Jim Tholen is not your average CFO. For one thing, he insists that his title at Careerbuilder.com is not chief financial officer, but rather, chief strategy and financial officer. What may seem like a bit of bluster at first is, in fact, a reflection of Tholen’s strong conviction that CFOs should go beyond the role of numbers cop. Indeed, Tholen thinks chief financial officers should be equal partners with CEOs in the strategic development of their companies. Although he concedes that there are very effective CFOs who come up through the CPA/Big Five accounting route, he is convinced a background in consulting and investment banking better prepares finance professionals for strategic roles.
That’s the route Tholen took. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in economics at Davidson College and an MBA from Yale University, Tholen joined Mercer Consulting in the technology and telecommunications practice in Washington. Later, he opened the company’s London office. Tholen then went to work at Morgan Stanley, where he was involved primarily with IPOs and mergers and acquisitions. A few years after that, Tholen was named vice president of corporate development and strategy at Legent Software, where he helped negotiate the sale of the company to Computer Associates. At the time, it was the largest M&A transaction in the software industry. Tholen joined virtual recruitment specialist Careerbuilder.com in September 1998, at the height of the dot-com boom. He took the company public in May 1999, raising $59 million in the process. A little over a year later, Tholen helped take Careerbuilder private — the online operation was acquired by Tribune Corporation and Knight Ridder.
Tholen recently spoke to CFO.com about career paths, finance chief as strategist, and the importance of being earnest.
You obviously feel that coming up the consulting/investment-banking route was beneficial to your career. What advantages and skills do you think that career path provides?
I really think both the CEO and the board look to the CFO as the economic conscience of the company, and you have to be able to play that role quite well. If you’ve been an investment banker, not only do you have transactional experience, but you’ve also played an active role in making strategic decisions and making analyses that go beyond accounting. And as a consultant, you also learn how to drive change effectively.
I believe that those are key CFO skills in today’s environment. If you’re coming from the CPA/controller route, you tend to be more of a risk manager as opposed to a strategic manager. I also think there is a feeling out there that if I have a good controller, my CFO doesn’t need to be a CPA.
Monster.com is really the giant in your market, followed by Hotjobs.com. Do you think CFOs can play a role in improving the competitiveness of their companies?
Yes, I definitely do think CFOs can play a role in improving competitiveness. I’ll give you an example. We, along with a company called Headhunter.net, were co-number 3s in the industry behind Hotjobs and Monster. We announced a merger with Headhunter.net in August. Together we are much more powerful with greater aspirations of taking on our competitors.