Shortcut to CFO

Stints at proving grounds like Dell, PepsiCo, and Motorola help managers speed their rise to top finance jobs at other companies.

In recent weeks, former finance employees of Dell Inc. seem to have been busy conquering the world. Robert Davis, who was vice president of corporate finance and chief accounting officer at the computer maker, was named chief financial officer of Computer Associates. Former Dell finance chief Tom Meredith was named to the board of Motorola Inc. And in January, Lloyd Sorenson was named chief financial officer of Dallas-based Vought Aircraft Inc.

It’s Sorenson’s first CFO position; at Dell, he had been controller of the corporate business group. Though the jump from divisional controller to chief financial officer may seem sizable, Sorenson maintains that he’s well prepared for the top finance job — largely because of his experience working under Tom Meredith. At the PC maker, says Sorenson, nurturing talent was a way of life: “They really had a penchant for developing people.”

From the point of view of recruiters, there’s no question that certain companies are hot places to find talent. For finance executives like Sorenson, working for a business with a reputation for success can mean a shorter path to the big chair, compared with colleagues who have experience at average companies. By working for a top company, “you’re tagged and coded as the top in the industry,” says John Wilson, chief executive officer of CFO search firm J.C. Wilson Associates.

Dell is an especially attractive technology-industry credential on a resume, explains Wilson, because of its groundbreaking success in the personal-computer business. The company’s well-known model of direct sales and customized products allowed Dell to grow from a startup to the PC market’s 800-pound gorilla in just a few short decades. To have been part of the Dell team can make a finance executive a hot prospect for companies looking to replicate that success.

Putting Finance Talent in the Fast Lane

Despite its attractiveness as a source for talent, however, Dell hasn’t been around long enough to be what recruiters call an “academy company.” The term refers to a “blue chip company that has an established track record of developing and growing good finance leaders,” explains Tom Kolder of search firm Crist Associates. Wilson considers Dell an “emerging academy company.”

As for mature academy companies, their names are familiar: General Electric Co., PepsiCo, Motorola Inc., and Honeywell Inc. are a few. The difference, say recruiters, is that while Dell is known for its business success, academy companies are known for developing leaders. They’re so good at developing talent, in fact, that at least one large search firm won’t take them on as clients. “We don’t do business with [academy companies],” says Joel von Ranson of Spencer Stuart, “because we recruit their executives. It would be a conflict of interest.”

Indeed, working at such a company can put a finance executive on a fast track to a CFO role elsewhere. “Academy companies tend to challenge and promote leaders and give them greater opportunities to develop over time,” says Kolder. “Over time” often means beginning in the executive’s 20s, since many academy companies hire straight from business school.

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