y 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 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. ”)
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.
“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. “A common phenomenon over the last couple of years has been for large companies to hire interim CFOs, not at the global level, but at the division level,” he says.
Companies hiring interim CFOs typically want the executive to have prior experience as a CFO, though not always. Communications skills are at a premium, as are computer skills. “It helps if the person has been successful parachuting into multiple cultures,” says Powers. “If he or she has done turnarounds, that’s helpful, too. We certainly want to see evidence the person has gone in and made changes, as opposed to being caretakers. And all must have roll-up-your-sleeves capabilities and not just be delegators or managers.” Adds Powers: “You really have to focus on execution, implementation and pulling the trigger. You have to be decisive and fearless; you can’t suffer from analytical paralysis.”
Companies that place interim executives generally find them by networking with their contacts in the accounting and legal fields, but they also consider candidates who submit resumes. CPA Bill Tennison, currently CFO and COO for The Salem Group Inc., a seller of midrange computers and related services based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says he won several interim CFO assignments by responding to help-wanted ads at the job-search Web site www.monster.com . In fact, Tennison found his current job this way after Ajilon Finance posted the position there on Salem Group’s behalf. Tennison took the job on a temporary basis in October 2002 and was named the company’s permanent CFO/COO in December.
A typical temporary assignment lasts from 3 to 12 months. While most engagements do not lead to permanent jobs, some do. Paul McDonald, executive director of placement company Robert Half Management Resources, a division of temporary-help giant Robert Half International, says about half of his company’s clients want CFOs who can take an interim assignment and then, if things work out, convert to permanent status.
By contrast, EIM’s Powers says less than 20% of his company’s placements turn into permanent assignments, in part because EIM discourages it. “If you’re hiring a change agent, you want a person who is going to call things as he or she sees them rather than worry about self-interest,” Powers says. When companies do hire one of EIM’s interim executives permanently, he adds, they pay EIM a traditional search fee—and a higher one than usual if the executive is someone who has been working with EIM for a long time.
WHAT’S IN IT FOR YOU?
Paul Myers, a CPA who has held two interim CFO jobs in the past five years, says he initially took temporary assignments as a stopgap measure after quitting a job that didn’t challenge him. Since then, he has come to embrace contract work as a way of life. “When I first started, I was not very happy,” Myers recalls, “because I didn’t have a lot of experience doing it, so I took positions just to make some money and put something on my resume,” he recalls. “Now I have a whole list of credentials; I’ve increased the scope and difficulty of my assignments, and I’ve gotten to the point where, when I come to work each day, it’s something I enjoy. I don’t even search for full-time work anymore.” Since 2000, Myers has been working on a variety of interim financial consulting assignments—albeit not as CFO—for an Iowa money manager.
Pay rates for interim CFOs range over a wide scale, just as they do for permanent CFO positions. Typically, says Powers, experienced executives will earn more per day in an interim role—his CFOs typically make about $1,000 a day—than they will in a permanent position, but may earn less or more over the course of a year depending upon how full they keep their dance card. What’s missing, in many cases, are the extras that can come with a permanent position at a larger company, such as bonuses and, particularly, stock options. “You have to make sure your project rates make up for that,” says CPA Maureen Cook, a Minnesotan who’s been doing contract work for the past six years, including two stints as an interim CFO.
Not surprisingly, the scariest part of contract work for many interim CFOs is wondering where their next assignment is coming from, and how soon. That may not be much of an issue for someone who would otherwise be retired, but it can be a big concern for younger professionals. “If you’re an empty nester, it’s a much easier transition because you’re not relying on cash flow to pay tuition and all the other expenses that go with raising a family. And, it’s hoped, you have some retirement income built up as well,” says Tennison, who’s worked both sides of the fence. “But if you’re looking to maintain a livelihood, you need to be hooked up with three or four consulting companies. Having done both, I prefer long-term over interim work.”
