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.
As CFO, I was a key driver behind both the strategy to merge and the implementation of the deal. The CEO and I really had to sell this deal to our parents, Knight Ridder and Tribune. We had to convince them that they should pull out their checkbooks and write a $200 million check in this kind of environment. I think being able to pull that off requires all the key CFO-as-strategist skills: being very credible, understanding your economic model, and then driving the negotiation and integration of a key acquisition to improve competitiveness.
To what degree do you think the effectiveness of a CFO depends on the relationship with the CEO?
The CFO/CEO relationship is perhaps the most important one in a company. If there is trust and mutual respect, that really gives the CFO license to be more of a change agent within the organization. It also gives the CEO the confidence to be as outward- looking as he or she needs to be. Having a good relationship also gives the CFO the confidence to play an independent role with the board in terms of providing balanced economic and financial assessments.
If you don’t have a good relationship, then the CFO is certainly less effective, and the board gets less valuable information. I’ve been very fortunate to always have very strong professional relationships with the CEOs I’ve worked for.
What makes a good CEO for a CFO?
Beyond being a visionary and a good leader, a CEO needs to have a good slice of strong financial instincts so that you don’t have to spend most of your time doing a lot of teaching.
You were with a dot-com through much of the frenzy of the late ’90s, when capital was abundant. Do you think that experience made you better equipped to handle capital-raising when the well went dry?
In a way we had the advantage of not being completely loved by the capital markets. We were never in a situation where we felt we were defying gravity, and I think we’re better for it now. We really had to develop credibility and sell the fundamentals all along, and we learned early on the importance of doing that. I think, for that reason, we are more credible now in conveying where our business is going and why that should be attractive to more reluctant sources of capital.
As CFO of a career-related site, you probably understand the value of networking. Do you have any personal networking strategies that you feel have worked?
I think the best form of networking is to have done great work in the past. I’ve been very fortunate because most of my CFO experience has come from working for guys I have worked for or with in the past. But I also think that being part of a professional organization, where you can give back to the community and get known for it, can also be very valuable. I belong to the North Virginia Technology Council — that’s a center point for the tech industry here. They have a group called the CFO Forum, and I run some of their events.
You also have a considerable amount of experience working and living abroad. You spent three years in London with Mercer and nearly a year in Tokyo with Morgan Stanley. Do you feel those experiences made you a better CFO?
When you work abroad, you have to learn really quickly how to lead and create change in different cultures and environments, which I think are very useful skills. Also, this is really a world market, and even if you are not overseas, your competitors might be, and foreign companies are going to be coming here. It’s really key to have an appreciation for the context of your business in the world economy. It’s difficult to get that unless you’ve lived overseas.