Breaking from the Bank

With Wall Street down and investment bankers in career transition, some might land in CFO chairs. What challenges and opportunities will they find?

Does a CFO’s office befit someone who drives a Buggati Veyron or Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and smokes $400 cigars?

More than 50,000 employees could be culled from Wall Street firms in 2008, as many as 7,000 from investment bank Bear Stearns alone. And it’s more than a little bit likely that some of these masters of the universe could score positions at the head of corporate finance departments.

Many investment bankers have made the jump: Susan Decker of Yahoo! and Liberty Media’s Greg Maffei, to name two. Might more high-finance types take this path? If they do, they will have some hurdles to surmount.

In the eyes of many boards of directors and CEOs, the typical investment banker is an imperfect CFO candidate, but not for lack of skill. The concern is they don’t have some of the softer attributes, in particular the willingness to subjugate their ego for the good of the organization, patience, and being big enough to recognize there’s another top dog — the CEO.

“A lot of investment bankers need the ‘juice’ of a deal after a deal after a deal,” says Mitchell Gordon, president of merchant bank Morpheus Capital Advisors and a former CFO himself. “It’s as much a personality fit as anything else.”

Another element of the common wisdom is that the skill sets are slightly misaligned. In CFOs, most of Terry Gallagher’s clients want an executive with years of hands-on experience navigating Sarbanes-Oxley, other financial reporting and compliance issues, and complex accounting treatments. Given those qualifications, the typical c.v. of an investment banker “might be laughed at,” says Gallagher, president of retained executive search firm Battalia Winston.

But not all companies use deep accounting expertise as the ruler with which to measure CFO candidates. “You need the knowledge of financial reporting, accounting, and controls in the organization, but not necessarily in the CFO position,” argues Dylan Roberts, a principal at management-consulting firm Oliver Wyman.

For sure, bankers-turned-CFOs need to be paired with strong controllers. But today a CFO’s principal functions are balance-sheet manager and strategic adviser to the CEO, says Roberts, a role that many investment bankers already fill with corporate clients. “Alternative capital structures, alternative capital raising strategies — it’s all bread-and-butter stuff for an investment banker,” Roberts says. And that’s not to mention the experience bankers get evaluating M&A prospects and steering global deals.

Moreover, in the current economy, when financial institutions are preserving capital, knowing how to procure funds cheaply in the global financial markets is valuable expertise. Gordon, who was CFO of container leasing firm Interpool Inc. from 2000 to 2003, says he was a much better CFO for having been a banker. As a CFO, “I knew when the bankers were telling me the truth and when they weren’t,” Gordon says. “I was able to tell in a nanosecond who had substance and who had nothing to bring to the table.”

Living It

The most effective CFOs delegate administrative tasks and cover the big-picture, strategic issues, says Kip Clarke, managing director and co-head of mergers and acquisitions at KeyBanc Capital Markets; they’re not trying to negotiate a 1 percent discount on a software license.

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