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.

But no matter how much experience a candidate brings to the job, first-time CFOs invariably face a learning curve. Investor relations is the biggest issue for most, since, as Sherman says, “it’s possible to go very high up at IBM and still not deal much with external investors.” His advice: use your ignorance to your advantage. “I wasn’t shy about admitting to people that there were things I needed to learn,” he says. “It doesn’t undermine people’s confidence in you; it actually enhances your credibility.”

These executives agree that no one should leap at the chance to become a CFO without doing a lot of homework. “I’d say it takes a minimum of two months,” says Rickel. “It’s a brave new world, with lots of personal risk for a CFO, so a prospective employer expects you to ask a lot of questions and conduct plenty of due diligence. It doesn’t raise any eyebrows.” Multiple meetings with the CEO, board members, and other senior executives are essential. Mounts says he spoke to people in the audit, banking, and legal communities, and read all of Domino’s recent public filings.

Even with such research, Sorenson says, “you will find some challenges when you look under the covers,” but, one hopes, no unpleasant surprises. And don’t bother asking about the corporate jet. Settle for a reserved parking space, and expect your car to spend plenty of time in it.

Scott Leibs is a senior editor at CFO.

Before You Leap…

Senior finance executives who have left large companies to assume the CFO post at smaller companies say such a move requires substantial due diligence. Here are some useful tips:

  • Take your time in researching the prospective employer; one CFO says expect to spend two months talking to the CEO, board members, third parties, and reviewing filings and other data.
  • Ask yourself if you can “scale down” and work effectively with fewer resources, such as staff, information systems, and established processes. Expect to roll up your sleeves and create at least some of what’s missing.
  • Before seeking such opportunities, acquire as broad a skill set as possible. International postings are valuable, as are divisional CFO roles and membership on other companies’ boards.

CFOs on the Move

After 15 years at the company, James Beer has left AMR, parent of American Airlines, to become CFO at software firm Symantec. AMR has launched a search for a replacement…. Kimberly Cline is the new CFO at the State University of New York…. Bruce Riggins takes over as finance head at Interstate Hotels & Resorts, rejoining the company after leaving last year to take the top finance post at Innkeepers USA Trust…. Money Concepts, a financial-planning company, has promoted Barry Rittman to finance chief from his role as controller…. TRC has tapped Carl Paschetag Jr. to head up finance at the engineering and construction-services firm…. Thomas Scott replaces Sandra Thomas as CFO at First Avenue Networks, a wireless-service provider…. Rambus, a technology-licensing firm, is looking for a new finance head after the resignation of Robert Eulau. CEO Harold Hughes is filling the role in the interim…. Windrose Medical Properties Trust has appointed Paula Conroy CFO. Conroy joins from Roche Diagnostics, where she was director of finance…. C.E. Andrews has become finance chief at student-loan provider Sallie Mae…. Alfred Novas will lead the finance department at Whitney Information Network, a provider of postsecondary education…. Ford Motor Credit has named K.R. Kent vice chairman and CFO. He succeeds David Cosper, who has left to join Sonic Automotive.

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