Bouncing Back

The economy may be on the mend, but for financial executives, the job opportunities aren't so great.

Is this a jobless recovery or what? As economists debate the matter, finance executives are learning firsthand that for them, anyway, opportunities aren’t what they used to be.

While there are no figures on how many CFOs are unemployed at any given time, Financial executives International Executives International (FEI) reports that nearly 800 members are participating in its career-transition program, up a staggering 224 percent from July 2001.

Meanwhile, finance hiring remains limited, with a March study by Robert Half International showing that 90 percent of the 1,400 CFOs surveyed anticipate no change in hiring.

It’s Business, Not Personal

The good news for CFOs in transition, though, is that losing a job has lost its stigma. “Companies are more open to candidates who have lost jobs than they used to be,” says Diane Albergo, director of career services at FEI. “Since the dot-com boom and bust, people have gotten used to it.”

Employers also realize that rÉsumÉs are bound to reflect corporate failures. As Engage Inc., an Andover, Massachusetts-based enterprise-software firm, entered bankruptcy last summer, CFO and treasurer Lisa Pavelka McAlister knew that she would soon be unemployed. Yet she found that the bankruptcy was not a deterrent to potential employers. “People looked at it as one more piece of experience,” says McAlister, who is now CFO and treasurer of Nexaweb Technologies Inc., a start-up software firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Michael F. Nemser, former finance chief at AEI Resources Inc., a coal company in Kentucky, also left his post following a bankruptcy. After deciding he didn’t want another full-time job, in January Nemser began to search for consulting assignments, and is now serving as a consultant CFO at one company and consulting for two others. He used his connections from nearly 20 years in the energy industry to land the work, despite the less-than-successful conclusion of his last job. “People started calling me because they were interested in my expertise,” he says.

More Scrutiny

But however understanding employers may be about abbreviated tenures and company failures, the selection process itself has become much more rigorous, due in part to the recent corporate scandals and the ensuing pressure for improved governance.

As Rodney Carter, the new senior vice president and finance chief at Petco, a $1.5 billion pet-supply retailer, explains: “Employers need to confirm not only technical competence, but also integrity, personality fit, cultural fit, reputation, and experience with governance affairs.” Carter, who spent six months looking for a new job after leaving CEC Entertainment, the $655 million owner, operator, and franchiser of Chuck E. Cheese pizza parlors, notes that in this environment, candidates may be held up to a predetermined checklist of characteristics—a CPA, an MBA, and public-company experience, for example—and eliminated from contention if they do not meet every standard. Thanks to the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, past experience in instituting internal controls and a strong financial-reporting track record may also be on that checklist.

Carter adds that job seekers should be prepared for potential employers to contact not only former colleagues but also auditors, lawyers, and commercial and investment bankers in an effort to get a well-rounded view of a candidate’s past performance and conduct. “Companies are nervous and want to protect themselves,” he says.

That nervousness also means the hiring process takes longer. Besides subjecting themselves to extensive background checks, candidates are often asked to speak before the board of directors of interested companies. In her own interview process, McAlister delivered presentations on everything from financial forecasts to the advantages of public versus private ownership.

Practice Patience

Intensive scrutiny combined with minimal hiring means that job searches are also taking longer. “The average search [consumes] six months or more,” says Albergo. That’s how long McAlister’s search took, despite the fact that she attacked the job market immediately, using her connections as president of FEI’s Boston chapter and contacting recruiters, accountants, venture capitalists, lawyers, and friends—anyone who might have a lead.

McAlister sees the search time as necessary for finding the right fit. But in this environment, job seekers may be tempted to jump at the first offer. That opportunity, however, may not be the right one, reminds Albergo. “A lot of members took positions and then left within a year, either because the company was sold or because it was a bad fit,” she says. “You just have to be patient.”

Kate O’Sullivan is a staff writer at CFO.

What Not to Do

  • Don’t wait for the phone to ring. “It’s a very traumatic, life-changing situation when you lose your job,” says Financial Executives International’s Diane Albergo. “But you really have to start right away.” Someone fresh from a job still has sharp skills and many contacts, both of which can weaken over time.
  • Don’t be a pest. “If you become a nuisance, people won’t take your call after a while,” says consultant CFO Michael Nemser.
  • Don’t sweep things under the rug. If you have problems on your rÉsumÉ, be ready to address them. “Not being forthcoming is a critical mistake,” says Petco’s Rodney Carter.
  • Listen and learn. It’s important to be sensitive to interviewers’ styles. “One of the biggest missteps is not reading your audience,” says Nemser. Try to connect with an interviewer rather than plowing through a scripted pitch, he suggests. —K.O’S.

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