The Waiting Game

For unemployed finance pros, the job hunt is getting longer and longer.

Jim Meer lost his job as treasurer of Schein Pharmaceutical Inc. when the company was sold to Watson Pharmaceuticals Inc. But he wasn’t worried; he’d received a nice severance package, and decided to look for a CFO slot next. More than a year later, he’s still looking.

“Moving up to a CFO spot in this market is very challenging,” says Meer, in his 50s, who has passed up several job offers after due diligence indicated they weren’t good fits. “There are so many CFOs out there right now, and a company is more likely to hire a sitting CFO than someone who is making a move.”

Meer isn’t alone. According to Barry Bregman, managing partner of the CFO Practice at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, “We’re long on supply and short on demand for CFOs.” The supply comes from the legions of senior finance executives who got battlefield promotions at dot-coms and other start-ups that later failed, as well as from those who lost their jobs as a result of a merger. The lower demand — no surprise — reflects the sluggish economy.

The result is longer job searches for everyone. In fact, some observers estimate that searches now average six to nine months, compared with three to six months during the late 1990s. And while experts counsel job candidates to take their time before accepting a job, they also caution against too much time. “If you’re on the bench too long,” says Walt Williams, a partner at retained executive search firm Battalia Winston International, “people wonder why no one has hired you so far.

“Anything over nine months and things get tough,” he continues. The main reason, he says, is that after nine months you will probably be into a new year, and your résumé will reflect a one-year gap. “I always encourage job seekers to put the months of employment on their résumés.”

Keep Your Hand In

Unfortunately, an increasing number of CFOs are finding themselves searching for more than nine months. Part of the reason is the nice severance package they received from their last employer. “It’s good to say you want to spend some time with your family, especially if you’ve made some money,” says Bregman. But he warns job seekers not to let the money lull them into a false sense of security. Williams counsels job seekers to start looking immediately, and go at it full bore for five months. If after that time you still haven’t found your dream job, pursue interim steps to prevent the dreaded résumé gap.

The most important interim step, say experts, is to keep your hand in the game. Meer, for instance, has accepted short-term financial consulting jobs that he got through business associates. David Daniel, 51, who was laid off as CFO of an advertising-kiosk manufacturer in April as the result of a merger, is helping one of his networking peers create a business plan for an overseas client that wants to enter the U.S. market. Still other CFOs report using the time off to brush up on certain skills — by studying for the Chartered Financial Analyst exam, for example.

Participating in organizations like Financial Executives International, The Financial Executives Networking Group, or industry-specific groups serves a dual purpose, says Daniel. “Industry events keep your mind in the game and your face in the game,” he says. “Also, seminars provided by law firms and accounting firms on financial topics are great ways to keep on top of what’s happening. They’re networking venues.”

Finally, says Bregman, don’t be too narrow in your job focus, especially if you came out of a short-lived finance position and may not be ready for a prime-time CFO spot. “I don’t like to use the words ‘lowering standards,’” he says. “It’s broadening the range of opportunities you’ll consider.”

Deciding when to “broaden” those options is entirely up to the individual, however, and depends mostly on a person’s financial ability to keep up the search, and on his or her psychological ability to handle rejection.

Kris Frieswick is a staff writer at CFO.

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