Bigger Fish, Smaller Pond

Leaving a large company for the CFO spot at a smaller company can be a great move — as long as you do your homework.

And you’ll probably have to deliver using far fewer technical resources than you’re accustomed to. Executives who bid farewell to global giants also bid farewell to large staffs, sophisticated information systems, and well-established controls and processes. In fact, their first order of business may be to lead the charge in developing the systems they need to make the strategic contribution that attracted them in the first place. John Rickel, who left a senior post at Ford Motor Co. in September to become CFO at Group l Automotive Inc., a publicly traded network of car dealerships and repair facilities, says that his current staff is “smaller by an order of 100 compared with my position at Ford,” and admits this poses a challenge. “A smaller staff means fewer people to worry about, which can be less stressful,” he says. “But it also means you have less bench strength, and every hire becomes very important.”

Access to data can also be an issue. At Dell, says Sorenson, “we had systems that allowed us to look at orders on a minute-by-minute basis, sliced by customer, margin, you name it. It was spectacular.” He plans to build better systems at Vought, but that’s just one item on a long to-do list.

Taking Things to the Next Level

Moving to a smaller company may also entail sacrifices of a more personal nature. Akamai’s Sherman notes that “when you reach a certain level at a company like IBM, you get coddled. You have incredible administrative support, you have a huge office, you use the corporate jet, you even get an executive physical from the company doctor. If you like all that, the culture of a smaller company may not be for you.”

Most freshly minted CFOs seem happy to give up the perks in exchange for the reins. “This was a chance to come to a company at a key transition point,” says Robin L. Washington, who became the CFO at software maker Hyperion Solutions Corp. in January after serving as senior vice president of finance and corporate controller at PeopleSoft Inc. “It’s not a start-up looking to go public; it’s an established company that’s approaching $1 billion in sales, and I can help take things to the next level.”

To get that chance, these first-time CFOs say it’s critical to acquire as broad a skill-set as possible. “You have to be a generalist,” says Washington, “but with depth.” Experience overseas, serving as a divisional CFO, and a solid rotation through core finance functions such as tax, treasury, audit, and controller are all important. For that reason it’s enormously helpful to work for a company that stresses employee development. L. David Mounts, for example, “never held the same job at UPS for more than two or three years.” Five overseas postings, experience with mergers and acquisitions and supply-chain issues, and “the chance to constantly serve on new teams and address new challenges” served him well when he left the company last November to become CFO at Domino’s Pizza.

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