?
John: Sure. I started off-- Really, I came up through the FP&A side of things. I started off as a financial analyst for a number of years, worked my way up through that, in a few different companies. Was in hardware, software computers, I guess you'd say, then moved over to medical device. Was actually over in consumer product distribution, and then ultimately found my way over to School of Rock. Again, really coming up through the FP&A side until my last role, which I was at a company called Sentient Jet, which is private aviation, where I took over both accounting and FP&A, and then ultimately to here.
It was a long journey, but I got here. How I ended up in my current role was former CFO of mine that worked at WB Mason, where I was for five years, had a colleague that was looking to be or was taking over School of Rock as the CEO, was moving the company to the Boston area, and was looking for somebody that he could recommend that he thought would be a good fit. He gave my name, we hit it off, and the rest is history. That was four years ago, and so here I am.
Megan: Was your undergrad in finance or accounting?
John: It was.
John: It was finance. The funny thing is, I started off wanting to be accounting, liked accounting, until I got to managerial accounting.
Megan: It's so boring.
John: Then I didn't like it, [chuckles] which is funny, because I actually do managerial accounting. That's pretty much been like my life, is management reporting. It was so much more than that, but when you got into direct labor, cost, overhead, and all that stuff, I'm like, "Ah, not again."
Megan: I'm not sure how they managed to make it so boring in those books. [chuckles]
John: Can't you just tell me what the standard cost is and I'll just move from there? Again, the funny thing is, while I was at Boston Scientific, I was in their FP&A group for their operations team, which again was all managerial, it was all cost accounting, everything. I worked with people that were creating standards for manufacturing products, and I loved it. I'm actually sitting there going, "Oh, my God." Anyways, just a lesson for you kids out there, stick with the accounting and get your CPA.
Megan: Funny how things work out.
John: That's right.
Megan: As you look back on your career, are there any particular stories that stand out in your mind as turning points?
John: Yes. Again, where we talk about being a CFO, so for me, I never really thought I could be a CFO. The reasoning be because I didn't have the accounting, I didn't have the CPA. I didn't have the credentials. As I was coming up, it was not as important, but then in 2003, when Enron happened, and then you start getting into Sarbanes-Oxley, and the market really turned towards-- they put a value on people having a CPA, and that.
Once that happened, I said, "Geez, that's pretty much the end of it for me. I'll be a VP of FP&A, or something like that, but probably wouldn't get the whole thing." When I went to WB Mason, the guy who had recommended me to School of Rock, he actually came up through the same stovepipe that I did. He came up through FP&A, and he was the CFO, and I was like, "Wow, I guess that can happen." It was at that point that I realized, I know enough about accounting, I'm not an accountant, but I know enough about accounting to, between right and wrong, and what needs to be done and anything that I don't know.
Fortunately, we have audit partners that we can rely on. At that point, it was more of understanding that you need to surround yourself with people that can do the functional disciplines. Really, the CFO is more about being strategic and being the business partner, and that, less it's-- the debits and credits are definitely part of it but it's not the whole job. It's actually, the stuff that I was doing before is the more valuable piece. Not to say that the rest of the debits and credits isn't valuable, but at the CFO level, they're not looking to you to make sure you're doing the journal entries correctly, and that, they're looking to you to be more than that. That was the revelation to me.
Megan: Seems more and more common these days that people are getting to the CFO role through a non-traditional path.
John: Again, and it's not to diminish the skill set of the accounting side. Again, it is the foundation of the company in terms of reporting, and everything we do from a finance side starts with the accounting, and it has to be done right, obviously. There is more to it being a financial person and being a CFO than just doing the accounting. M my whole career was business partnering. My whole career was being embedded in a business unit, getting to understand how they operated, being the person that would advise but also help forecast scenario plan and see how we might be able to grow the business. Those skills are definitely transferable as you go up the ladder, so to speak.
Megan: Let's talk a bit about your current organization, School of Rock, and what it is that they do.
John: School of Rock is a performance-based music education business. We are worldwide, so we currently have 301 locations. We opened up our 300th last year. We operate primarily in the US. However, we also have operations in Brazil, Chile, Peru, Colombia, The Philippines, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Spain, Taiwan. I think I got all the markets, if I left someone out, I apologize. We're going going to be opening up in Portugal and Ireland this year.
What we do, our whole experience is learning music through songs. Our whole approach is a song first. We're performance-based music education, which is, if you think about it, I had young girls and they took dance lessons. When you would enroll them, they would practice and then they would have a recital at the end. This is the same thing. It's you get in, you learn, you take classes. Our product is offering a class. You get a lesson one time a week, and then you are put into a band and you have a rehearsal one time a week, with working towards being in an end-of-season show and getting up on stage.
