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New at the top: An appetite for high risk

I think of myself as a serial, high-tech chief financial officer. I’ve primarily focused on emerging growth companies that had some potential. I’ve always enjoyed high-risk environments. Sometimes the companies took off. Sometimes they didn’t. That’s what makes it exciting.

I started off in the public accounting world when Arthur Andersen was the king firm in the District.

I had clients in varied industries including technology, hospitality, and even candy. It was a neat way to sample the industries.

But I always knew I wasn’t going to be a lifetime public accountant.

So a few years later I did the classic jump to a client called Orbital Science. The rocket builder had yet to begin collecting revenue, and we wouldn’t for years. I was a one-man band, running the whole accounting and finance department.

Curley is the new chief financial officer at Modus. (Courtesy of Modus)

I experienced the challenges and joy of working at a 20-person company that grew to a couple thousand when I left seven years later. We had gone through a lot of financing rounds and a public offering.

I learned a great deal. I remember about six months before we went public, the board decided that it wanted to bring in a really seasoned, heavy-weight chief financial officer. As a young guy, my feelings were initially hurt. I felt I could do it all myself.

Looking back, what I learned from the new chief financial officer was game-changing.

Where I initially had resentment, that guy became a great mentor who helped me achieve things I couldn’t achieve on my own. For example, he did the initial public offering, but when we did another one, he let me do it.

By the time I left, I was vice president of accounting with multiple division controllers reporting to me.

But with the great success, the company got big and bureaucratic.

It just wasn’t me.

That’s when I realized that I really like going after these earlier stage, high-risk companies. They are typically three- to five-year projects.

It’s not different from the way venture capitalists often look at an investment. In my case, it’s time. In their case, it’s dollars. It’s that excitement that keeps me going. When it gets routine, it’s time to look for something else.

I worked at a series of other emerging-growth companies. I would help grow them to become profitable and then do subsequent financing events.

The key is putting in the infrastructure to support that growth. A lot of companies end up imploding because they can’t keep up with the growth of the business.

Sometimes you hit a home run. Sometimes it’s a single or a double. Similar to venture capitalists — usually a few big deals will carry their fund and the singles and doubles pay their bills.

I’m still pursuing emerging growth companies. It’s why I was intrigued by Modus. They are revolutionizing an industry that had become complacent in how it dealt with certain issues. They are shaking things up. They’re the rebels in the industry. I like that.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

Stewart D. Curley

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

Career highlights: Chief financial officer and chief operations officer, SecureInfo; chief financial officer, Rivermine; chief financial officer, Plateau Systems; chief financial officer, Digital Paper; chief financial officer, POMS; chief financial officer, Roadshow International; chief financial officer, Orbital Sciences Corp.

Age: 52

Education: BS, Accounting, University of Maryland.

Personal: Lives in Leesburg with wife Debbie and three children.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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