Boston-based recruiter Walter Williams, a partner with Battalia Winston International, the New York executive search firm, has specialized in financial recruiting for half of his 20-year career in executive search. He has been with Battalia since 2002. He spoke recently with CFO senior writer Kate O’Sullivan about the latest trends in CFO job search, succession, turnover, and the characteristics that boards are seeking to find for the right “fit” in a new finance chief.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on a controller search for a biotech company. It’s the hardest search I’ve had in a while. You can’t recruit easily out of the Big Four anymore because they’re throwing lots of money and perks at their people now.
Are companies doing any more internal succession planning — looking at in-house candidates to be CFO?
Some companies do it well; they hire good people year in and year out. Some companies are just looking quarter-to-quarter. To develop a “finance bench” requires some degree of organizational slack, and over the last 15 years, many companies have been saying they can’t afford to have any organizational slack. The attitude is, “We’ll get people if we need people.”
Where do CFOs most often come from within an organization, if they do come through the finance ranks?
The controller is often next in line to be CFO, unless the company does a lot of financing, in which case the company might look at the treasurer. Companies might not know what kind of CFO they’ll need down the road, and sometimes they find the internal person isn’t the right person after all given where the company is at that point.
Are companies still experiencing a lot of CFO turnover?
With the economic turmoil of the last few years, there is a lot of CFO turnover. And there is CEO turnover, which often leads to CFO turnover. There’s also a lot of stress in the job, and with all the buyout activity we’ve been seeing, many times the first thing that happens is the buyers bring in a new CFO.
Lots of CFOs are still eager to leave the public company environment. It has not been fun for the past few years.
How fast is too fast for a CFO to leave a job? At a certain point does rapid turnover make them look bad?
It depends on the industry, but three years is the minimum I would look for in a candidate. I’d rather see five.
Sometimes, though, you have a CFO who’s brought in to address a specific issue, like a turnaround, or cleaning up the books. They can accomplish that over the relatively short term, and then they say ‘My work here is done,’ and move on to the next challenge.
Generally, though if somebody leaves after six months, it was the wrong fit, either in terms of chemistry or the scope of the job. There was some miscommunication in the hiring process.
What are the qualifications companies are looking for now in a CFO candidate?
Companies are still looking for an MBA or CPA and experience at a similar size company. What is critical is usually some sort of experience that’s relevant to the company’s life cycle — either experience taking a company public, or with a major downsizing, with M&A and integration, or going international. Usually the life cycle thing becomes the most important criteria.
Right now, we’re doing a search for a VP of finance for a large healthcare services company. It would be nice to get someone in the healthcare industry, but the key thing is someone with experience at a company with a lot of widely dispersed offices — a big footprint with lots of regional offices. So we’re looking in retail, at restaurants, and other kinds of industries with multiple units across different regions.