The Temporary Executive

An average of 5.6 million executive temps are at work every business day. Is this option a good one for you or your company?
BY MARLENE PITURRO

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
  • A GROWING NUMBER OF FINANCIAL PROFESSIONALS are seeking temporary rather than permanent positions. Executives and professionals now make up 7% of the temporary workforce. Financial temps can earn between $200 and $1,500 a day, depending on local business conditions and the temp’s skills.
  • A TEMP CAN FILL A KEY ORGANIZATIONAL NEED until the company finds a permanent replacement. Most temporary executives work on specific initiatives, filling a company’s short-term needs rather than its long-term goals. Top management, when uncertain about a new hire or about the need for a position, can bring in a temp on a trial basis.

  • FINANCIAL PROFESSIONALS WHO BECOME TEMPS may be financially independent because of generous severance packages but feel that they are too young to retire. Others have been downsized and can’t find permanent work. Still others chose interim positions in early or mid-career to balance lifestyle and professional goals.

MARLENE PITURRO, PhD, MBA, is a business journalist and organizational consultant in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, Managed Healthcare News, CFO, PWC’S BEAN (online) and Public Issues.

hether the executives and professionals who now make up 7% of the temporary workforce are voting with their feet or landing on them, a growing cadre of financial personnel are choosing a different way of life—temp work. The temporary executive topped the 1997 list of hot jobs for Cleveland-based executive recruiters Christian & Timbers. Financial temps can earn between $200 and $1,500 a day, depending on the local business environment and the consultant's skills. Below the controller and CFO level, demand for accounting department temps is highest for accounts receivable (21%), accounts payable (15%) and payroll (15%) skills.

Interim financial-management positions become available when a merger, consolidation, bankruptcy, IPO or system or project implementation strain a company's workforce. A temporary financial executive can fill such a job to meet a company's short-term needs while management looks for a permanent incumbent or decides whether it even wants to staff the position. CPAs may take temp work because they feel free to try exciting new projects after a lucrative success, they want to balance lifestyle and professional goals in early or mid career or they simply have to deal with having been downsized.

Executive temp wages were $2.8 billion in 1998, up 800% since 1991.
—Bureau of Labor Statistics

Average daily financial temping grew 10% in the fourth quarter of 1998
compared to the same period the previous year.
—Bureau of Labor Statistics

Pay scales vary widely, in a range of 110% to 150% of salary,
with agencies getting a 30% commission.
—Robert Half International

FAR FROM ORDINARY

Most financial temps have had careers in corporations or public accounting. Many have shepherded their former companies through mergers and acquisitions, doing such a good job that they're now out of work. Some have decided they don't care for office politics. They are all part of a growing movement toward nontraditional employment for CPAs and other accounting professionals. Armed with their knowledge and experience, they find the challenge of bringing a fresh perspective to helping an organization achieve positive results very appealing.

Their stories vary. One CFO helped three different entrepreneurs bring business ideas to fruition, working with venture capitalists and then in IPOs. Another helped a restaurant chain reorganize after bankruptcy while his wife, a doctor, waited for her visa to come through so they could make a planned move to Africa. Another works part-time for a small investment firm being acquired by a foreign bank and she gets to spend time with her new baby. What these three CFOs have in common is that they are temps, or "interim executive personnel," in human resources professional parlance.

Financial temping won't bring lucrative stock options or golden parachutes (although there are some perks), but it does afford interesting and varied options—and respect. An accountant who steps into a critical situation on a short-term basis is a far cry from an ordinary temp. Ed Ryan, Manhattan-based managing director of Executive Interim Management U.S.A., a division of Zurich-headquartered Egon Zehnder International, placed an interim CFO in the food industry. The job? To consolidate three plants into two, in preparation for a merger. "This was a project-driven assignment, one that benefited from the unbiased approach of the temporary CFO," Ryan says.

