Having begun his career at United Parcel Service (UPS) three decades ago as a driver, you might expect CFO Kurt Kuehn to know the company inside and out. During his long tenure he has managed such business functions as financial analysis, industrial engineering, and strategic costing for the shipping giant, enjoying the kind of linear career path that barely required him to turn the wheel.
With one exception: in 1999 he was unexpectedly asked to serve as UPS’s first head of investor relations. The job was hardly trivial, since UPS was about to launch what was, at the time, the largest initial public offering of the 20th century.
“At first I wasn’t sure CEO Jim Kelly was serious, but he didn’t laugh after he asked me so I figured he must have meant it,” Kuehn recalls. After the IPO and a successful stretch in IR, Kuehn spent four years as senior vice president of worldwide sales and marketing before he became CFO in 2008. Kuehn says his sojourn in sales and marketing helped reconnect him with UPS’s customers — people he rarely interacted with during the 10 years when financial ratios and market research were his primary concerns.
There is a lesson in Kuehn’s experience for other aspiring CFOs: Don’t discount the many potential benefits of a nonfinance position. “Because the CFO is increasingly focused on driving results across the company,” says Russell Boyle, head of the U.S. Financial Officers practice at executive recruiting firm Egon Zehnder International, “we see a growing number of finance executives take on operational or business-line roles” as they work their way up.
Many companies have long tried to provide that versatility through job-rotation programs, but for some upwardly mobile executives it’s the unplanned detour from finance that truly pays off.
In 1995, for example, Thomas Schilling, currently the CFO of USA Mobility, was working in financial planning at MCI. When the telecom giant acquired SHL Systemhouse in an effort to expand into the computer-services market, the company asked Schilling to take on a sales director role at SHL for the next 18 months; despite his doubts, he says the move made him a better finance manager.
“It helped me understand [sales people] a little bit more and what they’re up against,” Schilling says of his stint as managing director of sales. “It also helped me understand what they’re not up against so I could sort through the [stuff] that salespeople sometimes throw at you.” (In what he describes as “definitely my best career move,” Schilling left MCI before WorldCom acquired it.)
Found in Translation
If positions outside of finance broaden a would-be CFO’s experience and vision, they can also help him communicate to the rest of the company just what finance is all about. Steve Fradkin, finance chief of Northern Trust Corp. since 2004, says his “broad array of experiences in international, general management, and compliance roles” prepared him to “help translate my CFO role” to everyone from internal managers and board members to investors and regulators.