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Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

Finalists Make Their Pitch to be CFO of the Year

Chief financial officers are typically the backbones of their companies, providing the financial acumen and fiscal discipline that keep their businesses healthy, strong and, hopefully, profitable. And yet, CFOs tend to be among the most unsung and low-profile of all C-level executives.


But that was not the case last week when some of the best and brightest CFOs in San Diego’s business community gathered in La Jolla to sing their own praises. For many, the effort at self-promotion did not come easy.

“I really hate talking about myself. I prefer to be in the background,” said Joanne Sanders, CFO at Vitacup, who helped her company bring in $40 million in multiple rounds of equity raises and cut Vitacup’s cash burn in half during the pandemic.


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Sanders is among the more than two dozen finalists for the San Diego Business Journal’s 2022 CFO of the Year Awards. Now in its 17th year, the CFO awards honor the often-unsung achievements of the region’s chief financial officers, including their contributions to company growth, leadership and community involvement.  

The event, hosted in La Jolla March 3 by presenting sponsors MarshMcLennan Agency, was moderated by Trindl Reeves, MarshMcLennan’s chief sales officer.  

“CFOs tend to be the most underrepresented group on the planet,” Reeves said in introducing this year’s finalists. “You do all the work and you do it quietly.”


Deloitte, PNC, Union Bank and FEI (Financial Executives International’s San Diego chapter) sponsored the pitch competition, which gave the finalists just three minutes each to make their case before the judging panel, which was comprised of Amy Brutto, senior VP at Marsh McLennan Agency; Karen Jones, director at CFO Systems (representing FEI); Alan Prohaska, regional president & head of corporate banking for PNC; Joseph Kight, managing director San Diego for corporate banking at MUFG-Union Bank; and Bruce Rucks, San Diego audit & assurance partner at Deloitte.


Winners, to be named in eight categories, including small, medium and large public and private companies as well as government and nonprofit, will be announced at an awards event to be held Thursday, March 24 at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine.

Making Their Case


At the March 3 finalists’ reception and pitch event, Leilani Marquiss, CFO at the Valley View Casino & Hotel, said, “The last few years have been very difficult for us due to COVID and the nature of our business. We depend on people gathering and we weren’t sure if people would come” when the property reopened following the initial stage of the pandemic outbreak.

But business at the Valley View Casino & Hotel did bounce back after closure orders were lifted and in 2021, Marquiss, a CPA, led the operation to its most profitable year in company history.


“Challenging times brought out creativity and forced us to make changes to our marketing strategy and business model,” Marquiss told the judges.


Derek Dunlap, CFO of Centerpiece Holding LLC, a medical device manufacturer, told the judging panel during his three-minute pitch that businesses today needed to be environmentally focused and then described how he helped his company craft a “green” business plan that was also “economically viable.”


Dunlap also helped Centerpiece raise $30 million in additional funding during 2021.  

“CFOs should be CFOs-plus,” Dunlap said. “They should be good at spread sheets and accounting, but they also need to have vision and be inclusive.”


Michael van Asselt, CFO of National Funding, helped raise $400 million in 2021 for his company, which lends money to small and medium-sized businesses.


“The pandemic has been a very scary time for our business,” van Asselt said. “We’ve had to make some hard choices to protect the financial stability of the company.”


“Money is the lifeblood of any company,” Jannies Burlingame, CFO at Aptera Motors, told the judges during her time at the podium.

Burlingame, a trilingual finance veteran (she speaks Chinese, German and English), has participated in more than a dozen IPOs and actually refers to herself as the “IPO queen.” She said she joined the solar-powered vehicle maker in 2021 with the specific intention of helping founders Chris Anthony and Steve Fambro take Aptera public – either via a traditional IPO or a SPAC merger.

Phillip Unthank, CFO at Manscaped, also described how he was planning to help take his company public later this year via a SPAC merger. During his tenure at the company, Manscaped’s valuation has soared from $3 million to $300 million.

Sam Samad, another finalist for CFO of the Year, joined Illumina as CFO in 2017. His co-workers call him a “strategic visionary and inspirational thought leader.”


“As Illumina’s CFO, Sam has mobilized business success and enabled the organization to scale and sustain our growth to deliver on our mission of improving human health by unlocking the power of the genome,” said Sharon Vidal, global head of corporate social responsibility at Illumina.  

“2021 was breakthrough year for Illumina,” Samad told the judging panel during his turn at the podium. “And we’re on track to see our revenue double over the next five years.”


Last year, Samad helped Illumina deliver year-over-year revenue growth of 40%, reaching more than $4.5 billion in revenue. In addition, he helped Illumina set another company record in 2021, increasing its corporate philanthropy to more than $14 million.  

Reflecting the high level of modesty – and humility – on display at this year’s pitch competition, Samad added: “I’m very proud of our business results, our people and the company’s sustainability efforts. We’ve got a great team at Illumina.”

Winners will be announced on Thursday, March 24, 2022 at the Hyatt Regency La Jolla at Aventine, 3777 La Jolla Village Drive, San Diego. Networking starts at 4 p.m. The program will run from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Networking will continue until 7 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.sdbj.com/2022_CFO_Awards/


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