As a native of Denmark who gained international finance and business experience before settling in the United States two decades ago, Michael Rist approaches his role as CFO of VIP Petcare with a nuanced perspective. He embraces his experience from a mix of public and private companies that range from young firms to multibillion-dollar global corporations. Consequently, he knows what it takes to create and support long-term, sustainable growth.
“Being part of an organization with a very entrepreneurial culture means people innovate, accept responsibility for work they are not always proficient at, make decisions decisively and efficiently, and demonstrate a sense of urgency and ownership for their work,” he says. “Coming up in public accounting teaches you that sensibility.”
Rist’s public accounting experience provides him with a great foundation, working with a variety of clients of different size, across different industries. It has also enabled Rist to be a more agile leader. From early on in his career, he’s been training and developing people, and he’s found it exciting to see people grow over the years.
Michael Rist is an avid triathlete. In fact, he has participated in three full Ironman competitions—each of which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a marathon 26.22-mile run—and more than a dozen 70.3 Ironman competitions, events which many consider to be the most challenging fitness level available for a one-day event. Rist says parallels between triathlon success and business success can be found at every turn.
“Having the curiosity, vision, guts, and discipline for such a daunting mission in front of you is a big challenge,” he says. “When you’re racing, things come up you haven’t necessarily planned for. You have to adapt and stay focused on the task at hand; it’s not very different from the business world.”
Like many busy professionals, Rist, who lives with his family in northern California, has had to work at making space for triathlons. But he believes the events have played an important part in his success. ”The people who are balanced in their lives are much happier,” Rist says. “And happier people are way more engaged and effective in their work.”
Thirteen years in public accounting with Deloitte, followed by almost ten years in the satellite industry and several years of consulting work, led Rist to California. Before moving in-house, he first consulted for VIP
Petcare, an industry leader in innovative pet wellness care that is offered through a nationwide network of community clinics.
In 2015, Rist joined as CFO and a member of the executive team. With the organization’s double-digit growth in mind, Rist’s attention to people, processes, and technology is as critical as his finance focus.
Far too often, business transformation efforts concentrate on the process improvement strategies and business process re-engineering, while essentially ignoring the people aspect of the change initiative. Subsequently, these transformation initiatives do not achieve their desired results, according to Rist, who was part of the successful transformation of SES Engineering. Focusing on developing critical organizational competencies around organizational culture transformation and process improvement resulted in a more effective and sustainable change effort.
“As our organization continues to grow, a key objective for me is to ensure that we recruit and retain the right talent, that we have the right programs and benefits to enable them to perform at their best,” Rist says. “The things we can control are the easy part; what keeps me up at night are the changes we have no control over, such as changes in the regulatory environment.”
Technology also plays an important role in the company’s overall strategy. “There are constantly expanding opportunities for us to improve service offerings,”
However, the rate of change also presents some challenges: the need to balance demands and manage risks while simultaneously maximizing earnings.
Through all the growth Rist has helped foster, his European background—which stresses not only efficiency, particularly with regards to time, but also more inclusiveness—has benefited him. However, he also stresses the importance of being both tough-minded and tenderhearted. “It’s about having a vision of where you want to take the organization, knowing what the end game is, knowing how to get there, and surrounding yourself with people who support and embrace that mission,” he says.
In many respects, he attributes his success to his considerable efforts as an Ironman triathlete. The need for ample preparation, adaptability, and perseverance are all in the full day’s work of long-distance swimming, cycling, and running. “Conditions change along the way, and there are a lot of reasons why not to continue,” says Rist, who did his first Ironman in 2001. “But there’s a reason to move forward, and you’ve got to find that reason within yourself. That’s what we try to do at VIP Petcare.”
He may aim for continued progress, but Rist doesn’t see that goal bringing any sort of end to the entrepreneurial nature of VIP Petcare. “I think that spirit is one of the cornerstones of the organization,” he says. “It allows us to make a go at new things—the ability to learn from that experience, then move forward again.”