Switching Industries

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

The challenges of a specific job, more than the particulars of an industry, tend to attract CFO candidates, too. David Tehle, who recently left clothing manufacturer Haggar Inc. to take the top finance position at Dollar General Corp., a Goodlettsville, Tennessee-based $6.9 billion discount retailer, says the opportunity to drive growth and expansion at the company affected his decision to make the move, rather than a particular desire to change industries (although he adds that his prior experience at consumer companies Texas Instruments and The Stanley Works increased his interest in retail).

“One of the things that’s exciting when you change industries is that you get to bring ideas that may have been common [elsewhere] and try them in a new setting,” he says.

Mirant’s Burns says she “didn’t focus as much on the industry as on what the work would be like,” adding, “but you also need a healthy interest in the business.” Perry’s experience as a former Vitria customer piqued his interest in the chance to help the software vendor “rebuild and reengage the marketplace.” Vitria, once a high-flying Internet stock, now trades around $3.

Making the Move

For those who are hoping to test the waters in a new industry, it’s important to proceed with caution. Dollar General’s Tehle says he studied the different accounting treatments in retail versus manufacturing to prepare for his new role. “You want to make sure the accounting isn’t so technical or so different that you can’t understand it,” he says.

Identifying helpful fellow executives at a potential new employer is also critical, says Burns. And, as with any job change, she says to “do a lot of homework.” To prepare herself for her new job at Mirant, Burns immersed herself in the energy industry, attending meetings throughout the company and quizzing operations staff about the business. “As soon as I can get on the road, I’ll be going to the plants,” she says.

Williams of Battalia Winston suggests that finance executives look at the particular skills that are required in different markets. For example, he says, “coming from telecommunications, where the key is financing, the CFO should evaluate whether the new industry under consideration is finance-intensive, too. What are the critical things you have to do well, and are those things you know how to do?”

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