Charles E. Brown, Office Depot

The retailer's new finance chief maps out the long and winding road from controller to CFO.

Barely two weeks after Bruce Nelson took over as CEO of Office Depot Inc. in July 2000, the company’s longtime CFO Barry Goldstein retired. Nelson and several headhunters immediately commenced a search to fill the vacant position. From the very beginning of the recruitment process, however, Nelson had a definite idea of what kind of person he was looking for to head up the company’s finance department. In a September interview with CFO Europe’s Justin Wood (see “Taking Care of Business? Office Depot Still Looking for a CFO“), Nelson said he was seeking a candidate with more than just the requisite financial skills. He was also looking for a trustworthy partner — a loyal, mature, finance chief who commanded the respect of Wall Street analysts and institutional investors.

In the same interview, Nelson made it equally clear he was in no hurry to hire someone just to fill the position. ”This is a key post,” he told Wood. “If it takes me from now until the sun goes down to find the right CFO, then so be it.”

Actually, the sun went down about 450 times before Nelson finally found his CFO. In October, following a 15-month search, Office Depot hired Charles E. Brown as CFO. Ironically, Nelson’s long search for a new finance chief had led him right back where he started: Brown had been serving as company controller since 1998.

In a statement announcing Brown’s promotion to CFO, Nelson said: “Throughout the company’s lengthy and comprehensive external search process, I interviewed many highly qualified candidates, each with strong skills sets and solid financial experience.” He added, “However, it became increasingly clear to me that Charlie’s performance over the past year had placed him at the top of my list of candidates. His strong financial background and experience, his disciplined approach to capital spending, and his knowledge of Office Depot have made him an invaluable member of our leadership organization.”

For Brown, it’s just all part of the plan. He readily acknowledges having joined Office Depot in 1998 with his sights fixed squarely on the CFO position. Toward that, he set out to learn the ins and outs of the company. But Brown insists that his varied work experience also played a crucial role in his landing the top finance job at Office Depot.

Certainly, Charles Brown has built an impressive résumé over the years. After graduating with a degree in management science from Duke University, he joined KPMG’s audit practice in Greensboro, North Carolina. After four years in that regional office, Brown made the big move to the audit firm’s New York City office. After five years in New York, he joined PepsiCo’s internal audit department, and was shortly thereafter put in charge of the company’s international audit division. That job led directly to Brown’s next assignment with Pepsi — CFO of the company’s Pizza Hut business in the U.K. Three years later Brown moved back to New York and became controller for PepsiCo’s international restaurant business, which, at the time, included Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Following a stint at Aromark, a managed services outsourcing company, Brown was hired as CFO of Denny’s, the restaurant-chain operator. Then, in 1998, Brown took what seemed to be a backward step: he resigned his position as Denny’s CFO and signed on as controller of Office Depot.

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