Richard Kurkowski, Spencer Stuart

The executive placement firm's finance chief offers up advice on surviving -- and thriving -- during difficult economic times.

When Richard Kurkowski doles out career advice, CFOs listen. Kurkowski is not only a veteran finance executive, he’s currently CFO of Spencer Stuart Inc., one of the largest privately held executive search firms in the world. Kurkowski joined the recruitment specialist in 1981, and he’s seen the job market go through a fair number of peaks and valleys during these past 20 years.

Kurkowski has also accumulated some hefty professional experience of his own. Prior to joining Spencer Stuart, Kurkowski was a director at McDonald’s Corp. and a manager at Uarco, a manufacturing company. He spent the first five years of his career as an auditor for Arthur Young. In addition, Kurkowski is a C.P.A. and also serves on the United Capital Investments board of directors.

CFO.com’s Jennifer Caplan recently asked Kurkowski to talk about his own career path, the current job market, and what advice he would give to employed–and unemployed– finance executives during these worrisome times.

What have been some of your most valuable job experiences, and how have they made you a better CFO?

I think the C.P.A. route was the best way to start because I got a broad exposure to lots of different companies and industries. You never know which of those experiences will be important later in your career. One of my early audits when I was working at Arthur Young, for example, was a very small management company that owned Holiday Inns. Years later, the fact that I had audited a partnership that was heavily focused on tax planning became incredibly valuable in my work at Spencer Stuart, where tax planning is a big part of what I do. I think you really want to start in a C.P.A. firm if you can and get as much broad and varied experience early on in your career as possible.

Do you think it’s ever too late to move out of finance to, say, operations, in order to round out your skill sets?

I definitely think it’s important to try to broaden your experience as much as possible. A large part of my focus at Spencer Stuart goes beyond financial functions. It includes management of our information systems and technology. Over time I’ve also had roles in marketing, training, and some of our research functions. So, it’s extremely important to make sure that once you’re in a finance job, you’re taking advantage of any opportunity to broaden your horizons in areas that are not pure finance, accounting, or controllership. It puts you in the operations side of the business and gets you used to being involved in some of the risk-taking that every business has to do to succeed.

As you move through your career, however, you chose an industry. My expertise is clearly in the area of professional services companies with a lot of other tangential strengths like tax planning. I think that it would be difficult for me today — probably impossible — to become the chief operating officer of a manufacturing company. On the other hand, I could become a COO or CEO of a professional services business, because I’ve had broad experience beyond purely finance.

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