CFO in Focus: The Company Man

Northern Trust's Steven Fradkin had no zest for career climbing. Excelling at every job he was given while aspiring to none, he evolved into a CFO at the only company he's ever worked for.

Steven Fradkin never dreamed of becoming a CFO. The finance chief of Northern Trust, a Chicago-based bank, skipped accounting and finance in college and instead indulged in the liberal arts. But from his perspective, it was the very lack of a careerist mentality that helped him climb the corporate rungs from the entry-level job he took at Northern Trust 23 years ago.

In an up-or-out era when career counselors and recruiters advise bouncing around from firm to firm to gain bigger pay and a kaleidoscope of experiences, Fradkin’s career is an example of how commitment to a single organization can pay off as well. “Unlike some CFOs, my career mosaic has been not vertical, but rather just trying to do the best job I could in the various roles I’ve been assigned,” Fradkin told CFO.com. “I kind of ended up in the CFO spot, rather than aspiring to it.”

Fradkin’s journey began with a job in the compliance department just after graduating from college at Washington University in St. Louis in 1985. He didn’t know what he wanted to be, but figured a couple of years at Northern Trust, an institution in the city where he grew up, couldn’t hurt.

Since then he’s had seven different jobs at the bank, which manages more than $750 billion in assets, most lasting for about three years. From compliance he moved to international sales, followed by an expatriate assignment in London, a return to become global sales head, and a promotion to general manager for international business, before moving over to financial management. Filling in the gaps in his finance and accounting knowledge proved to be the final ingredient needed to make a CFO, a title he’s now held for nearly five years.

His ascension from the business units to the executive suite has allowed Fradkin to see the entire scope of the Northern Trust business, an experience he compares to the transition of a musician to a conductor. “It’s like being able to see the entire symphony,” says Fradkin. “I like the ability to look across the entire enterprise.”

Fradkin2The grass is not greener: don’t leave a company over minor dissatisfactions, Steven Fradkin says, because you’ll probably find them elsewhere as well.

But as Fradkin warns students during guest lectures at universities on the role of the CFO, “the C-suite is not always sweet.”

“It’s extremely demanding,” says Fradkin, who is married, has two children, and lives in a Chicago suburb. “The notion of fat-cat C-suite executives smoking cigars is not what happens here.”

He notes that being a CFO actually enhances job insecurity, and that routine tasks such as quarterly earnings calls can feel like “fencing on a tightrope, 500 feet in the air, with no safety net below.”

The biggest reason Fradkin has bucked the trends and stayed at Northern Trust for so long might be that he has kept his expectations in check. Rather than pining for power while he was working in compliance, he says, he continually sought new, incremental challenges and made sure he excelled at every task. Despite having opportunities to leave, Fradkin came to believe that although not everything about his various positions was perfect, the same probably would be true elsewhere.

“Over the course of a career, you’re not always going to work for renaissance leaders; you’re not always going to be paid perfectly,” says Fradkin. “If every time you have a disappointment you say to yourself ‘I’m leaving,’ you’re going to have the same problem everywhere.”

So he has stayed, conscientiously focusing on each job and the people, environment, and challenges he faces. Even after five years as CFO, Fradkin doesn’t see himself as a finance guy but rather a manager of people and someone called upon to use sound judgment. “When I was younger, I would have thought it was a bean-counter kind of thing,” he says of the job of finance chief. “But it’s not just debits and credits and putting things in the right buckets all the time. It’s more about judgment than you might think.”

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