Of course, especially for a job candidate at a private company, uncovering some of these specifics may simply not be possible. In hindsight, Reinhold still isn’t sure how he could have identified the problems at Critical Path any sooner. “I don’t know what else I could have done,” he says, since the issues he discovered were ones that “a prospective CFO candidate would never have access to.”
Reinhold notes, however, that people can be a lot more accessible than documents. Prior to taking the job with Greatbatch, he interviewed the controller about the company’s level of conservatism in accounting and about its relationship with outside lawyers and auditors. “I didn’t come in and say, ‘I want to see sales contracts’,” he says, “but I did interview the people who were down a level in keeping the books and records and preparing the financial information.” (For more, see RevenueRecognition.com.)
6. Trial Balance = Doorstop
When you have the opportunity to meet with the prospective company’s controller, ask to see a copy of the trial balance — and not just so you can confirm for yourself that total debits equal total credits. The trial balance, in Greer’s words, is “the hinge document” between all the drudgery and detail of the general ledger system and the financial statements. And when the trial balance is too thick, it’s the CFO who may come unhinged.
“If it’s as big as a Manhattan phone book, I lose interest real fast,” says Greer. “If it’s over an inch thick, they probably have a really screwed up accounting information system.” And if that system needs a huge overhaul, the new CFO will be doing a huge amount of the hauling. “Unless I’m interviewing at General Motors,” concludes Greer, “it shouldn’t be that way.” (For more on the efforts of CFOs to close the books quickly, see “Virtual Close: Not So Fast.”)
7. Taxing Experiences
Some private companies are chock full of surprises. Just ask Tatum partner Jon Steging, who arrived for one meeting with a client to find that the Internal Revenue Service was in the lobby, literally shutting down the company for not paying its Form 941 deposits for payroll taxes. “That turned out to be an assignment I didn’t want to take,” he says.
Not every sign is as clear as a big yellow “IRS” on a blue jacket. Steging had been referred as a consultant to the privately owned business; there were accounting issues, he was told, that prevented it from getting statements out on time. In fact, the company had cash issues, and it was a little more than a year behind on its payroll-tax deposits.
If a smaller company has cash-flow problems, the payroll tax can be an early indication that something is amiss. When Steging’s partner Robert Schleizer was interviewing for the role of CFO at a trucking company, he learned that its payroll tax was not current — and that management didn’t know how much they owed. He signed up anyway, on a consulting basis, but since “they didn’t have the money to do what I asked them to do,” says Schleizer, he walked away entirely after two months.