The Ephemeral Finance Executive

Overworked CFOs are turning to interim finance managers for help. But that could jeopardize quality improvements.

After several years of helping to manage the strong overseas growth of her employer, Sapient Corp., Susan Johnson had to make a choice. As CFO of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, consulting-services provider, Johnson recognized that her finance team could no longer handle all of the work associated with the company’s surging international business, which now accounts for nearly 50 percent of revenues. But she didn’t have time to set up an international finance team from scratch.

“We realized that we were now at a size where it made sense to add some senior leadership, but we [weren't sure how to go about it],” she says. “Still, we needed to add extra bandwidth quickly.”

Instead of bringing in consultants or gambling on a new full-time hire, Johnson opted for a temporary finance executive. At the recommendation of a board member, she hired Larry Harding, an experienced manager with a background in international business. As interim vice president of international finance, Harding is refining the company’s approach to overseas finance, as well as working to build the UK finance operation and advising Johnson’s team on what to look for in a permanent executive.

Sapient’s experience is not unique. “There has been a fundamental shift over the past 10 years, where companies are now much more comfortable with the idea of using interim finance employees,” says Karen Ferguson, executive vice president of Costa Mesa, California-based Resources Connection. Only eight years old, the company now has more than 1,200 clients. Because companies need seasoned employees to help with Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance efforts, the past two years have been especially busy for finance-staffing firms, a group that includes Resources Connection, Robert Half Management Resources, Tatum Partners, and Executive Interim Management.

Interim finance executives generally have more experience than the workers supplied by Accountemps (a division of Robert Half); they also typically report directly to a company’s CFO. And although similar to traditional consultants, project professionals differ in one important respect: unlike consultants, they serve as members of the finance staff. Consultants bring in plans and a methodology; interim executives, although they too bring expertise, work under the direction of existing management.

This distinction is important. “Finance people have paid through the nose for consultants in recent years, but they didn’t get the return,” comments Richard Roth, chief research officer at The Hackett Group, a business-advisory firm based in Atlanta. “Now they are looking to get the work done internally.” Bringing in interim finance employees to work under the guidance of company management satisfies many companies’ need for greater control.

Part Time All the Time?

Companies use interim employees for several reasons. Sometimes they are brought in to fill a vacancy until a job can be filled permanently — not surprising, given that finance jobs typically stay empty for 40 days. By finding someone overqualified to temporarily do the work, some companies use the occasion to redesign — and perhaps eliminate — the position. “When someone leaves, you often find that your needs have changed and that some of that person’s work is no longer needed,” says David Lewis, CEO of The David Lewis Co., a Woodland Hills, California-based financial-consulting firm. It’s harder to make the change after hiring a full-time replacement.

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