Great Expectations

How today's corporate training programs are grooming tomorrow's CFOs.

Ever since the 1940s, when CFO J. Edward Lundy helped restore Ford Motor Co. to profitability, training and mentorship have been as much a part of the carmaker’s financial strategy as number-crunching and analysis. The legendary Lundy “established the pattern we still have today,” says Paul Beer, finance manager at Ford and a member of its executive committee for recruiting. “I learn my job from my supervisor, I teach the folks who work for me, “I learn my job from my supervisor, I teach the folks who work for me, and they teach the folks who work for them.” Ford’s current CFO, Don LeClair, and past CFOs Allan Gilmour and John Devine (now at General Motors) are products of the company’s finance training program.

But during the recent economic downturn, the program stalled. As Ford’s worldwide corporate staff shrank, a key part of the program — rotating recruits to stimulating new assignments every two years — lagged. “In those years where hiring was relatively low, we realized the program wasn’t meeting our goals,” says Beer.

Ford’s traditional emphasis on recruiting MBAs had left the finance department with too many staffers who were overqualified for the available assignments — and too little hand-holding for the undergraduates who came in under the same program. Meanwhile, recruits at both levels got stuck in the same job for longer than the standard two years, in part due to lack of oversight and in part because incoming classes were not large enough to replace them.

Many other finance training programs have suffered during the economic downturn. Lucent, for example, was unable to recruit a class of 2003, and has cut out international assignments to save costs. At AT&T, finance managers are struggling with meeting recruits’ expectations of the Financial Leadership Program, a series of rotations plus dedicated mentoring. The program has turned out some 200 graduates in its 10 years of existence, and many have gone on to become finance managers at AT&T and elsewhere. But Ma Bell has shrunk with age, and in October, it announced it expected to cut more than 20 percent of its workforce in 2004. “With a smaller company, there’s not the duplication of staff, so you really rely on the FLPers to get the day-to-day jobs done — and it’s not always stuff that’s sexy or exciting,” says Debi McCann, an alumna of the program who now oversees two such staffers in her role as director of business planning and development at AT&T.

The training slump has affected academe, too. Babson College, which provides finance courses for some 50 companies, including Lucent, says it is rethinking its economic model in light of the drop-off in finance recruiting. “We’re moving more toward the consortium model,” says Bill Lawler, associate dean at Babson’s graduate school. That means combining employees from different companies in the same classroom. Besides providing cost savings, the consortium model is easier to customize, says Lawler.

Still, there are two good reasons to believe that finance training will again become a top priority. One is a reviving economy, which should thaw hiring freezes. Ford, for example, expects to hire some 200 new finance staffers by next spring, and is thus giving its training program a badly needed tune-up. “We felt the need to look at what we do with these new people again,” says Beer.

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