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.

Brill’s and Ahern’s early stretches in commercial banking and public accounting, respectively, opened doors to a wide view of finance in an array of industries, sparking a desire to be involved in many.

During his four years at a regional CPA firm, Ahern said, “I tended to work not on large clients but entrepreneurial companies, and I would spend a few weeks learning about the company and talking to management.” Almost 20 years later, Ahern has made a career of joining entrepreneurial companies such as Mountain Travel Sobek and Continuum.

While the excitement of learning new business models or leading interesting companies may be personally rewarding, a varied résumé is also a career boon for CFOs in today’s competitive economy, says executive recruiter Russell Boyle of Egon Zehnder International.

“A proven ability to move across industries and add value as a strategic partner makes a person a very good choice for a CEO who may be doing a search and finding candidates who don’t have that kind of experience,” Boyle says.

But at the same time, Boyle notes that spreading your wings, by itself, can take you only so far. “Lots of people are able to be CFO at a number of different companies,” he says, “but they may not bring the strategic aspect or be good at managing and developing people. These kinds of things are all stressed differently at different companies.”

In Brill’s case, he was able to leverage the skills gained at each of his four previous CFO stops and apply them to the next. For example, when he came to the technology company Vertel in 1998 from software distributor Merisel, which had mushroomed from $300 million in sales to $6 billion during his eight-year tenure, he tapped his management skills at the larger company to install Vertel’s human resource structure and benefits plan, mirroring what he had put into place during Merisel’s growth.

The same was true for Kevin Speirits, CFO for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure. After joining the non-profit charity, he implemented financial accounting software he was familiar with from his 17 years in finance positions at a high-tech company, Freescale Semiconductor, including a stint as vice president of corporate finance.

Speirits said he was attracted by Komen’s revenue model. The foundation has 180 corporate partnerships that generate funding. Unlike his counterparts at many other non-profits, he isn’t stuck simply managing a massive endowment or scratching for donations. “The way Komen gets its money is a lot like a traditional for-profit organization, and that excited me,” Speirits tells CFO.com. “It isn’t the sleepy, slow, traditional non-profit.”

Not all moves between fields are equal, however. Highly regulated industries such as telecommunications are much more challenging than others, according to Tom Schilling, CFO of USA Mobility, who grew up through the ranks of MCI and left just before the company’s merger with WorldCom in 1998. Schilling said he found his short stint at a small Internet start-up, Autotrader.com, to be hardly challenging at all. He soon went back to telecom as CFO at Broadwing Inc. —
a move that was not nearly as tricky for him, given his prior experience, as it would have been for someone foreign to telecom.

For his part, Brill says that although moving to Diagnostic Products, an immunology diagnostic company that’s highly regulated by the FDA, was his most demanding transition, learning about that industry was still “a lot of fun,” as were all his career moves.

“Industries can be very attractive or not attractive depending on the cycle of the economy and the level of competition,” he says. “But I don’t favor one over another other because every business has its own set of challenges and intricacies.”

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