A Fine Balance

CPAs are back in vogue, but don't forget the MBA. Skills and experience in both accounting and finance are best for a full career.

Others argue that an accountancy degree is enough qualification, if the finance professional adds to his experience with varied responsibilities in operations. “I got into banking, treasury, and financial transactions when I was doing my chartered accountancy training in London,” says Ravi Ramu, CFO at Mphasis, the Bangalore IT company. Ramu studied accounting in the UK and is a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. “I used to audit banks. You get to understand what happened in the transaction, things like risk management. I also learned what needed to go into the books.” Ramu speculates that one reason MBAs became CFO material in the US is because CPAs there are not required to undergo articleship before sitting for board exams — a requirement under the UK system.

Kris Chellam, CFO of California semiconductor company Xilinx, plumps for hard-earned experience, and choosing the right proving ground for it. “One learns more from experience and peers than any MBA program,” he says. The Malaysian-born chartered accountant was controller at Intel and CFO at Atmel before becoming senior vice-president for finance of Xilinx in 1998. The key is to sign up with high-profile companies with a reputation for good management and probity. “Intel provided me a great foundation for both skills development and management training,” says Chellam. “Most of all, the finance role required utmost integrity and professionalism. Any breach would have led to termination.”

And some academics caution that the merits of ethics training under a CPA degree are overrated. “There is no doubt that there is a code of ethics that public accountants abide by,” says David Wilson, president and CEO of Washington-based Graduate Management Admission Council, the body that administers the GMAT test that is a requirement for admission in more than 1,700 business schools around the world. He adds: “But taking a course in ethics doesn’t make you ethical, anymore than staying in the garage makes you an automobile.”

Balancing Act

Rakesh Nagpal doesn’t doubt his own integrity — and he still wants that MBA. It was two weeks before his 40th birthday when he spoke to CFO Asia. Naturally, the Singapore-based finance director of Avnet, an electronics firm, was thinking about the next step in his career. “Every CFO has to catch up with the changes in his industry,” he says. For Nagpal, who qualified as a chartered accountant in his native India, that means going back to school for an MBA degree. “It’s a logical step,” he says, “in positioning yourself to become a CEO.”

So what’s Nagpal to do? There’s no one opinion about the best way to strike the fine balance. Not surprisingly, business schools say an aspiring CFO could use a full-blown MBA and a current one will find value in an executive MBA. “The time spent on an MBA is the most efficient way of gathering a lifetime of learning that you would otherwise have to slowly and painfully acquire,” says Paul Grundy, a professor of finance at Melbourne Business School. An MBA, he says, “would not just give a broad exposure to many disciplines, but also give the future CFO deep exposure to valuation.”

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