It's great for kids, not only that want-- and I say kids, it's of all ages. We have adults as well as young folks, toddlers, that stuff. The whole premise of it is learning through song to get up on stage. It not only teaches you music, but it teaches you life lessons too, in terms of how to work with a team, how to overcome fear of being on stage, et cetera, the whole gambit of things. We really learned this much during the pandemic when there wasn't a whole heck of a lot for folks to do, and this was really a lifeline to many of our students to have this out there. That's who we are. We have almost 50,000 students worldwide. We are a franchise business, but we do, corporately, own 45 schools, but the rest are franchised.
Megan: Is it voice and instruments?
John: Oh yes. If you think about it, it's really a rock band. The instruments are guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, and then vocals. Those are the primary components. We have a patented method. We actually filed for a patent and received a patent from the USPTO around the School of Rock method that integrates in songs with parts, be it guitar, bass, vocal, whatever, and links those to shows based on a student's ability. We have a method app that we use. Again, for students to be able to follow along. Actually, when you play at home, you can practice and the app will tell you how you're doing, are you playing the parts right, where do you have to improve, things like that. These are all investments that we've made over the last couple of years to really bolster the product.
Megan: I think I caught a show not too long ago. Well, it was probably a few years ago now though. It was a local sports bar, but I do remember it was the culmination of their learning and they were all up on stage and it was awesome, they were killing it.
John: Oh, Megan, it's amazing. One of the things, again, I'm not a musician. I always say this, a lot of people say this, they say, "Geez, I wish this was around when I was a kid," and I do too. When I was a kid, I wanted to play the drums and they handed me a snare drum, one drum, and then they handed me a book, and they said, "All right, go practice." Practicing meant hitting the drum with notes. Now, my parents were very happy because it meant that there was not a set in the house smashing around, I of course was not.
When you see these kids and you look at them and you're like, "Oh my God," the ability that these kids have and then the confidence that they have, it's amazing and then you talk about it. What you see up on stage is we've got a season-ending show that everybody participates in, but then within each location, they have what they call-- it's a house band. If you think about it and I'll use a sports analogy. The house band is considered the allstar group of a particular location, so you have to try out for house band, and then they will go out and play gigs, probably once or twice a month throughout the season.
Then we have, this is the culmination of the School of Rock experiences, School of Rock AllStars. The School of Rock AllStars are the best of the best from all of our locations worldwide. What we do is we form anywhere from six to eight bands, and they effectively play rockstar for a week to 10 days and we set up a tour in varying parts of the country. For instance, a few years ago, I actually attended one of these tours and they started off in Houston and they made their way up through Texas, up into ultimately ending in Chicago and playing a stage in Lollapalooza, one of the stages up there.
These kids will play venues like Red Rocks, they'll play Whiskey in LA. It's amazing. Then when these kids play-- you can even, if you go out on our website and you look at-- We will also bring these kids into recording studio and allow them to experience that as well as we'll film the video of them recording a song, and seeing these kids with this, it's amazing.
Megan: What a cool experience.
Megan: As you look back on the last four years that you've spent with School of Rock, what are your proudest achievements with them?
John: For me, actually, I'll answer this in two parts because I think there's proudest achievements as a company, and then there's proudest achievements for me personally. As a company, I'm really proud of the fact that we've been able to grow like we have. Four years ago, I came in, we were just the 200 schools and we were probably at about 25,000 students. Now four years later, after a pandemic, we are at the 00 schools and we're at almost 50,000 students. Just in terms of really spreading our mission and being that lifeline and that safe space for so many of our students out there, I think just being part of that, and being a dad, is really, really warming to me. It's great, I love the mission.
I'm really proud that we've been able to sort of expand our mission as a company. Me personally, this is my first CFO role. For me, I'm really proud that I've been able to get myself out of the mindset of having to do everything and more into the mindset of being that strategic partner, to use the Italian term consigliere, let's call it, to our CEO, I'm proud of that because it was difficult. It's difficult when you get into that role for the first time. It actually took a conversation with my CEO that said, "Listen, I know you can do all these spreadsheets. I know you can do everything. It's not what I hired you to do. I hired you to be my CFO. I didn't hire you to do all that." That was moving from a doer to a conductor, let's say. I'm glad that I was able to get there. It's tough, but, yes.
Megan: I'm sure it is, that first role as a CFO has got to be a tough transition.
