Beacon Behind the Books: Meet Matt Davis, Chief Financial Officer, with Clifford Manko
March 03, 2023
Welcome to our rebooted “Beacon Behind the Books” series! In these times when readers are responding to our books “more than ever,” when our authors—including Aubrey Gordon, Tanya Katerí Hernández, Robin D. G. Kelley, Eboo Patel, and Gayl Jones—are appearing in the media, their ideas going viral on social media, their voices being heard on so many platforms, we thought it would be good to take a break to focus on some of the staff who work hard to find, shape, edit, produce, and promote those works. Our blog series introduces to you a staff member and gives you a behind-the-scenes look, department by department, at what goes on at our office.
For the month of March, we have a special joint profile. We introduce you to Matt Davis, who is taking the reins as chief financial officer as Clifford Manko retires this spring. We are so grateful for everything Cliff has done for us in these past seven years and wish him the happiest retirement!
We begin with Matt and then on to Cliff, who will share some parting words.
What drew you to publishing, Matt? How did you find your way to Beacon?
I never planned on a career in publishing. After working in public accounting, I was offered a position at The Thomson Corporation in their publishing division. I thought I would try that for a few years and move onto something else. Shortly afterwards, I moved to their educational publishing group and ended up there for the next thirty years.
I come from a family that works in the education field in various ways. My mother was a school librarian; my father sold institutional furniture to school districts—i.e. desks, chairs, bookcases, etc. (I spent a few college breaks unloading tractor trailers of furniture for the company). My brother does genetic research work for NC State University, and I have a sister and a couple nieces who are schoolteachers.
Cliff and I know each other from Cengage. I was part of the team that worked with Cliff integrating Houghton Mifflin College after Cengage acquired it. Cliff then joined Cengage a year after the acquisition, and we worked together for the next five years. When I was leaving Cengage, I reached out to Cliff, who let me know he was retiring in the spring of 2023, and his position would be opening up.
What’s a typical day in the life of a chief financial officer?
The first thing I do each morning is to look at the month’s sales and how we are trending for the month. Throughout the day, I may have discussions with sales to understand what they are hearing from customers, editorial on the status of projects, and production on inventory levels and printing decisions.
What are some of the challenges of being a chief financial officer? What do you find most rewarding?
When overseeing the financial aspects of the business, there are two primary activities. First is “closing the books” on the prior months’ financial activities, and the second is forecasting the future months. Each month, we summarize our financial results and review what went well and what didn’t. Next, I take that information and forecast with the goal of spotting any potential issues that may be on the horizon. Identifying them early gives us time to address them appropriately.
Building forecast models is what I enjoy most, using historical trends to predict the future results and testing possible scenarios.
You’ve given lectures. Tell us more about those experiences and how they add to your work.
I recently gave a lecture at Emerson College on the business of Higher Education Publishing and how the business model has changed over the last 10 years with the transition to digital courseware products and subscription services.
What is one book on our list that has influenced your thinking on a particular issue?
I have not read many Beacon books (yet). Since I’ve started, I’ve read Man’s Search for Meaning because it is one of our most popular books. I lean toward books about WWII, initially focusing on battles and strategy but then moved onto topics regarding espionage and the resistance, the experiences of Holocaust and POW survivors, and post-war impacts.
How much of what you learned in college and/or graduate school have you found vital to your work?
I think the most important skill learned in college was time management. There are always things you want to do and things you must do. Scheduling out your time allows you to achieve both goals.
What upcoming projects are you excited about?
The finance team is working on the fiscal year 2024 budget. I’m in the process of understanding the key metrics of Beacon and how to forecast the next twelve months.
What do you wish someone had told you about publishing when you were entering the industry?
I never knew how incestuous this industry was. While I don’t have experience in other industries to compare, I’m amazed how many people know each other in publishing.
What skills have you taken from previous jobs to help you do your work at Beacon?
Ask questions and listen to people. I may not be the most talkative person, but I am listening to what you are saying.
What other departments does your department interact with? And how?
