How to make a splash in consulting in career’s final act

BY KEN TYSIAC

In an uncertain economy, many CFOs are eyeing consulting as a possible career path as they approach retirement.

It’s a path Thomas Rhine, CPA, CGMA, is glad he followed after spending years as a senior finance officer in the higher education industry.

“The transition, for me, it felt like a custom-measured glove,” Rhine said in an interview.

Three-fourths of more than 2,100 U.S. CFOs said in a recent survey by staffing services firm Robert Half that they find the prospect of consulting when they approach retirement years at least somewhat attractive.

More than half (58%) said they find consulting somewhat attractive, and 17% said they find it very attractive. Just 23% said consulting is not at all attractive.

“Financial professionals who are ready for a change but don’t want to retire often choose consulting as their next career step,” Paul McDonald, a Robert Half senior executive director, said in a news release. “Project work provides intellectual challenge, the opportunity to take on new types of assignments, and the ability to mentor others.”

Rhine is a former CFO who has found a comfortable niche for himself as a consultant and provider of interim CFO services. He was in his mid-50s and had been CFO for four years and controller for six previous years for Wilmington College (now Wilmington University) in Delaware when his wife, Barbara, learned she was terminally ill in 2005.

He quit his job to become her full-time caregiver. She died in 2008, and when he was ready to return to work, he decided he would rather work as a consultant than be on somebody’s payroll. As Thomas E. Rhine Inc., he supplies interim CFO and financial consulting work, primarily in the education and not-for-profit sectors.

Rhine enjoys being a consultant because he believes companies sometimes don’t take full advantage of their own internal talent. He said that as a consultant, he finds his clients are respectful of his experience and appreciate his skills.

Meanwhile, he can work at his own pace.

“I select what I want to do,” Rhine said. “If it turns out there’s not a fit or if I’ve got an environmental problem, an ethical problem, a respect problem, I can just shake everybody’s hands and say, ‘Adieu.’ ”

Rhine offers the following tips for successful consulting:

1. Build relationships. Rhine gets most of his business through personal contacts and knowledge of his reputation in the industry he serves. “The trick when you retire is to get that first assignment,” he said.

2. Get a good fit. One key to this is making sure the personalities of the consultant and the client match. Choosing a project that matches your skills is important, too. “You’re not doing it just because you need a couple bucks in the bank. Do it because it fits your skill set; it’s what turns you on and makes you happy,” Rhine said.

3. Keep current. Maintaining compliance with continuing professional education requirements and monitoring trends in the sector or industry you are serving keep your skills in good shape, Rhine said.

4. Be patient but confident. Rhine had an hour to interview with the CEO of a prospective client. He told the CEO in four minutes what the organization’s problem was and how Rhine could fix it. There was an awkward silence after that, but he got the job. “You’ve got to sell yourself and your skill set,” he said.

5. Don’t do hired gun work. On multiple occasions, organizations have tried to hire Rhine with the instructions that he should fire staff members. “I say, ‘No, I don’t do that,’ ” Rhine said. “I’ll evaluate that person, and I’ll let you know if they should be fired or not. But I’m not doing it as a condition of walking in the door.” Many times, Rhine said, the problem is with leadership and not the employee.

Ken Tysiac ( ktysiac@aicpa.org ) is a JofA senior editor.

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