Business Officer magazine interviews CalArts CFO

Business Officer magazine interviews CalArts CFO

The National Association of College & University Business Officers will hold their annual conference in Long Beach on July 21-24. As part of their preparation, NACUBO’s national magazine, Business Officer, interviewed executives from schools in the area, including CalArts’s CFO Maeesha Merchant.

Creativity and The Chief Business Officer

NACUBO designed this year’s annual meeting with the goal of motivating the CBO to employ the creativity necessary to manage and support the evolving goals of the campus community. Although they are not charged with turning out blockbuster movies or developing a new animated series, chief business officers must find innovative ways to manage budgets, prioritize institutional goals, and ensure student success.

This year’s member perspective focuses on how CBOs at two California institutions are using creativity to achieve successful outcomes.

The A113 Phenomenon

Maeesha Merchant, vice president, chief financial officer and chief innovation officer at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Valencia, explains what sets the institution apart from others and how she builds creativity into her role as a leader. 

With the rise of social media, branding and imagery are becoming increasingly important. What do you consider to be the best part of your institution’s branding strategy?

The CalArts brand strategy cannot be boiled down to a single thing to which we can point and say, “Yes, this is it.” Instead, it’s a combination of many details that, when laced together, create one of the strongest reputations within the art world. CalArts itself was the brain child of its founder Walt Disney. Long before the Internet made the world as “small” as it is today, the world-renowned Disney brand allowed the institute to start from a position of strength, which allowed CalArts to attract the crème de la crème of artists from around the globe.

The dream of founder Walt Disney was to have the entire school and all the arts housed in a single building to encourage a natural exchange of ideas and an authentic convergence of people and disciplines. For almost five decades, this thoughtful plan has provided everyone at CalArts a natural way to cross-pollinate, which has resulted in some of the world’s finest artistic productions and expressions.

Building upon the Disney legacy, CalArts made the decision to create even more unique touchpoints within the brand, starting with the institute’s logo. We utilize a strong, custom-made logotype most often presented in “CalArts blue.” It’s the same blue color that is used in the art circle–famous blue wall on the front of the building. Instead of the ivy-covered wall or iconic clock tower that you find at other institutions, for more than 50 years, CalArts graduates have posed at that wall with their families for photos. The blue wall and logo symbolize the “blue sky” thinking that takes place every day at CalArts. Although the disciplines vary, many share the “A113 phenomenon,” which is named after our campus’ iconic animation room A113. For more than 30 years, CalArts alumni have “hidden” this alphanumeric series in hundreds of major motion pictures and TV shows.

What creative ideas have you initiated that have worked particularly well in building authentic leadership in your department and partnerships across the campus? 

With our current round of budgeting for the next fiscal year at CalArts, the finance team had to identify how we could better reach our desired outcomes: creating alignment between budget requests and our long-term common strategic goals. After encouraging open discussion among the stakeholders focused on strategic priorities, we modified the “usual” budgeting process to one that was inclusive and transparent, which resulted in requests that are in line with our strategic plan. It also led to many more productive conversations around budgeting.

How important is it to be creative in a finance job? And, in what areas have you been effective in applying such creativity?

It seems counterintuitive, but creativity is extremely important in the CFO’s office, especially at a school like CalArts, where the CFO is also the chief innovation officer. In this role, I am challenged to look at fiscal scenarios from a variety of perspectives, and to search for innovations that will drive revenue and efficiency through innovative business models and processes. I have done this through encouraging experimentation. We provide resources to incubate new ideas, which fosters a culture of innovation.

We are open to taking calculated risks and realize that not every idea will succeed. It is OK to try and fail, rather than to not try at all. Innovation and creativity are of the utmost importance today for a CFO, especially as our industry continues to face financial turmoil; creativity will be our means to survive and hopefully thrive.

Name a place in California that inspires creativity.

For me, it’s definitely the beautiful serene beaches and ocean breeze in Southern California. Locally, my favorite place to get in touch with my creative self lies along the shores of Balboa Island in Newport Beach. A quick visit to Balboa Island—a small, quaint community—gives me the “away from it all” feeling without really having to leave town. The nearby water is relaxing and it becomes easy to let your mind wander, while taking advantage of the lovely oceanside walking path that circles the island and enjoying children’s laughter drifting over the water from the Ferris wheel. I find that taking myself out of my everyday environment ignites that creative spark, and the peacefulness of a beachside afternoon does it every time.