Academic journal article Journal of Accountancy

CFOs for Hire: The Rewards and Pitfalls of Being an Itinerant Executive

Academic journal article Journal of Accountancy

CFOs for Hire: The Rewards and Pitfalls of Being an Itinerant Executive

Article excerpt

By any objective measure, CPA Cynthia Jamison had built an enviable career. After two years in public accounting, a couple of years as a consultant and several more in corporate accounting, planning and treasury, Jamison secured a series of jobs as CFO for public and private companies--all by age 39. Still, she wasn't quite satisfied. "I was finding that about 12 to 18 months into whatever job I had, I was getting bored," Jamison recalls. "I like problem-solving, and once problems are solved, the CFO role can be a fairly dry one if the company isn't going through a lot of change, growth or contraction.

Eager to build a career that would let her flex her problem-solving skills, in 1999 Jamison joined Tatum CFO Partners, a national partnership of financial professionals who provide CFO services to companies on a permanent or temporary basis. Since then, Jamison has served as CFO at four different companies, each with its own unique set of challenges. "I love what I am doing with Tatum and plan to stay with them to retirement--or until I win the lottery, whichever comes first," she quips. (For more details on Jamison's career, see "Inside an Interim CFO's Whirlwind Career," page 38.)

Jamison is a new breed of CFO: a change agent with a wide range of technical skills who is willing to parachute into a challenging environment, do the heavy lifting and then move on to the next assignment. It's a role that became increasingly popular during the dot-com boom of the 1990s, when scores of young companies long on ambition but short on managerial talent drove demand for finance professionals sky-high.

Today, in the wake of the tech-stock crash and a string of high-profile corporate accounting scandals, temporary CFOs are still finding work, though they are more likely to be helping companies restructure than go public. Their clients range from small companies that need high-level expertise for a particular project to larger companies that must fill the CFO slot quickly and don't have time for a traditional search. A growing number of placement companies are springing up to help them find assignments, including some executive recruiters that have found the interim market too hot to ignore.

For CPAs contemplating life as an itinerant CFO, the road to success begins with understanding what employers want from an interim executive, deciding whether the rewards--and the potential pitfalls--match their own personality and career goals and making the right contacts to win assignments.

WHAT COMPANIES WANT

Companies hire interim CFOs for many reasons, but the catalyst driving that decision almost always falls into one of three categories: They need someone immediately (perhaps the current CFO became ill or left the company), they need someone for a finite period of time (until the company is sold, for example) or they need someone to handle a specific project with a defined end (implementing a new accounting software package, negotiating bank financing or steering the company through a bankruptcy filing). The overarching requirement, in all cases, is to find an interim executive with the appropriate background and expertise who can report for duty almost immediately, sometimes within a few days.

"These companies usually have an urgent problem and need someone right now," confirms Dennis Powers, managing director of the New York office of Executive Interim Management (EIM), which places temporary CFOs and other high-level executives. "Or they don't have a permanent job but a finite piece of work--and don't want to be saddled with the search fees, sign-on bonuses or exit packages that come with a traditional executive search. Or their company may be in an unstable position, which would make it hard to get someone on board on a permanent basis." CPA Neil Lebovits, president and chief operating officer (COO) of placement organization Ajilon Finance (formerly known as Accountants on Call), says it isn't just small companies that hire temporary CFOs. …

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