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.”

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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