To cope with the uncertainty of contract work, most interim executives take advantage of the marketing capabilities of placement agencies. Signing up with a placement company costs the individual nothing; the corporations that hire these workers pay all the fees. While executives may incur travel and lodging expenses in fulfilling an assignment, they typically are reimbursed by the client company.
On the bright side, many successful interim CFOs report that finding work hasn’t been a problem. Jamison says that over the past four years, she has spent virtually no time not working, except by choice. Ditto for Paul Myers. Cook adds the notion that a permanent job offers more security than an interim one is probably less accurate now than it was in the past. “What’s the average life expectancy of a job now?” Cook asks. “I don’t think there are any guarantees. I’m not seeing 30-year employees anywhere. A staff job might be more permanent than an 11-month assignment, but it’s probably not going to last longer than five to seven years.”
That said, Cook does warn that contract work can prove unattractive not only to accountants who don’t like its tenuous nature, but also to those who want the career accolades associated with traditional employment. “I find project work fulfilling in part because I had already completed what I would call climbing the corporate ladder,” she says. Cook started her career as a public accountant with Arthur Andersen and subsequently joined Apogee Enterprises in Minneapolis, where, over the course of 15 years, she rose from accounting manager to vice-president and CFO of its architectural products and services division. She currently works for a financial services firm in Minneapolis, where, following the company’s merger, she’s leading a project to integrate disparate budgeting systems.
To find interim engagements, CPAs should network within their professional organizations and contact placement agencies, talking not only with placement specialists but also with other executives who’ve taken interim CFO positions through them. (For a list of resources, see the exhibit below.) And because different placement companies operate on different business models, CPAs who use them should understand those differences and how they can affect their careers. As previously noted, for example, Robert Half is happy to place executives in temporary engagements intended to segue into permanent assignments, while EIM, which doesn’t consider itself a placement agency because it assumes responsibility for the engagement, discourages the practice. Tatum CFO Partners, also not a traditional placement company, will send its partners into both interim and permanent positions.
Structured more along the lines of a law firm than a temporary-help agency, Tatum is quick to point out that all of its interim CFOs are partners in the company. While they become employees of the organizations where they work during their engagements and negotiate salary and benefits with those companies, they also remain Tatum partners. Accordingly, one-sixth of their salary goes directly to the partnership, where it pays for the partnership’s overhead. If any money is left in the pool at the end of the year, it gets distributed among the partners. Ajilon Finance, by contrast, puts interim executives on its own payroll when they take an assignment. They are eligible for vacation and holiday pay and referral bonuses. They also are allowed to participate, at their own expense, in a group health insurance plan. EIM considers the interim executives it works with contract employees who receive form 1099 documenting their gross earnings; they pay for their own benefits and handle their own income tax payments.
Apart from how they pay their interim executives, placement companies also differ in what they offer by way of training, education and support. Some offer virtually none, functioning much like a typical temporary-help agency; they merely match executives with companies that need them. Tatum, by contrast, has formalized the sharing of intellectual capital among its partners, through an intranet on which they can exchange e-mails, offer each other advice and call up white papers the company has developed on technical issues. EIM also encourages knowledge sharing among its independent contractors, making available to them, for example, the project summaries the company prepares at the conclusion of each engagement. Ajilon will coach executives applying for interim positions in how to interview for a job but presently does not offer candidates any technical training.
After vetting placement agencies, CPAs who get offers to serve as temporary CFOs also will want to be clear about the parameters of those positions before moving into them. That means knowing not just what they’re expected to accomplish and how quickly, but how they’ll be paid and by whom, what benefits accompany the job and what expenses, if any, they’ll be required to pay on their own. “You also need answers to authority questions,” says Lebovits. “You want to know if you really have the signing and approval authority a normal CFO would have. If not, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker. But you should understand going in that sometimes you’ll have this and sometimes you won’t.”
A FLEXIBLE CHALLENGE