Useful Web Sites
Access to seven temporary accounting agencies www.4temps.com
Accountants on Call www.aocnet.com
Acsys, Inc. www.acsysinc.com
Christian & Timbers www.ctnet.com
Interim Services, Inc. www.interim.com
National Association of Temporary Staffing Services www.natss.org
Robert Half International www.rhii.com ; Accountemps www.accountemps.com  
Strategic Staffing, Inc. www.ssistaffing.com
Tatum CFO Partners www.tatumcfo.com

BIG PICTURE

Accountants on Call, a New Jerseybased firm that specializes in placing financial temps, from accounting clerks to CFOs, has seen demand grow during the present economic boom. "We're in a long up cycle, and using accounting temps judiciously allows companies flexibility in staffing," says Bill DeMario, a regional vice-president in Burbank, California.

DeMario sets accounting temps apart from their administrative and clerical peers. "Accountants have higher-level skill sets and we perform value-added services for companies when we place them," he says.

DeMario sees accounting professionals in various stages of the career cycle. Some entry level people use temping as a way to sound out employment options. About 20% to 30% want a permanent job and temp until they are hired, while others have been downsized or are semi-retired and are using temping as a way to stay professionally active. "Then we have several brands of temp lifers," says DeMario. "Some couple accounting with their avocations, whether it's screenwriting or music. Others are balancing work and family or have quality-of-life issues. Still others are in constant pursuit of the permanent dream job."

John Iezzi, CPA and president of Fifty-Plus Professionals, a Richmond, Virginia, temp agency for financial and other professionals over 50, encounters mostly older people who have had successful careers. "Most of the CPAs I see have been downsized, with good severance packages and benefits, but they want to stay in the business world," he says.

Iezzi has had the best results placing accountants in temp positions when the hirer is an executive or entrepreneur in his or her 20s or 30s, in a high-tech firm, who sees the value of a temp controller or CFO as a mentor. "He or she needs a second lieutenant, someone who can do pro formas or guide the business through an IPO."

Although some Fifty-Plus Professionals workers are interested only in short-term assignments, most want to be hired eventually. "Basically, the employers want to try before they buy. They can tell in six to eight weeks if our person will work out," says Iezzi.

CFOs for Hire

I n 1996 John Tatum, a CPA and attorney, formed Tatum CFO Partners in Atlanta, with seven other ex-CFOs who had been downsized. "I realized that we had supercharged CFOs and all this intellectual capital that we could transfer to other companies," says Tatum, who is 38.

Since then, the firm has grown to 140 partners in 10 cities, working at all kinds of companies, from venture-backed start-ups to multinational corporations. According to Tatum, 30% of placements are interim CFOs, 25% each are project work or part-time permanent positions, with the balance going temp-to-hire. To sharpen their business skills, the partners use a secure Intranet to take courses and get reading material on a variety of subjects.

Tatum has served as an interim CFO in several health care companies since founding the partnership, including Environmental Medicine Resources, Inc.; Oncology Partners, Inc.; and Flightline Group, Inc.

"This is not a semi-retirement thing," he says. "This is interesting and challenging work for CFOs who don't want to be traditional employees anymore."

MIXED RESULTS

Temporary work brings both rewards and challenges. Patrick Nolan, a partner of Atlanta-based Tatum CFO Partners (see "CFOs for Hire," above), lives in Palm Beach, Florida, but is on assignment in Illinois. Nolan, who retired at 60 in 1997 as CFO of Levitz Furniture, worked at Citicorp as well.

After fulfilling a lifelong dream by taking a leisurely trip through Southeast Asia, Nolan decided he wanted to stay in his profession but still have some freedom. Through Tatum CFO he has taken on the role of CFO at three companies, "and there has been no problem outsourcing the CFO function." He gets an appropriate salary with benefits until he finishes the job and then he moves on.

Nolan admits that his temp assignments don't bring the $350,000 salary plus perks that he got for his full-time corporate gigs because smaller companies can't afford it. Nevertheless, "I enjoy keeping my professional skills sharp and helping smaller companies get their financial houses in order."

Things haven't gone quite as smoothly for Don Weaver, a 54-year-old CPA who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina. Weaver was a partner at Deloitte & Touche from 1974 to 1988, then left public accounting for the first of several corporate CFO positions.

In the late 1980s through the mid-1990s, Weaver got caught in three successive downsizings, including his last full-time employment, where he was a CFO for three years. "They asked me to move to Charlotte from South Carolina because I was in line to become the CEO. When the incumbent died of a massive heart attack in May 1998, the new CEO replaced all senior managers, including me," says Weaver.

