Jeff Epstein: Being Part of the Changing Business Landscape
The Oracle CFO explains his long career path—through booms and busts and times of struggle—to working in tech.
When Jeff Epstein earned his MBA from Stanford in 1979 and went to work for Boston Consulting Group on Sand Hill Road, he didn’t know about a young company a mile away — a company that would later become Oracle.
Three decades later, Epstein is the chief financial officer of that company. But, as he told his Stanford GSB audience at an Arjay Miller Distinguished CFO Lecture Series talk May 22, his path was no simple one-mile drive, but one that took him from the Washington Post and King World to VNU and DoubleClick, from hugely successful firms to ones that struggled.
Compared with what could have happened had he joined Oracle in 1979 and stayed, Epstein says, only half kidding, “I left about a billion dollars on the table.”
But he also realizes that without his circuitous path, he might never have landed that “dream job.” Many of his experiences were like toppling dominoes that led him to one of the world’s elite companies.
When Boston Consulting partner Alan Spoon became a vice president at the Washington Post Co. in 1982, he hired Epstein. The job gave Epstein the chance to make presentations to the Post’s board of directors, which included Warren Buffett and Arjay Miller, the Stanford GSB Dean, Emeritus, for whom the CFO lecture series is named.
Epstein’s first significant brush with technology came at the Post, when Spoon noticed that the Federal Communications Commission was offering free cellular phone licenses. “I actually wrote the marketing plan for cellular telephones,” he recalled, “at a time when there were zero cellular customers in the United States, trying to predict how many mobile phone customers there were going to be.”
In 1984, Epstein noticed Prodigy, an online news and information service. “It was slow and clunky and terrible to use, but you could tell the world was going to change,” he recalled. “You could tell that people eventually were not going to cut down trees, make paper, print on that paper, take trucks, and take that paper to people’s homes to deliver news and information.”
Epstein made a big change, too.”I became an investment banker. Why, you might ask,” he said as a photo of a pot of gold appeared on the video screen. “They offered to double my compensation.”
He moved to First Boston Corp, handling media mergers and acquisitions. Eventually, he made a cold call to King World, the company behind Oprah Winfrey, “Wheel of Fortune,” and “Jeopardy!”
In 1988, he became its chief financial officer. “I didn’t know what I was doing my first year,” Epstein admitted, “but they had a good accountant, a good controller. It was a simple company because it was small. I sort of learned on the job.”
In the mid-1990s, he knew the internet was going to be huge and that he wanted to be a part of it. But he didn’t want to take a huge risk because he didn’t know how fast it would grow. He went to CUC, a large direct-marketing company, and eventually ran its AutoVantage program, becoming a general manager, thinking that might be useful experience if he ever could become a CEO.
The company didn’t move online the way he had expected and eventually ran into legal troubles, so Epstein made an opportune jump in 1998 to DoubleClick, becoming CFO on the day of its initial public offering.
After the internet bust, Epstein joined Dutch media conglomerate VNU, whose holdings included Nielsen Media Research. That, too, he did for the experience, to prove that he could be CFO of a large company.
It took a couple of more stops, though, before the dream Oracle job was his in September 2008. And although his path landed him in the right spot, Epstein would not recommend it.
“Most of the companies [where I worked] were companies that were struggling and had problems, and I was one of a small group of people who were going in there to fix the problems, which meant that we had to learn on our own. So I didn’t have the chance to learn from others and watch modeling from other people.”
He said being CFO of such a large company now means virtually his entire job is delegating responsibilities to other people, and eventually trying to groom a successor, although he isn’t planning to leave anytime soon. This time, he plans to settle in.
“That was the biggest transition — to understand that I’m essentially in a role now where my job is to hire great people, make sure their goals are aligned, motivate them, and check to make sure they’re doing okay — but be a leader, as opposed to being an active personal contributor.
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