Switching Industries

A new survey reports that 75 percent of all finance executives looking for new jobs are seeking new sectors.

After the long, hard slog of the past few years, you can’t blame senior executives for wanting to jump ship. What’s surprising is how many want to transfer to another fleet altogether. According to a study by the New York-based Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), nearly half the executives surveyed were considering a change a change in industries. “There are an awful lot of unhappily employed people out there,” says Walt Williams, a partner at New York-based executive-search firm Battalia Winston International. Among the unhappiest: CFOs. In a survey by ExecuNet, 75 percent of all finance executives looking for new jobs are seeking new sectors.

In some cases, of course, the change has been forced upon them. “You may not be able to get the job you want in the industry and location you want,” says Peter Felix, president of the AESC. Williams, who says he has noted a marked increase in the number of unsolicited rÉsumÉs landing on his desk in recent months, agrees that the market changes of the past few years are forcing some executives to examine their options. “Many people have found themselves stuck in industries that are dying, or that crashed and burned, like dot-com or telecommunications,” he says. “They see the writing on the wall.” Executives in some manufacturing and services businesses, which are increasingly sending operations overseas, are among those searching for brighter horizons.

Helping these individuals is the fact that, as hiring picks up, employers are relaxing their search criteria. “When the markets were really tough, potential employers were very picky, and very specific about needing someone with experience in the industry,” says Williams.

Companies in some industries, of course, including pharmaceuticals, construction, aerospace, and defense, continue to seek candidates with direct sector experience because of the specialized accounting standards that may be particular to each.

The Mobile CFO

The good news is that finance skills are among the most readily transferred. “It’s easier for a CFO to change industries than for any other senior officer,” says Michele Burns, the former finance chief at Delta Air Lines who in May accepted the CFO position at Mirant, an Atlanta-based $5.2 billion energy company now in bankruptcy.

“Product and industry knowledge is important,” says Michael Perry, the new finance chief at Vitria Technology Inc., a software and services firm based in Sunnyvale, California, “but certainly far less so for a CFO than for a sales executive, who needs deep industry expertise and contacts.” When evaluating top finance candidates, potential employers are often more concerned about their knowledge of financing alternatives, say, or cost-cutting.

According to Chuck Eldridge, who leads the CFO search practice at executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, these days his clients “love finance executives who have switched industries. Ten years ago, they would have wanted someone in the same industry, but now people with three or four moves are viewed as more valuable because they have faced different challenges.”

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