Typically, sales, editorial, and production. I’m constantly reviewing sales trends and product mix to understand how that may impact the financials of the business. Also making sure we don’t have too much or too little inventory.
Favorite thing about Boston (or your remote home base)?
I spent the first twenty-five years of my adult life in the NYC metro area and the last ten years in Boston. The people of Boston are nicer and more considerate of others.
With apologies to any vegetarian or vegans, I really enjoy a good steak.
Best vacation destination?
When I was very young, we used to go to Biddeford Pool, Maine, each summer, but then my family moved from Massachusetts to Connecticut, and that stopped. In 2011, my siblings decided to resurrect this, so each September, we rent a house and take our families (around eighteen people) and spend the weekend together.
What are you reading right now?
I’m between books right now, but the last two books I’ve read are Freezing Order by Bill Browder, which is a follow up to his prior book about uncovering corruption in Russia, and The Splendid and the Vile about Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister.
In an alternate universe, what career would you have?
What’s the next queued song on your music player?
I grew up in the 80s so I have a lot of Journey, Van Halen, and Bruce Springsteen. The next song up is Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.”
Favorite book ever?
To Kill a Mockingbird.
Hobbies outside of work?
I enjoy being outside, so if I’m not playing golf, I’m usually working on my yard.
Favorite song/album/type of music?
Growing up, I shared a bedroom with a brother, who had a wide assortment of musical interests. I grew up listening to rock, Broadway musicals, and classical music. I generally listen to rock, but I do know all the songs from The Sound of Music.
I generally don’t listen to podcasts, but I have listened to a few of Conan O’Brien’s.
Name three things at your workstation that you can’t live without.
Coffee cup, wireless mouse (I don’t like touchpads), and reading glasses.
Do you still have a commute to work? If not, do you miss it? What do/did you like to do to pass the time?
I’m currently commuting two days a week. I don’t miss commuting but live on the South Shore, so I take the Hingham Ferry to Boston. If you have a commute, I think that is the best way to do it. I typically use the commuting time to catch up on news, so I will listen to news on my airpods while reading news stories on my phone.
And now a word from Cliff Manko.
It’s hard to believe it is time to say goodbye. These past seven years flew quickly and were very meaningful to me.
The two biggest events for me during my tenure were the impact on Beacon Press from the 2016 National Election and from COVID. With regards to the 2016 election, the issues that Beacon and its authors have addressed for decades rose to a new level of contentiousness—race, immigration, LGBTQ, and the environment to name a few. I was moved at the depth of emotion and commitment, both at Beacon and the UUA organization, to keep its books and values front and center. As for COVID, if someone had told me that in March 2020 the world would shut down and Beacon would move to remote operations for over two years, I would have been incredulous. The Press had to reinvent itself, and a new work model is emerging from COVID. Sometimes, I step back and smile as I reflect on how I commuted five days a week for nearly all my career—and wore a suit and tie every day for the first twenty years.
It was interesting for me to read what I’d written in August 2017. I mentioned the Biblio implementation in motion. That has become our day-to-day toolset. In connection with going live with Biblio, we migrated everyone to laptops. When I reflect on COVID and our sudden move to remote operations, I realize how fortunate we were to have Biblio implemented, staff trained in it, and all staff with laptops. Hard to imagine how our publishing operations could have worked without that in place. Our production team did heroic work handling reprints during a period of vendor stress and historic reprint volume. I also discussed how, as CFO, I face the continuous need to get good data and scrub it with colleagues across all departments to make decisions. That continued to be where I spent a lot of time and am grateful to the business office for its work on our many data dives and support from Beacon departments. I also want to acknowledge the challenges the business office had to address during COVID with key workflows, like bill paying and month end accounting to name a few.
I wish my successor, Matt Davis, great success as our new CFO. I met him in 2008 when my business unit at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was sold to Cengage Learning. I later joined Cengage Learning, and Matt and I worked together there for five years. He brings many years of publishing and finance expertise to Beacon Press. I know he will make a great contribution.