The Engine of Business

Kaman Corporation’s Robert Starr propels the aerospace manufacturing giant toward financial efficiency by partnering with IT, human resources, and operations

Robert Starr faced an economy in crisis and two looming corporate challenges. But where others at Kaman saw a headache, he saw an opportunity.

Robert Starr, Kaman Corporation
Robert Starr, Kaman Corporation

When Starr joined the aerospace company in 2009, he was tasked with treasury efforts and oversight of all banking and capital market relationships—including an underfunded pension plan and a pending credit refinancing. Yet the vice president and treasurer didn’t back away from the hurdles placed before him.

“I was attracted to the opportunity because I knew Kaman has a strong culture predicated on respect, trust, and transparency,” Starr says. “The management team enabled me to be the financial lead on those projects, turning my treasurer role into a cross-functional position.”

The idea of treasurer as a cross-functional strategic partner was new for Starr at the time, but today it’s integral to his role as executive vice president and chief financial officer for the aerospace manufacturer and distributor. The Bloomfield, Connecticut-based company has a revenue of $1.8 billion and more than 5,300 employees driving business in more than sixty countries worldwide.

“What really strikes me is the high level of cross-functional support in management, using information to drive the right decisions for the company, which brings a high level of involvement to the company, making it really unique in my experience,” Starr says, adding that this collaboration runs all the way up to the board of directors.

When it comes to experience, particularly for the manufacturing space, Starr is a veteran. Prior to Kaman, he was assistant treasurer for the Stamford, Connecticut-based Crane Co. Before that, he was in leading financial positions for Aetna Inc. and Fisher Scientific International. Starr is a certified public accountant, and he holds an MBA in finance and marketing from the University of Chicago. He spent the late 1990s and early 2000s working in investment banking, capital markets, and risk management.

Starr says he’s learned a lot from this experience, especially when it comes to management. “I prefer running lean departments,” Starr says, referring to his small team of six direct reports. “It makes for better accountability, narrows down our priorities, and gets people out of their comfort zones. This stretches people, but it’s more fulfilling work as well.”

By capitalizing on these hyper-focused yet versatile advantages of a lean department, Starr and his team have been able to look well beyond finance and into the other departments that keep the Kaman machine moving. They work as strategic partners alongside human resources, IT, and—most importantly for Starr—operations. “We can never fall into the trap of saying that we’re corporate with a separate agenda from operations,” Starr explains. “Operations is truly the engine of the business, and working with operations is critical to our success.”

To build on the entrepreneurial license he used as treasurer, Starr prioritizes interdepartmental collaboration by turning to data and analytics to get the information he needs to make the best decisions for the company, investors, and customers.

“I love the theme of this article. Although there are many important ingredients that come together to drive company success, one of the most important ingredients is a very strong partnership across the executive and functional teams. Companies that separate ‘THE’ business from IT and operations will eventually hit a wall. Building the right relationships and alignment across every function of an organization is absolutely critical. Understanding that technology and operations are the engine and enabler for the entire company can really change the context and content of the conversations between the functional business units and the IT, finance, and HR organization.” —Guest Editor Julie Cullivan, SVP of Business Operations and CIO at FIreEye

Recently, Kaman rolled out investments in major enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems for its manufacturing and distribution businesses. The latter consolidated revenue and data from bearings and power transmission, automation control and energy, and fluid power operations and accounting for $1.2 billion in sales in 2015. “We extract a lot of data out of these systems,” Starr says. “This helps us make better strategic decisions, produce higher-quality materials, reduce waste, and guides our decisions for capital expenditures and acquisition opportunities.”

Empowered by data, Starr says that Kaman’s balance sheet and financial strength is as strong as it has ever been thanks to the  continuous development of a host of analytical tools that work in concert with its ERP investments. This has not only enabled the company to grow its investments and strategy, but it has also helped Starr and his team make better acquisitive decisions as well. Recently, they closed on the largest deal in company history with the €135.2 million acquisition of GRW Bearing, a Germany-based designer and manufacturer of precision ball bearings.

“Information technology is essential for helping us analyze our transactions and cost structure, and also our customer needs,” Starr says. “The data we have, and how we use it to partner with operations, is critical. Furthermore, we’re also using our IT infrastructure to partner with HR and this has really helped us make informed decisions.”

While much of the manufacturing and distribution at Kaman is automated, people are at the core of its business. In addition to using its ERP investments to make better decisions for distribution and investing, Starr and his team are able to use their analytical tools to get the right people in the right jobs. “The increased operational focus of my role is part of a natural evolution,” Starr says. “The more I can learn about operations through data and other means, the better I’m able to partner with my counterparts running other parts of the business.”

When he talks about his work, his team, and his projects, Starr speaks more broadly to the dynamism of his role as part of the larger trend involving the CFO as an executive strategic partner—not just for a company’s internal departments, but also for its external constituents. CFOs aren’t just number crunchers, Starr says, they’re strategists and data experts who also need to account for the human element.

Within Kaman’s culture of respect and transparency, Starr is able to thrive. “In my role, you need to operate like you’re an owner of the business,” he says. “Sometimes you need to make tough decisions, but if you think like an owner, you’re always making those decisions with a long-term view.” ×