Two years ago, as the stock market began reeling on the realization that the dot-com bubble was now bursting, Nancy Milby had an epiphany: She had made a mistake.
It wasn’t a mistake made in her job as CFO of a venture-backed healthcare company. As a CPA who had spent the first 16 years of her finance career as a tax partner at KPMG LLP, she knew what she was doing all too well. That was the problem.
“I just thought, ‘Oh my god, I can do this in my sleep, it’s so boring, I hate it!’”
Soon afterwards, Milby, a passionate cook, began work on a business plan for a hands-on cooking school. She left her job, her second and probably last CFO stint, invested her savings, and leased a space with picture windows looking out on Laguna Beach, Calif. In July 2001, she opened Laguna Culinary Arts, which offers everything from hour-long lunch-time sessions to three-day events taught by professional chefs.
As a nod to her corporate past, Milby also offers corporate team-building events, where a group executes a meal. According to Milby, her client list is “almost a who’s who of the Fortune 50.”
Milby wasn’t always miserable in finance. She talks fondly of her years at KPMG and of her first CFO job in 1997, for fledgling healthcare company Hospitalist Inc. (now Cogent Healthcare). In that job, she relished the excitement of building a new business and the camaraderie of the small, close-knit team.
But as the company became a going concern, Milby’s job as CFO became ordinary and dull. Thinking she needed the vitality of a new venture, she left Hospitalist for a younger company. But when the change didn’t help, she knew it was time for something completely different.
Today, with her two full-time staff members and several part-time instructors, classes are filled mostly to capacity, with some booked several months in advance. Milby talked to CFO.com’s Lisa Yoon about striking out on her own, career advice for CFOs who want to make a change, and why CFOs make great cooks.
There was a survey released last week by AXA Insurance and the U.K. branch of the International Stress Management Association that found that 65 percent of entrepreneurs who started their own business to get away from the stress of corporate life were actually more stressed than they were before. Does that sound about right?
It’s so true. I haven’t worked this hard since I was a staffer at KPMG 20 years ago, or even working for the startup.
As is true with any startup company, there is way more to do than you have time and resources for. But the stress is different in that it’s my own money on the line. Even with the startup company, as passionate as I was about it, the directors looked me in the eye and said, “We hold you responsible for every penny.”
That’s pretty seriously stressful. But at the end of the day, I was still getting a paycheck, and I was still getting money funding my retirement account. It wasn’t my money.
When I first opened, I woke up in a cold sweat a couple times a week, going “What on earth have I done?” It’s that feeling of jumping off a cliff and hoping there’s a net. I don’t feel that kind of stress anymore, although now I’m thinking of expanding and I’m sort of feeling that stress again, but not as much.
You may be more stressed, but is your stress mitigated at all by being your own boss and doing what you like?
Absolutely. There’s good stress and bad stress, and I can control a lot of that. I love creating a business and working in the community where I live. We make up the rules as we go along, and we don’t have to ask for permission.
And no matter how much fun being a CFO is, you don’t get out much. You work with the investors, the bond people, the bankers, the lawyers, and those are great relationships, but you don’t meet a lot of people outside that world.
Here, I meet great people with different experiences who want to have fun. People leave my classes, and a light bulb has gone on in their heads. And then they come back and tell me what they’ve cooked and how much their family enjoyed it. That is instant gratification that I never had as a CFO.
Even when people don’t want to do something as drastic as start their own business, but still want to make a change, one thing that often holds them back is an apprehension about the unfamiliar. How can people get over that hurdle?
One thing to remember is that you can always go back. If you had a positive relationship with the company, you can always do that. Looking back, starting my own business was a lot less scary than leaving a cushy partner job at KPMG to join a startup. People would ask me, “How on earth can you do that?”
But every step of the way, I’ve always had a backup plan. I think that’s important for people to consider: Is the risk being unemployed, or can I go back? It puts things in perspective.
Some people think of going back as acknowledging failure.
I think pride gets in the way of a lot people moving forward. But I also think a lot of people change jobs for the wrong reasons. Some people change positions and they fail because they were never right for the job.
A friend who is an executive recruiter once gave me the best advice I’ve ever had for changing careers.
First, make a list of what you’re good at. Next sheet of paper: What do I enjoy? Then, ask what’s important to me? Is money, self-satisfaction? What really rocks my boat? When you put all those together, and you’re really honest with yourself, the answer falls out.
Then you just go for it — and if you’re not really willing to go for it, there’s something missing in your analysis.
If you were a CFO now, in the aftermath of the scandals, do you think the job would be less enjoyable?
I’m not sure. For those who have always taken their job seriously and followed the rules — which is most of them — there’s nothing new; there’s just more scrutiny. So as a CFO now, I would probably feel empowered by the new scrutiny to assert my leadership in doing the right thing. But I am definitely glad I’m not in that arena anymore.
One of your staff members is also a former KPMG consultant. [Megan Rainnie, director of sales and marketing, teaches cooking classes at the school. She did not know Milby previously.] Do you think there’s a lot of latent culinary talent in corporate America?
I think the answer is yes, but for a different reason than you might think. We do a lot of corporate team-building events, and when people know they’re getting a chance to cook with their team, they jump all over it. They love it.
What can CFOs learn about managing their finance teams from cooking?
A meal takes planning, so you learn organization and planning. You also learn how to understand people’s skills and use them to achieve your goal. The other thing you learn is that some things can’t be rushed. You’re not going to cook the onions any faster by turning up the flame. Is it tedious? Yeah — but there’s nothing that isn’t tedious about accounting.
I think because finance people tend to be very detail-oriented, they make great cooks. I guarantee you if you put a CEO and a CFO side by side and they both had to julienne a carrot, the CFO’s carrot would be more precisely sliced than the CEO’s. Don’t you agree?