Industry-Hopping CFOs Gain an Edge

To round out your résumé you don't have to go into operations or overseas. Another route: When you have one industry down, move to another. Repeat as needed.

Ask Blue Nile Inc. CFO Marc Stolzman what Frappuccinos, vegetable oil, and diamonds have in common, and he’ll say himself. Stolzman’s finance career has brought him to industries that are poles apart, serving as a divisional head of finance at Starbucks, leading an initial public offering as CFO of biodiesel refinery Imperium Renewables, and now presiding over finance at the online jewelry retailer Blue Nile.

While some finance executives opt for operational or overseas experience to add variety to their résumés, others like Stolzman move from industry to industry, a strategy that not only gives them a unique strategic career advantage but also can be quite fun.

To be sure, industry hopping is no stroll in the park. When Stolzman started his tenure at Imperium, it was two days before the fuel company’s IPO kick-off meeting with analysts and investors. Fresh off a 13-year finance career at Starbucks, the only fuel expertise Stolzman had involved caffeine. He spent weeks studying how biodiesel technology works, the large-scale manufacturing business model, the capital expenditure structure, and commodity risk and exposures in the developing biodiesel fuel industry. It was, he says, the biggest job-change challenge he’s faced.

“Many CFOs don’t want to be seen as not having the answers, so they’d rather remain silent,” he tells CFO.com. “But if you can admit your own ignorance, it’s really a speed to learning. You have to have the humility to ask questions while leveraging the points you do have a high understanding of.”

Every job transition, regardless whether it’s in a new industry, has a learning curve. However, other CFOs who have made similar career moves as Stolzman’s agree that balancing the task of learning a new industry with making sure the books are right is the highest hurdle to clear during an industry transition.

“Understanding the business takes a little bit longer in a new industry,” says Jim Ahern, CFO at Newton, Mass.-based design firm Continuum, who had finance-chief stints at the adventure travel company Mountain Travel Sobek and real estate firm The Bay Group. “Early on I just worked a lot of hours and got engrossed in the business and did everything I could do to learn more about it. That required a lot of hours, because while you’re spending all this time learning you have to get the regular work done.”

For Jim Brill, CFO of the professional staffing company On Assignment Inc., the learning stage is the real thrill. Brill, who has been CFO at companies such as Jafra Cosmetics, Diagnostic Products Corp., Vertel Corp., and Merisel, says he thrives off the excitement of learning a new industry.

“The key to this whole CFO thing is that if you have the basic tools and you’re fairly intelligent you can figure out how the business works and what’s unique,” Brill tells CFO.com. When entering a field, “It would be easier if you knew all the competitors, but learning how an industry operates, and what’s important and not important in that industry, is fun.”

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