Behind the career: Stewart D. Curley

April 7, 2013

Position: Chief financial officer of Modus, a District-based company that provides consulting services, data collection and processing to businesses and law firms interested in doing legal discovery work electronically.

Stewart Curley started his career in a big public accounting firm and eventually went to work for a client, the then-fledgling Orbital Sciences, as its chief financial officer. There were only 20 employees at the time, but seven years and two public offerings later, the rocket builder grew to a couple thousand employees. The experience led him to a succession of emerging companies before arriving at Modus.

You talk about the rush of working with high-risk, emerging growth companies. Can you give an example?

At Orbital Sciences, the company was set to go public on a Monday morning. We had priced the deal. Trading was all ready to start. The day the company was set to go public, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal’s upper right-hand corner was an article trashing the company. At the time, the company was developing a winged rocket to take satellites into orbit. No one had ever done it that way. The industry had always relied on a ballistic missile. But this took off on the wing of a jumbo jet. The article said that we hadn’t launched it yet and it will fail. The underwriters pulled the IPO as a result of that article. We were out of money. The underwriter said it wouldn’t do our underwriting until we proved that rocket really works.

We ended up accelerating the launch of the rocket. We were watching on a big screen as the launch took place. I said, “This thing better work. This is our last chance.” The head of the operations group who developed the rocket leans in and says, “Hey, I didn’t want to tell you before, but in the history of the U.S. space program, there’s never been a rocket that worked the first time.”

It worked.

It was the first time a new system worked on its first try. We increased the price of the public offering. One month later, we went out and raised millions more than we anticipated. That was the ultimate rush. Those highs and lows are why I wanted to be in an industry like that with such a high-risk environment. I should mention, talking to the press during an IPO is now a case study at the Harvard Business School.

How do you decide which companies you will join?

I typically go with my gut. I figure out which companies I am able to grow. I’m a finance guy, so I’m still kind of conservative. I’m not the bootstrap, started-a-company-on-my-own, roll-the-dice kind of guy. With Modus, before I came on board full time, I decided I wanted to be a consultant adviser so I could understand the environment and people involved. I got a test drive.

Did you do that previously?

I didn’t. It is certainly the way I’ll do things going forward. I wish I had figured it out a little sooner.

How long did you consult?

Six months. I was part-time consulting. I helped them get through a key financing round and the stars lined up and it was time to jump on board.

What determined whether an emerging company succeeded or failed?

The founders who I saw succeed were founders who were willing to bring others into their inner circle, help them grow to the next level and realize their shortfalls. Other ones weren’t quite so receptive. Some say, “I had to get a chief financial officer because our venture capitalist made me do it.” Others say, “I really need this partner to help me build.” Maybe I could’ve smoked some of those out a bit earlier to make sure they were bringing me on for the reasons that I was looking for — in being part of a team.

What makes a successful chief financial officer?

A lot of people end up having difficulty growing into that broader management role. They get boxed into being just the finance person, whereas I see myself as a key member of the operational team. I just happen to have a financial orientation. I spend less than half my day really working with traditional accounting and finance things.

Any favorite business books?

Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm” and “The Gorilla Game” always hit home. They were the type of companies I was working on at the time.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

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