Although his last employer gave Weaver a large severance package, he feels much too young to retire and still wants to be a CEO. Hoping that temping will lead to a permanent position, he has signed up with two agencies—Tatum CFO and Robert Half International—but has not yet received assignments. Internet research turned up project work in Raleigh, where he structured joint ventures. Despite limited success with temp CFO work, Weaver intends to keep at it. "Even if interim work isn't all-consuming, it can still help me stay in the hunt," he says.

The Networking Route  

P aul Colao worked in public accounting and in industry before relocating to the Boston area to move into the region's burgeoning high-tech industry. By networking with contacts from past positions, Colao became a part-time CFO for two young software companies, WOLF Technology, a developer of digital color printing, and Framework Technologies, which does Web site engineering. He provided the financial skills such companies often lack as they make the transition from start-up to full-fledged businesses.

"I introduced myself around to venture capitalists, figuring they could use my financial expertise," says Colao. "It's unlikely that company founders would be financial people, so there were plenty of openings." He worked on an interim basis with venture capitalists, then helped out in the early stages of promising start-ups. The new company appointed Colao temporary full- or part-time CFO. In some cases, he says, "They couldn't afford me full-time, and they really didn't need a full-time CFO."

With several temp CFO assignments under his belt, in December 1997, Colao ultimately became the permanent, full-time CFO of Altiga Networks, another Boston area high-tech start-up. "Our revenue prospects are good, and the chemistry is great."

While temping, Colao's prorated compensation averaged between 110% and 120% of salary, to cover self-employment taxes and health benefits. About CPA temping as a way of life, he says: "This is a good solution for people who like flexibility in their careers to participate in a booming economy."

THE AGENCY FACTOR

Although some accountants can network their way to temp and even temp-to-hire positions (see "The Networking Route," below) most depend on agencies to beat the bushes for them and to provide a paycheck.

Interim Services, Inc., a publicly traded agency based in Fort Lauderdale, is a full-service temp agency with a division that caters to financial professionals. According to CPA Mitch Halbrich, an Interim director based in Baltimore, his office has been placing financial temps for several years, but "we really started expanding the practice in September 1998. We used to have one or two active candidates at any time. Now it's 15 or 16, earning $50 an hour and up," he says.

Demand for financial temps is snowballing right now because of several trends, Halbrich explains. One is the popularity of project work. "A company will need someone for six months to help meet FASB requirements or for a budget implementation, and then the job's finished," says Halbrich. Companies in transition need a seasoned controller or CFO during a merger, consolidation or sale. "Clearly, there's not a permanent need for a CFO to handle that sort of deal," he adds. On the other hand, he says, a transitional situation such as a start-up offers "a good possibility for a candidate to become permanent."

Companies subject to varying business cycles are another good market for temp financial professionals. "Generally, when a company has business fluctuations, it wants a real heavyweight who can roll up his or her sleeves and finish a short-term assignment." These professionals can help during any turbulent period, such as a downturn or a growth spurt or during a merger.

On the job seeker's side, Halbrich sees a wide range of young and mid-career accounting professionals in addition to downsized workers and early retirees. "Most of our professionals are seven or eight years into their careers, earning $75,000 to $80,000 and up," says Halbrich. He cites one 35-year-old ex-controller, "a venture capitalist who is between deals and has a new baby at home." Working 30 hours a week on a flexible schedule, he's helping Deutsche Bank through its acquisition of a small brokerage firm. Others are CPAs just leaving corporations or the Big Five firms to strike out on their own and using temp work to stay afloat until their businesses take off.

Hands-on Opportunity  

F or one CPA, temping has offered a chance to gain experience and expand her skills. Erin Corsair worked for a Big Five firm in Washington after getting her MBA in 1996. Although she found the job dynamic and rewarding, she ultimately tired of the 70- to 80-hour weeks plus job-related travel. After 2 1/2 years on the fast track "the physical and mental demands of the job caught up with me. I needed time to reevaluate my career options."

