is part of a growing group of executives who lead not only their companies’ finances, but also operations, a trend that comes as firms look to retain top talent by broadening their roles and handing them additional duties.
Ms. Burke took on the responsibilities of chief financial officer this summer, after becoming the financial firm’s chief operations officer in July 2020. That is the reverse order of how most dual-role executives come to those positions, with many serving as CFO before expanding into COO duties.
WSJ’s CFO Journal talked to Ms. Burke about her dual role, the outlook for the firm’s business and the impact of higher interest rates on markets. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.
WSJ: You lead both operations and finance. Is that an advantage?
Ms. Burke: I think it’s unique in many ways. Understanding the operational infrastructure of the organization, combined with the financial acumen and what we are attempting to do strategically, combined with cost initiatives, positions you well. You really understand both sides of the organization at a much deeper level.
My background as COO really gave me a purview. I was heavily involved in running our compensation process, which is the number-one variable expense that we have and something we want to always get right. But it is also where we need to make sure we’re balancing and making the right investments in terms of the people we’re bringing on board and the level of head-count growth that we have.
WSJ: How are you allocating your time between the two roles?
Ms. Burke: I’m still evolving in terms of what is the right split for me. I worked with the financials team really closely all along, so I knew everyone well, certainly on the controller side and the financial planning and analysis side. I found I needed to learn more about tax and treasury than I had because those were not areas that I had spent a significant amount of time. It’s hard for me to say if it’s 50/50, because every day can be a little different, but it is probably pretty close to that.
WSJ: Where do you see the company’s head count going?
Ms. Burke: We have slowed down our hiring in the back half of the year. The head-count growth that we had has been about hiring for strategic initiatives that are under way versus building up more capacity in our current organization. I don’t think that we are looking at a year where you’re going to see the kind of head-count growth that we’ve had in the last couple of years.
[Note: AllianceBernstein had more than 4,200 employees in December. It declined to specify how much its head count changed in 2022.]
WSJ: What do you mean by hiring for strategic initiatives?
Ms. Burke: The AB India initiative [which involves opening an office in Pune, India] is about driving overall efficiencies and should ultimately be helpful to our margin. We are going to continue to look to the private markets, building out our alternatives, our private credit offerings. And CarVal [a private alternatives investment manager that AB acquired in July 2022] filled a big piece for us this year.
WSJ: What do you think 2023 will look like?
Ms. Burke: With the higher interest rates, people are going to look at income-oriented fixed-income products that will help them [improve] their overall return profile in the coming years. One question that we discuss frequently here is when and how you’re going to see clients’ appetite for equities return. I think that there is still an inflationary environment. People are going to seek to grow their portfolios, and equities have a history of providing that kind of investment return over time.
WSJ: The Federal Reserve in December raised interest rates for the seventh time in a row. Which metrics are you tracking as you plan for 2023?
“People still have pretty healthy balance sheets overall, but they’ve been impacted by inflation and so are less healthy than they were a year ago.”
Ms. Burke: We are similar to others in that we’re looking for the Fed to help provide the signals to us about their comfort level in the actions that they’ve taken and trying to moderate inflation. We certainly continue to look at employment. And, despite headlines of some reductions coming, the employment numbers are still really strong. It’s difficult to predict how that goes into the Fed’s thinking, as well as the impact supply chains are having on inflation.
WSJ: How concerned are you about financial risks in a potential downturn?
Ms. Burke: People still have pretty healthy balance sheets overall, but they’ve been impacted by inflation and so are less healthy than they were a year ago. On the corporate side, the hurdle rate for investments is higher now and the cost of capital is different. I think that’s where you’ll see some financial risks happening where [companies] haven’t been prudent in their financial management, which will create more distressed situations over time. We haven’t seen it yet, but one could argue that it’s coming as funding sources get repriced.
Write to Nina Trentmann at firstname.lastname@example.org
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