What’s Wrong with the Kids?

Coping with the newest generation in finance requires tact, patience — and restraint.

Defenders of the new order point out that loyalty is a two-way street. Years of corporate downsizing and finance department right-sizing have left accountants and finance professionals young and old with a firm belief that tenure doesn’t matter anymore. In fact, long-serving finance staff employees — who generally make more money than junior colleagues — are often the first to be let go when belt-tightening commences.

“I see firms quick to lay off highly qualified employees as soon as there is any sign of a downturn,” says one self-described member of the millennium generation. “Yet they expect their employees to stick by them. You want loyalty, hire a cocker spaniel.”

Tailgating and Fantasy Drafts

Ironically, the accounting shortage has been spawned by regulations targeting the corporate finance function. “[With Sarbanes-Oxley], we need a lot more accountants,” says John Brausch, controller of Edens & Avant, an owner of retail shopping centers. “But more hiring shrinks the available pool.”

On campuses, top students can hardly mistake the strong message that their services are greatly in demand. Of the 140 or so accounting majors that graduate from Villanova each year, 95 to 100 percent are sure to find jobs immediately, notes Peters.

In the current recruiting frenzy, students showing accounting aptitude are wined and dined by audit firms — sometimes as early as their sophomore year. At the University of Alabama, top accounting shops are prominent caterers of tailgate parties at Crimson Tide football games, hoping to lure possible hires. Richard Houston, a professor of accounting and director of the university’s master of accountancy program, says audit firms take an intense interest in “who went where.” He says the firms treat the competition for collegiate finance talent “almost like a fantasy baseball draft.”

The wooing continues once graduates enter the job market. Kurtz says Novellus saw a 20 percent turnover in its approximately 100-person finance department over the last several years. The exodus roughly tracks the resurgence of start-ups and initial public offerings in Silicon Valley after years of inactivity. With projected growth rates of 50 percent or more, these fast-rising companies have been snatching accountants and future controllers from Novellus. Says Kurtz: “These people were high-potential workers. We didn’t expect them to leave.”

Proper Care and Handling

For insight into why promising employees move on, finance chiefs might want to consult their own résumés. In several instances recently, high-profile CFOs left after extremely short stays in top finance positions: Alvaro de Molina, for example, lasted only 18 months as CFO of Bank of America; Craig Monaghan left Sears Holdings last January after only 4 months; and in August, Steve Sordello quit as CFO of Tivo Inc. after less than a year. A 2006 study by Crist Associates of 658 large companies put the average tenure of a Fortune 500 CFO at four-and-a-half years — not exactly a lifetime of service.

What’s more, who’s to say that the old ways of running a finance department are necessarily the best? In truth, some finance chiefs may be holding on to idealized — and inaccurate — views of their early work experiences. Jay Jamrog, a senior vice president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity, says CFOs need “to challenge some of their assumptions about how work was done in the past.”

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