John: It is, it really is. Especially in this role where we literally moved everything from wherever it was back to the Boston area. We had to recruit a new team, we had to learn systems, we had to understand processes, we had to put in our new processes. There was a lot of stuff to do, but very, very very rewarding.
Megan: Back when the pandemic first began, like any business, School of Rock felt the impact, but with insights from modeling, from your FP&A team, you guys managed to roll out a virtual program in just 12 days. Talk to me about what went into making that happen.
John: I would love to take the credit that our modeling drove that, but it was a fairly easy equation to look at. Again, Megan, as I talked about before, our whole premise, everything that we did was all about being in person. It's in-person, you got to get in the school, that's how you're going to get exposed to the product, that's how you're going to feel the vibe and all of that. Then literally as the world started melting down, we knew that we would be in trouble. I say this all the time, but by right, Megan, you and I shouldn't be talking and I shouldn't be the CFO of School of Rock. We should have been out of business.
Megan: That must have been terrifying.
John: It was, so it went from-- and I'll never forget this. It went from, in February of 2020, when we started seeing the data coming in, the management team got together and said, "Okay, how are we going to address this?" to a cursory conversation that had with the CEO, literally the end of February, probably first couple days of March, saying, "Hey, what do you think? Should we be looking at remote?" We're like, "Yes, it's probably a good idea." Then our IT team pretty much took the ball and ran with it. I mean, those are the guys that are the heroes of this. They were able to set up our remote scheme through Zoom, like you just mentioned, in a matter of days and get it rolled out.
Now, what I will tell you was, due to the investments that we made in our method app the year before and our curriculum really putting some structure around our curriculum is what made that work. Had we not made those investments in 2018 and 2019, what we ended up with in 2020 just wouldn't work. Being able to put that all together using Zoom, setting up all the rooms, it was operationally complex that these guys pulled it off and yes, literally saved the company. We were able to in the season-- again, remember at that time, we didn't know.
All of our schools went remote for about two months. Let's say, April and May and then slowly in June, people started open up a little bit, but this is something that actually will be part of our world going forward. School of Rock online, which is what we now call it, is now part of our product offering. Again, our product is still in person. However, what it's done is it's allowed us to maintain students that may not want to give the full performance program. They're going away for the summer really where this helped us with summertime usually you lose a bunch of students at that point. Then we were able to keep those kids and stop enrollment from decreasing too much.
It's just amazing with your back up against the wall, what you're able to come up with so quickly.
Megan: Definitely. I'm sure that must have also opened up some markets that were previously closed, people that were too far away to find a school.
John: Megan, that's exactly right. I mean, we have found that some people from remote areas were able to join in and take lessons. I'll give you a prime example. Really, where this has worked out is even on the adult side. If you think about an adult program where you've got to be-- it's the same program, lesson once a week and then performance, or even taking lessons, but then you have people that travel. My CEO, Rob Price, is a perfect example of this. He takes his guitar lessons from an instructor in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and he lives in Nashville. You're able to open it up.
I wouldn't say that we get a lot, but what happens is it certainly casts a wider net for us. Then that helps us with our franchise development because if we see if there's markets in there, we've got people that we are customers that are in the program, that are in a market. Obviously, when we open up there through a franchise, we give those people to the franchisee.
Megan: Talk to me a little bit about scenario planning and what successful scenario planning and forecasting-- what that process looks like.
John: I will tell you that it never manifested itself more than it did in 2020. We were scenario planning-- my director of FP&A was-- we literally planned every month. We used to collect sales data once a week. We would look at that. We were very, I wouldn't say we were crude, but we certainly were not as well oiled as we are now. Then once the pandemic hit, daily sales was immediate because we needed to look and see what enrollment was looking like, what revenue, et cetera. Then we were doing forecasts monthly and then really monitoring how we were performing.
Now, when we first did our scenario planning when the pandemic hit, we ran three scenarios. You have a good, a likely, and a worst-case. I think that was very important for us to understand, let's call it, the guide rails that we had to play within, that we knew varying things if this happened and this will likely happen. Fortunately, we were able to stay-- actually, we came in more along the lines of our best scenario than we did our disaster scenario. It was very important for us to keep modeling that because this was driving decision-making. If we were flying blind and not knowing what was going on, we couldn't make decisions quickly to address certain market conditions, make investments.
That was the other thing. As everybody did, we shut off investments. We just preserved cash and we were able to, at the end of the year, knowing that we were not going to hit the disaster scenario, we were able to open the spigot up again and start making some more investments based on our forecasting. Again, very, very helpful for us to be able to see what various scenarios and what the world looked like so we could take steps to accelerate out of the pandemic. That was really our mindset was when to hit the gas and how much?
