Wal-Mart’s Michael Fung: Why Internal Auditors Make Good CFOs

To really know what drives value for a company and understand its business processes, Fung says, there may be no better training ground than internal audit.

CFO.com was researching an article on the evolving role of internal auditors when an opportunity arose to interview Michael Fung, who since 2006 has been senior vice president of finance for Wal-Mart Stores and CFO of the company’s U.S. Wal-Mart-branded stores. He credits a mid-career detour into internal audit, which could have been seen as a backward move, as a key to landing and succeeding at his current job.

Was a career in finance always planned?

Actually, no. I was at the University of Illinois, and I was going to be an electrical engineer. It was a lot tougher than I thought. I would have flunked out of school if I’d stayed in engineering. So I migrated to accounting and found my career and my calling.

What did your father do for a living?

My dad was a waiter in a restaurant his entire life. My mother worked in a shoe factory. She was a seamstress. I was the first one in my family to go to college. We were a very mid-to-lower, working-class type family.

Was there a career move you made early on that made a big difference?

I was in public accounting with Deloitte for four years, and I left for a job in internal auditing with Beatrice, which was one of the largest diversified food companies in the world back then. I was able to excel in a lot of different things, and my last job there was corporate vice president and corporate controller. But it all started in internal auditing; that was one of the keys to my career.

The other thing that was worthwhile was going back to school and getting an MBA [at the University of Chicago]. That was in 1986, 13 years after [graduating from college]. I was in one of those career crises — I was 34 and the youngest vice president in the history of Beatrice, and everyone else was in their 50s and 60s. Grad school changed my perspective. As an undergrad, you just sort of memorize things and spit them back out. Grad school was much more of a learning mode. The quality of students I worked with, after more than 10 years of [corporate] experience, made it very enriching.

Walmart Fung2Wal-Mart divisional CFO Michael Fung didn’t campaign for a four-year stint in internal audit, but it ended up being a godsend for both him and the company.

You left Beatrice to take a CFO job. How did that come about?

Beatrice was a conglomerate that used to buy up a variety of companies. I led an acquisition team that was looking at Bass Pro Shops. The entrepreneur there thought I knew more about the company in two weeks than his existing people did. And so he offered me the [CFO] job. It was a chance to build a company and do an IPO.

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