She contacted headhunters to see if they offered contract consulting, and although most did not, she eventually was referred to an executive temp agency. Asked about her dream job, she requested something that would use her consulting skills in business process reengineering, cost/benefit analysis and best practices. In two weeks, she landed a 6- to 18-month assignment in a utility holding company's six-person strategy group, which allows her to use those skills.

Corsair had some reservations about the loss of a steady paycheck and benefits, but the contract's salary is hefty enough to cover health insurance (which didn't cost as much as she thought, because COBRA rates applied) and her IRA.

After a month on the job, she believes the utility company will be a good fit. "I was afraid that going to the same office every day would be boring after the dynamic consulting environment, but I actually enjoy working with the same group of people. Since all of our projects are strategic, involving short-term problem-solving, I'm never bored." She's unsure whether she will take a permanent position with the utility or use this experience as a stepping stone to something else. For now, it's an opportunity to evaluate career options, including the possibility of starting her own business.

THE GREATEST BENEFITS

Before registering with an agency, prospective temp executives should ask about agency policies on

  • Pay scale.
  • Handling of taxes and other withholding issues.
  • Health and insurance benefits coverage.
  • Vacation and holiday pay.
  • Training opportunities.
  • Procedures when a temp accepts a permanent position with the employer.
  • Resume and interviewing makeovers.
Networking Tips
  • If you've worked with an executive recruiter, touch base and ask for leads to temp agencies specializing in accounting professionals.
  • If startup firms appeal, participate in venture capital forums and networking groups.
  • If you've been downsized, work with your outplacement consultant to contact appropriate temp agencies.
  • Contact the same companies you would if you were looking for a permanent position, offering your services on a "try-before-you-buy" basis.
  • Check the Internet for free e-cruiting listings.
  • Check the yellow pages under "executive search consultants" and "interim executive resources."
  • Participate in professional societies and business networking groups.
  • Invest in a resource: Executive Temporary Placement Firms , from Kennedy Publications in New Hampshire: 800-531-0007.

As is the case with many agencies, Interim allows its temps to buy low-cost health and disability insurance, offers direct payroll deposit, has a stock purchase plan after 12 months and 1,000 hours of service, and candidate and client referral bonuses. Similarly, Fifty-Plus Professionals puts the temp on payroll and pays federal, state, unemployment taxes and worker compensation. Benefits include vacation pay and partial payment of the temp's existing medical insurance premium. If the temp has no insurance, the agency provides information on the most competitive individual insurance plans.

Before landing an assignment, temps may be tested to gauge their skills. To best match the prospective temp with the right job, Accountants on Call puts candidates through a thorough assessment process, looking both for their accounting knowledge and facility with accounting software. "Most have some transferable software skills, and if they have gaps in one or more programs we provide them with tutorials to make them more marketable," DeMario says.

Although agencies may promise software training, CPAs should find out when that benefit becomes available. Don Weaver complains that the agencies he has dealt with erect a barrier before temps are allowed to take proprietary online courses to upgrade skills in computer software such as Oracle and SAP. "You have to log 100 hours of work with them before you can take these courses. I think it would be helpful to have access to them first. It makes you more valuable to an employer."

So how can temps learn whether temporary assignments are right for them? DeMario advises accounting professionals to start by contacting several temp executive agencies to get a feel for what kinds of jobs are available, including pay scale and benefits. "Financial temping is very sensitive to factors in the local marketplace, so you should try to talk to consultants and other accounting temps in your local area," he says. DeMario points out that while temping isn't for every financial professional, "It's an ideal way to expose yourself to new companies and new technologies. If you can embrace change, it's a fulfilling work option."

For more information...
Accountants 4 Contract

100 Bush Street #210
San Francisco, California 94104
415-781-8644

Accountants on Call

Park 80 West Plaza 2
Saddle Brook, New Jersey 07663
201-843-0006

Executive Interim Management—USA

350 Park Ave., 8th Floor
New York, New York 10022
212-519-6006

Interim Services, Inc.

120 East Baltimore Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21202
410-752-8914

Robert Half International

Accountemps Division
2884 Sand Hill Road
Menlo Park, California 94025
800-803-8367

Tatum CFO Partners, LLP

100 Galleria Parkway, Suite 400
Atlanta, Georgia 30339
800-828-8623

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