Megan: What important questions should CFOs be considering when they're looking to plan for their future?
John: Again, what we do and we're part of is really you need a strategic plan. I think that is the main ingredient that you need for the future. For us, we've had a strategic plan for the last four years, and we knew various milestones that we want to be at, be it revenue, enrollment, profitability. When we do that, obviously when you look far out into the future, you come up with a number or you come up with a scenario that you want to be at, but in many cases, if you look at the existing business, you need other things to be able to fill in some of the gaps in order to get there.
I think that's the most important question that we need to be asking as CFOs that says, "Okay, if we believe that we want to be this size of a company in 2025, whatever, and based on our run rate, we're not going to get there. What are we going to do to fill that? What can we do? Should we be looking at acquisition? Should we be looking at other investments that might yield some return?" Things like that. I think those are the important questions that we as CFOs need to be standing at with the front of the ship looking out because if that's the target, our job is to help the company get there and guide the operation in order to fulfill our objectives.
Megan: With so much these days that's up in the air, how do you prepare for what you don't know?
John: We say that all the time, and I think and you and I were talking about this before we came on was the pandemic fatigue. For us, I hate to sound callous or whatever, but we look at it now and say, "Listen, what can happen is awful, but it can't be any worse than what we just went through and we were able to survive that." That gives us the confidence that we're going to be able to survive going forward. Really, the biggest thing that we look at is we have to make a decision quickly. We use the data, we make an informed decision based on the best data that we have at the time.
If situation changes, and I say this all the time to everybody, the one thing I'll tell you with our scenario planning, with our budget, with our forecast is, it's wrong. By definition, it's wrong. It is what we thought the world was going to be like, at a particular time, when we did it. As soon as we hit save, assumptions change. We need to adjust. You need to be able to adjust based on how those assumptions are going to change. Then if you start something and it's not working out, then just fail quick and move on. That's one of the things that we really strive to do at School of Rock is we'll try things and if it doesn't work out, we'll pivot.
Again, you have to balance that. You don't want to be knee jerk and start-stop and all of that. The one thing that's nice is because we are a franchise and corporate-owned school business, we can use our corporate schools as a test lab. We're able to test out certain ideas within our corporate schools. Then if we see that they work, we can roll them out to the greater system or community without causing much pain to the rest of the world. I think that's how we look at it.
Megan: I guess it's important to remember that it's an iterative process. I'm sure some people get paralyzed with fear of, "What does the future hold?" and not knowing. It's important to make the decision like you said.
John: That's right. That's right. We can stop spending, Megan. Again, if God forbid, the world went back to what it was, which I really don't think it would-
Megan: Oh, God.
John: -I don't think the lockdowns and all of that, I don't think we'd go back to exactly what we were but we know through our modeling, through everything, what we can immediately stop spending on to preserve cash. We know that we can go out and get more debt if we need to, et cetera. Those are the things that you just need to have a playbook of these are various levers you can pull based on varying scenarios.
Megan: You mentioned this a bit ago, putting some technologies into place that helped you get through 2020. What are the tools and technologies that you're using right now that are helping to make things better or your life easier?
John: From, let's talk the financial side, the finance side, our geo is NetSuite. We've used NetSuite. We've been a NetSuite user for almost about 10 years, even longer than that.
John: I will say that a system like that, doing what we did, not necessarily even in the pandemic, but even before that, where when I started, we had 20 corporate-owned schools and we went to 40 within 2018. Managing the business as a franchisor is different than managing the business as a corporation, meaning managing the schools. We do all the accounting for the corporate schools, everything. My team does that. Without a system like a NetSuite or something like that, if we were managing our business on a QuickBooks or something like that, that would have made life very challenging. We just wouldn't have been able to do it.
NetSuite is what we use and it has all of our numbers. The nice thing is, like I said, we've been for 10 years, we've got data that goes back to 2011, it's amazing. Our company is much different from back then, but we could use that. Then we use Adaptive, or I guess it's Workday Adaptive now, for reporting to give out the financial results to our management team and our GMs. Really, between those two and then Concur, we'll use that for expense management and approvals and that. Those are really the primary tools that we use to make our lives easier, as you say.
Megan: We touched on this a bit, but what does CFO transitioning to become the right-hand man or the right-hand of the CEO, what advice would you give to CFOs out there who are looking to help their companies drive strategic value, to grow revenue and improve margin?
