Over 50, Out of Work, Open to Change

More and more finance executives fit that description in these days of recession and downsizing. The best cure: constant effort and a positive outlook.

Kenneth Zuerblis, the former CFO of ImClone Systems, just turned 50 and is out of work — and he could not care less. If his unemployment lasts for four years, he says, he won’t be bothered at all.

Such a carefree attitude is a luxury that many other “in transition” finance executives in their 50s and 60s cannot afford, the stock-market plunge having devastated their retirement savings. In the case of Zuerblis, money is not an issue, which is why he says he is being “extremely picky” with potential employers.

And why not? That mindset worked the last time he was looking for a job, starting in 2005. That was when he left Enzon Pharmaceuticals, where he had headed finance for 13 years, a wealthy man thanks to a huge spike in the company’s stock price and, hence, the value of his equity-based compensation awards. Zuerblis looked around ultra-carefully for the next lucrative opportunity, which turned out to be with ImClone in early 2008. (This was several years after the wide-ranging insider-trading scandal that earned ex-CEO Samuel Waksal a long prison term, and eventually led to jail time for media celebrity Martha Stewart.) 

Zuerblis’s ImClone gig lasted less than a year, during which the CFO helped engineer the company’s November sale to Eli Lilly for $6.5 billion — a figure that translated to a premium of about 70 percent above the price at which ImClone’s stock was trading. Three months later, once again he left his employment with his bank account generously fattened.

Now he’s back in the job market, talking to contacts about opportunities and keeping his ears open. But there is no rush. “I’ve had two very big winners, and I’m not willing to jump into something that would hurt my reputation on Wall Street,” he tells CFO.com. “It’s going to take a long time to find, I think.”

For Zuerblis, a golden reputation trumps advancing age, no contest, when it comes to job search. “At 50, a reputation like I have is great,” he says. “If you didn’t have that, 50 is not so great.”

Unfair Hiring Practices?

Indeed, despite federal age-discrimination laws, there clearly is an unwritten age bias against candidates in their 50s and 60s, particularly out-of-work ones, most observers believe.

“Hiring managers may look down their noses at people 55 or older, because of the benefits costs being higher, or a feeling that a lot of time will be spent acclimating a person who will be gone soon anyway, or a preference for someone who can still move up in the organization and is still growing,” says Terry Gallagher, president of executive search firm Battalia Winston.

Those who do find work, though, may be in a good position. Some percentage of the vast Baby Boomer population will retire on schedule over the next few years, and their replacements, Generations X and Y, are much smaller in number. “You’re going to see companies extending retirement ages to 70 because of the intellectual capital these people have accumulated and the dearth of people behind them to pick up the rope,” Gallagher says.

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