When Robert Brace stepped down as finance chief of BT, the $44 billion (E46.5 billion) U.K. telecommunications giant, last October, he wasn’t out of work for long. Within weeks, the 51-year-old was named CFO at Duke Energy, a $49.3 billion U.S. power utility based in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Not that Brace moved to the U.S. on a whim. Far from it. Prior to joining Duke, Brace had come close to swapping his native Britain for the U.S. on four occasions during his 30-year finance career, each time declining job offers after serious consideration.
“It was never the right time. On each occasion, I pulled out for personal reasons,” Brace says, noting that he and his wife were reluctant to move their young children across the Atlantic. But with the children now at university, Brace decided “this time there was nothing to stop us.”
Hop, Skip and Jump
Brace isn’t alone in taking a CFO post abroad. As globalization has pushed companies across more borders, CFOs with international experience have found themselves in greater demand. Indeed, a recent survey by CFO Europe of 46 European chief executives — each at companies with sales greater than E500 million — showed that they value international experience more highly than either M&A or capital-raising experience in their CFOs.
As such, Duke is just one of a number of high- profile companies that have appointed foreign-born CFOs in recent months. Just look at Royal Dutch/Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil company, which named Judy Boynton, an American, as its finance chief in May.
Yet relocation experts say finance executives shouldn’t rush into taking a post abroad. They note that adjusting to a new culture and a higher risk of failure in the new job are just a few of the potential pitfalls.
Jeremy Rickman, a consultant at Russell Reynolds, an executive search firm, also notes that finance chiefs working outside their home country should ensure remuneration packages reflect the cost of moving abroad. He says that CFOs undertaking global assignments can expect to earn up to 30 percent more than they would domestically. That, he says, is the combined effect of tax equalization schemes and a range of other benefits, such as paying cost-of-living allowances. Rickman adds that finance chiefs should also consider how other foreign executives have fared at a prospective employer. “If a company has a history of successful relocations, the chances are things will go far more smoothly,” he says.
Duke’s Brace agrees. Duke provided practical assistance with, among other things, buying a new home, visa applications, and tax planning. “It is possible to do these things on your own, but it’s very helpful if you can draw on others’ experience,” he says.
Equally important, says Brace, was the time he spent researching Duke’s business before joining. He discussed the company’s prospects with numerous bankers and other business contacts in the U.S. “I’d heard about Duke, but I didn’t know a lot about the sector,” he says. “But when people came back and gave me positive answers, I thought this is probably the best for me.”
Relocation consultants add that it pays to research the customs and cultures of a new country. Rita Wagner of Prudential Relocation International, a division of U.S. insurer Prudential that provides relocation outsourcing services, notes that companies are offering more cross-cultural training for executives and their families moving abroad. The training covers everything, from language skills to the intricacies of local etiquette — such as whether to tip a taxi driver. “We’ve found that those that have had cultural training have a higher success rate on international assignments,” she says.
Ten months into his new job, Duke’s Brace would advise more finance chiefs to work abroad. For one, he says CFOs have more readily transferable skills than many other executives. “Finance guys can move around relatively easily,” he says, noting that CFOs have more in common from company to company than, say, chief executives.
He admits that moving from one large global firm to another made for a smoother transition. Indeed, during his time at BT, which has a U.S. stock listing, he spent a lot of time talking to Wall Street’s investment community. At Duke, not much has changed. “Before, I used to fly to New York from London; now I fly in from Charlotte, but the investment bankers and lawyers are the same.”
For more coverage of career issues on the continent, visit CFO Europe (www.cfoeurope.com).