John: Again, and I think I heard one of your prior guests say this, Megan, but it's understanding the business itself and really understanding the KPIs that move the business, what are the things that are important, what are the things that are not as important, and doing that. It's a variable-cost business. For us, we know that if we drive top-line, that's going to have the best benefit on the bottom line. We can move that through pricing or we can move that through more students, a combination of both.
For CFOs, I think they need to understand what makes their business tick and what makes their business move. If they don't, then they could be advising or chasing after the wrong things that aren't going to yield the result that they're looking for. Again resources are precious, especially right now, for us and many companies out there. We don't have a lot of time. We don't have a lot of people with time. Capital is always precious, but both human and actual money. If we're going to deploy our human capital, we want to deploy them on the projects that are going to be meaningful and move the dial for the business. If you don't know what those are, you're going to waste time, you're going to waste money, and you're going to burn people out.
Megan: It's so important within finance and accounting, that you spend time getting closer to operations at some point in your career.
John: Megan, that was one of the things again, for me, and I actually liked that part of the job is I don't want to be the person that sits in the corner that just comes up with, "Hey, you're spending too much here," or, "We're not doing this here." If you don't know why the business does what it does and how it does what it does, then you're doing yourself and your company a disservice. That's how you become a strategic partner is, I've seen it. I've been in organizations where finance is not viewed that way, finance and accounting, and they just go around them. That's not how I ever wanted to play. I think that's the advice I have.
Megan: Lastly, as a CFO, what is keeping you up at night right now?
John: Oh, well, for us, particularly in our world, it's really the labor. The biggest issue we're facing right now is the availability of labor because again, for us, it's one thing to come in and acquire new students and sign them up for programs and that. At the end of the day, we need to deliver on that service. If we don't have enough people to deliver on that service, then that can cap our top-line growth. That's really the biggest issue that I think, for our company right now is just recruiting talent, recruiting people to join the mission. We've got a massive push across the board, in all disciplines, not only teachers and music directors and managers, and et cetera. If you know anybody, Megan, that wants to come to work for School of Rock, we'd love to take them, but that's the big thing for me.
Megan: I can't imagine you're alone there. I think many corporations across the country right now are struggling with where to find talent. You look at restaurants, and they're operating at a fraction of their capacity because there's just nobody working.
John: That's exactly right. When you're a business that's driven on top-line in providing services, that's a big thing. We sell a service. Our product is a service. If we don't have people to deliver on that, then we don't have product to sell.
Megan: John, thank you so much for being my guest today.
John: Thank you, Megan. Glad to be here.
Megan: I really enjoyed speaking with you and hearing about your experiences and all of the resulting insights. I appreciate you taking the time to be here with us today, and I wish you and School of Rock continued success.
John: Thank you, Megan. Appreciate it.
Megan: To all of our listeners, please tune in next week, and until then, take care.
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In this episode, we discuss managing the pandemic challenges, setting up successful scenario planning and forecasting, strategic planning, amongst other topics to help you be prepared for the future.
John's Intro and His Current Role at the School of Rock
John has extensive experience building and leading high-performing finance teams in various industries. Currently, John is the CFO at School of Rock, where he oversees the financial activities of the organization but also plans and executes growth initiatives.
School of Rock is a performance-based music education business. The company is a franchisor and operator of music schools with more than 300 locations worldwide and still growing. Students learn from professional musicians in an interactive environment with the ultimate goal of performing live in front of real crowds.
“The CFO is more about being strategic and being a business partner”
Managing the Pandemic Challenges
When the pandemic hit, the School of Rock felt the impact. Working 100% in-person, the company had tough times figuring out a plan to adapt. But the team managed to develop and implement a virtual program in just twelve days. Now, the School of Rock online is part of the company's product offering. It offered opportunities and opened up new markets where people from remote areas could join the classes.
“It's amazing with your back up against the wall what you're able to come up with so quickly”
Setting Up Successful Scenario Planning and Forecasting
When looking to plan for the future, CFOs need to come up with a well-defined strategic plan. Collect data constantly, monitor the numbers, run multiple scenarios, and keep modeling that.
“If we were flying blind and not knowing what was going on, we couldn't make decisions quickly, address certain market conditions, and make investments”
Preparing for the Unknown While Planning and Forecasting
You have to make a decision quickly. Use the data, and make an informed decision based on the best data you have at the time. If the situation changes, you need to adjust.
“You need to adjust based on how your assumptions will change. And if you start something and it's not working out, fail quickly and move on”
Be prepared for the uncertain future with a strong team, learn more about our business solutions here.