Against the Flow

Why unconventional CFOs have left their corporate jobs for professional services.

When Margaret Ewing, the CFO who steered BAA through one of last year’s high-profile European takeovers, announced her departure from the British airports operator in September, it was widely assumed that she would do what many of her peers do and turn up as the finance chief, or perhaps even chief executive, of another large public company. Instead, after BAA’s £10.3 billion ($19.9 billion) takeover by Spanish construction firm Ferrovial, she decided to move back to a former employer and become vice chairman of Big Four auditor Deloitte, in charge of a new advisory unit for finance directors of large companies.

It’s not often that CFOs leave industry and move into the world of auditing, consulting, or other professional services. The opposite, in fact, is more common — numerous future CFOs get their start as a Big Four auditor or as a management consultant, using their close relationships with clients to build up knowledge of an industry or a particular company. Just recently, for example, Barclays bank announced that Chris Lucas — former U.K. head of financial services and global head of banking and capital markets at PricewaterhouseCoopers — will be its new group finance director as of next month.

So what’s the motivation for a CFO to go over the fence, so to speak, and move into professional services?

One person who gets asked that question a lot is Wolfgang Schmidt-Soelch, former CFO of Winterthur International, a unit of Swiss insurer Winterthur, recently acquired by French rival Axa. Having decided that “the constraining rhythm of quarterly life in a large company” wasn’t for him, Schmidt-Soelch became a partner in the Zurich office of Heidrick & Struggles, and is now helping the executive headhunter to build up its insurance and CFO practice in German-speaking parts of Europe, while also, like other former CFOs, applying the lessons he learned as a client of professional services. “I just didn’t see my future in large corporates,” he says.

The transition has been an eye-opener. “In professional services you have daily, if not immediate, feedback. That’s quite a challenge but I have significantly more job satisfaction now than I used to.”

Would he rule out going back to a corporate? “No, but it would have to be a very entrepreneurial environment,” he says. “For the time being, this is the right role for me.”

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