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.

Even Ramu admits that being a CPA alone may not be enough to gain full perspective on the job. “Advising the CEO,” he says, “regarding mergers and acquisitions, investor relations, foreign exchange transactions, and so on may lend itself to better rendering by an MBA rather than a CPA.”

The underlying message is that CFOs need to build skills in both disciplines — and verify them on a CV. A combination of schooling and experience seems the best approach. This gels with Martin Cubbon’s view. “If all you have is accounting training,” says the CFO of Swire Pacific, the aircraft and property group in Hong Kong, “you must accept that in the modern world you must have financial knowledge if you want to be CFO of a decent-sized company.” A chartered accountant in Britain with a degree in econometrics, Cubbon felt strongly enough about the need for broad exposure to persuade his boss at Swire to send him to INSEAD in France for executive courses in international finance and treasury operations, and to Stanford Business School for what he calls a “mini-MBA” that he completed in five weeks.

Unlike Cubbon, many CFOs cannot count on the largesse of their companies’ donation of time and money to bolster their careers. Still, experts agree that a full-time MBA (for junior managers or specialists switching careers) and an executive MBA (for experienced officers) have the edge over attenuated part-time (weekends and evenings) and distance or Internet-based programs. Intensive, face-to-face interaction is still more effective in teaching and learning, and in forging bonds among participants. In general American and Asian business schools have very structured programs, with the first year devoted to compulsory courses covering general management functions and the second to electives. Many European institutions dispense with general courses and expect participants to design their own curriculum from a wide range of subjects, which explains why full-time MBA programs in Europe last ten to 18 months, not two years as in most US schools.

Anyone planning to take an MBA must make sure his study habits mesh with the school’s teaching culture. Many institutions use the case study method as pioneered by Harvard Business School, but some rely on a more theoretical approach. The University of Cambridge’s Judge Institute of Management in the UK, for example, requires a 12,000-word dissertation. Language is also a factor. MBA participants at Italy’s SDA Bocconi must be fluent in both English and Italian.

And of course, there are the expenses. A full-time two-year MBA at a high profile US B-school costs more than US$100,000. Shorter programs in Europe are cheaper at US$70,000. In Asia the Australian Graduate School of Management charges around US$50,000, while fees and living expenses at Manila-based Asian Institute of Management come to US$22,000.

The electives on offer are also important. Business schools that specialize in the finance and accounting function design courses meant to hone particular skills and enhance knowledge, such as a class called “The New CFO” at Mt Eliza Business School in Australia. At Melbourne Business School, which is merging with Mt Eliza, the would-be CFO can choose electives in corporate finance, financial statements and analysis, risk management, mergers and acquisitions, real options resource projects, and corporate governance. Other Asian MBA schools with strong finance and accounting programs include Macquarie Graduate School of Management in Sydney, NUS Business School in Singapore, and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST).


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