Star Search

Companies are increasingly looking in top MBA programs for finance talent.

It’s 7:30 A.M. on a Saturday and Ananda Baron is juggling a cup of coffee and a bagel, trying to down a quick breakfast before a long day of interviews. One of 25 MBA students invited to PG&E Corp.’s San Francisco headquarters for second-round interviews, Baron has been cruising a crowded conference room to network with company executives since the breakfast formally began 30 minutes earlier. That’s on top of several hours spent networking the night before, when she sat next to the CEO at a group dinner and learned, among other things, how he met his wife.

Before Baron can spread the cream cheese, though, Steve Arnold, PG&E’s chief tax executive, sails up to her. “I love your first name — what’s the story behind it?” he asks. Breakfast waits another 20 minutes while Baron, a student at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, tells him about her parents’ hippie phase (her name is Hindu but her family is not). Then she neatly segues into how she’s using her finance skills to help her father with his San Diego–based surfboard business.

Despite the friendly patter, there’s little that is casual about this conversation. Baron, on the hunt for a high-level finance job, is trying to make a strong impression while deciding whether PG&E presents a better opportunity than the other three companies with which she is currently talking. Arnold, meanwhile, is trying to promote his company as a cool place to work while getting a sense of whether Baron could ever hack it as a replacement for him — or, someday, the CFO.

Scenarios like this are playing out all over the country, as companies increasingly look to MBAs to fill critical gaps in their succession-planning efforts for top roles in finance and beyond. The recruiting processes can be elaborate and time-intensive, as executives like Arnold take the opportunity to get to know candidates in casual and formal settings, in large groups and one-on-ones. In fact, recruiting MBAs might be among the more robust hiring processes a company undertakes these days, with more executive-level involvement than ever in picking future leaders.

Such involvement even extends to visiting business-school campuses. “When companies don’t send a senior-level person to campus, you don’t get the sense they’re very committed to the school,” says Everette Fortner, career director at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. American Express noted that fact a number of years ago and has since begun asking its best-performing middle managers to hit the campuses rather than asking for volunteers. Says Alan Gallo, senior vice president of corporate planning and analysis and head of MBA campus recruiting for finance: “If you don’t send your best people to campus, there’s less of a chance you’ll get the best people.”

Back in Demand

It wasn’t that long ago that many companies were scaling back on MBA recruiting, figuring they could train undergrads at a lower cost and with the same results. But some employers are finding that MBAs, because of their prior work experience, are worth the salary premium. “We are hiring [MBAs] who had important positions with previous employers, or had their own start-ups. It’s hard to replicate that with undergrads,” says Gallo.

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