SAN FRANCISCO – Ali Rowghani got a voice mail on his mobile phone from Steve Jobs on a Saturday in early 2010. The Apple co-founder wanted to keep Rowghani, then chief financial officer at Walt Disney Co.s Pixar, from leaving to become finance chief at Twitter.
Jobs, who also led Pixar before selling it to Disney, made several calls, as did Disney Chief Executive Officer Bob Iger, said a person with knowledge of the matter who asked not to be identified because the interchange was private. Rowghani left anyway.
This company is already like world famous and making this massive impact and has clearly touched this nerve, Rowghani remembers saying about Twitter at the time. I didnt think Id encounter opportunities like that very frequently.
At his new employer, Rowghani, 39, has assumed a broader range of responsibilities than the typical number-crunching CFO, holding sway over partnerships and global expansion. While Rowghani also handles finances, hes one of the closest advisers to CEO Dick Costolo, and he will figure more prominently as the microblogging service seeks to fend off competition while heading for an eventual initial public offering.
Alis brought terrific business judgment to the company, said Peter Currie, a private investor who is on Twitters board. He thinks broadly. He doesnt think just from the point of view from his position as CFO.
Executives have declined to speculate on a timetable for an IPO. For now, the company is focused on attracting users and finding ways to generate revenue from advertisers eager to reach Twitters audience of more than 140 million people. The company is forecasting at least $1 billion in sales in 2014, two people with knowledge of the matter said in June. That was about twice the prediction at the time from EMarketer.
Aside from helping Twitter grapple with such companies as Facebook and Google, Rowghanis bigger challenge will come in navigating the San Francisco company toward an IPO. He hasnt guided a new company through the process and has little experience holding the top finance job at a publicly traded company.
Twitter will probably be the biggest consumer-Web company to make a market debut since Facebook, which has lost half its value since May 17, when it went public with too high a price set by its finance chief, David Ebersman, along with advisers. Rowghani will need to set Twitters price high enough to secure the funding Twitter needs without giving it a loftier valuation than it deserves.
Like Facebook, Twitter will be a very high-profile consumer IPO and will be scrutinized even more closely as a result of Facebooks missteps, said Lise Buyer, principal at Class V Group in Portola Valley, Calif. The CFO is the member of the management team who is most deeply involved in the process from start to finish.
In a recent example of Rowghanis widening remit, he was given oversight of business development and partnerships, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
Hes a calm and strategic thinker, CEO Costolo said. Hes been incredibly helpful to me in driving operating leverage and operating efficiency across the company.
Relations with partners havent always gone smoothly. The company said this year its tightening rules on how Twitters Tweets could be used on other sites. It forced companies such as LinkedIn to pull Twitter postings and it rankled partners, including Instapaper, maker of a news-archiving application.
Effectively, Twitter can decide your app is breaking a (potentially vague) rule at any time, or they can add a new rule that your app inadvertently breaks, Marco Arment, Instapapers founder, wrote in a blog. Theyve always had this power. But now we know that theyll use it in ways that we really dont agree with.
While the rules left other companies dismayed, it also gave Twitter more control over its content – and the ability to wring sales from users tweets.
Born in Iran and raised in Dallas, Rowghani was a Fulbright scholar and a McKinsey & Co. consultant before attending Stanford for graduate work. He joined Pixar in 2001.
Rowghani showed an interest in the details of every aspect of the business in addition to the numbers, said Ed Catmull, president of Disney Animation and Pixar.
Here, we give a lot of credibility if the leaders roll up their sleeves and dive in and do real work, it just means they know whats going on, Catmull said.
That knowledge helped Rowghani spearhead an effort to reduce film costs as the studio stepped up movie output.
I was trying to bring a more systematic-like business-driven intuition to answering those questions about how the movie comes together, Rowghani said. You can have a process and have creativity at the same time. Its not like one squashes the other.
That combination of skills made him an attractive candidate for Twitter, said Peter Fenton, a Twitter board member. Rowghani helped the company implement its advertising strategy, Fenton said. Twitter announced its first advertising services in April 2010 and has been expanding them ever since.
Ali says, Lets lay out our ideas, whats going to scale, whats going to work, Fenton said. Rowghani worked with Costolo to turn them into a framework for how we would scale the revenue of Twitter.
Rowghani played a key role in lining up the venture capital round from DST Global and other existing investors that valued Twitter at about $8 billion last year.
The discipline that Ali brought to the fundraising was really an internal discipline – which is, if they raise money at a certain valuation, they needed to understand how they were going to deliver, Currie said.
Rowghani also had oversight of Twitters international expansion plans for about nine months, when management debated whether to form a partnership or joint venture with a local company to help lure users in Japan.
Rowghani pushed for the company to stay independent to retain control over its future, according to a person with knowledge of the deliberations. Rowghanis view prevailed.
While hes willing to speak his mind, Rowghani is also affable, with a boisterous laugh that fills conversations at meals, said David Fischer, vice president of business and marketing partnerships at Facebook, who became friends with Rowghani at Stanford.
Hes just unendingly friendly and upbeat and cheerful, Fischer said, a humble and down-to-earth guy.
Rowghani is known for big dinner parties at his home in San Franciscos East Bay, said another Stanford friend, Roy Gilbert. When his mother visited, Rowghani hosted more than 100 guests. His mom ladled out authentic Persian food while guests hung out on a large balcony overlooking the Oakland Hills and the San Francisco Bay.
That friendliness extends to the workplace, including when he was at Pixar, said Oren Jacob, former chief technology officer at Pixar.
He understands how to strike the very careful balance between the creative needs of a project, with the attention to financial management, Jacob said, to walk both of those – a content and a management space at the same time – and have enough appreciation for both sides of that coin.