Wanted: a CFO who can go toe-to-toe with a CEO in a confident, constructive way. One who sees compatibility between long-term profit…and kindness…. “When I say I’ve got a cool idea, the CFO latches on and helps me work it through.”
These requirements, along with more-standard items such as previous industry experience and titles, came straight out of the job description King Arthur Flour sent out in its recent search for a new CFO. Heavy on prose but tight on time, the unorthodox search resembled an accelerated MBA course for those who made it through to the first round. In return for an unusually detailed description of the business, candidates were asked to write essays about why they should get the job, with just days to complete their assignments.
Leading the search was Jim Johnston, a contract CFO who started on the executive-recruiting path when he hired his own replacement at a New England soup company. King Arthur was the fourth client for Johnston, who prides himself on his method and considers a search assignment first and foremost as a consulting engagement. An executive search, he says, should be “a strategic catalyst in the life of the company, to reassess where you’ve been and where you’re going.”
Started last September, King Arthur’s quest for a new finance chief ended less than three months later with the hiring of Susan Renaud, an M&A consultant from London. Here’s the inside story of that unusual search for a CFO.
The Job Description
For Steve Voigt, the idea of an expansive job description was what sold him on Johnston’s services. “So many job descriptions you see are just bland, boilerplate,” says Voigt, CEO of King Arthur. “It seemed like you could do better by pinpointing what you needed the person to do in the first year to be successful.”
To that end, the job description Johnston mailed out to his professional network and posted with Monster and the Financial Executives Networking Group said that King Arthur was aiming to grow annual revenues from $70 million to as much as $150 million in the next four years. The company needed a finance executive who could set up a framework for making choices about where and how to grow, offering six possible different strategies in some specificity (build additional retail stores, expand sales internationally, and so on).
The job description gave a revenue breakdown of King Arthur by divisions; a snapshot and assessment of existing staff (“there is a long-time controller with a staff of four…[who] competently manages the accounting cycle, monthly financial statements, audit, tax, variance analysis, and most of the mechanics of budgeting”); and even a listing of key reporting and other IT systems (Sage Platinum, BluePlanner, Crystal Reports, and a home-grown e-commerce application). Names of the other managers and board members at this private company were all included.
That wasn’t all. The description explained Voigt’s history with the company (the former McKinsey consultant took over the CEO reins from his wife’s cousin) and what he wanted in a CFO (“someone who does McKinsey-like analysis and recommendations”). Finally, there were verbatim quotes from other managers about what they wanted in a CFO (such as the ability, mentioned previously, to latch on to “a cool idea”) and a long list of desirable traits, including being future-oriented and biased toward changing environments rather than accepting them.
Voigt admits he was concerned that opening the corporate kimono might give away too much competitive information. But in the end, he believed the benefits would outweigh the potential costs. “The process needed to match the company, and this worked well for us,” he says.
The Candidate Pool
About 300 candidates responded to Johnston’s posting. He quickly whittled them down to 29 with the aid of a piece of paper on which he had scrawled a short list of critical characteristics, such as consumer-brand experience and the ability to be a thoughtful partner to the CEO. People with investment-banking or consulting backgrounds were particularly appealing.
“We could eliminate half without much thought, but others we gave more care to,” says Johnston. “You could imagine that anyone could be the best fit, but it’s better when you’re dealing with large numbers to be a bit more mechanical in the beginning.”
Next, Johnston e-mailed the 29 to tell them several things: they were in the top 10% of candidates, they needed to write an essay explaining why they wanted the job, the nonnegotiable salary for the position, and first- and second-round interview dates.
Setting a specific salary number up front was unusual for King Arthur, comments Voigt, since the company usually offers a range when hiring. But Johnston says a single number helps filter the applicant pool. “If I’m talking to people at different pay levels, then [in effect] I’m doing several different searches,” he explains. Indeed, three candidates dropped out at that point because of the pay.
As for prescheduled interview dates, Johnston says having them raises the level of commitment from candidates, while allowing interviewers to arrange their schedules ahead of time. (He did make other arrangements for one candidate who couldn’t make a prespecified date, however.)
Johnston’s favorite part of the search process is the essay. “That stage doesn’t take a lot of effort,” he says. “It puts the candidate in the driver’s seat, and they know it’s worth it.”
Of the 24 candidates who responded to the e-mail and submitted an essay, 14 stood out. This stage of the selection process was more subjective, Johnston admits — “I pick the ones I like best” — but a red flag flew up if a candidate wrote a long response with little reference to the job description. “I want people who are going to link who they are to the client,” he says.
On the Friday after Thanksgiving, Johnston conducted one-hour phone interviews of each of the remaining candidates. The next day, he drove from his home in Massachusetts to meet with Voigt in Norwich. The two spent the better part of that day going over Johnston’s interview notes and deciding whom to bring in for first-round interviews on the following Monday, November 30. In total, seven candidates were asked back: all six from Johnston’s “favorites” list and a seventh who interested Voigt.
The interviews with the seven candidates turned up useful information, says Johnston, and enabled the list to be cut down to two. A couple of “very strong candidates” were dropped because they hadn’t worked in a family business before. Another candidate was eliminated because he had stayed with the same management group throughout his career. Two more candidates dropped out after visiting the corporate campus and discovering just how small-town Norwich is.
That left two finalists. One was Susan Renaud. A native Vermonter who had started her career with Ben & Jerry’s, Renaud was currently working for PricewaterhouseCoopers’s M&A advisory practice in London. After 10 years of living abroad she was hoping to return to her home state, she says, and the King Arthur job seemed to be the right reason to do so.
Renaud says she appreciated the essay assignment. “It was hard work, but in going through that process, you’re not only informing them, you’re informing yourself about whether it would truly be a good fit or not.” She spent the better part of a weekend writing the essay. “I found the ideas came quite quickly because I got excited about it,” she says.
The fast pace of the selection process meant Renaud didn’t learn she had been chosen for a first-round interview until late on November 28. That gave her less than 12 hours to arrive at the airport for a flight to Boston. The visit was brief, and by the afternoon of November 30 she was on a plane back to London.
On the following Sunday, December 6, Renaud returned to Norwich for a second-round interview on Monday. A long day on campus meeting with most of the management team was followed by dinner with Voigt and Johnston. That gave her a chance to review her other homework assignment: a binder filled with past projects and presentations she had done that could be relevant to the types of work needed at King Arthur.
Finally, a week later, on Monday, December 14, Voigt offered Renaud the job. She accepted and began packing her bags in London for the move to Norwich. She plans to start her new job before the end of January.
Voigt’s choice didn’t surprise Johnston. Renaud “was in my top group,” he says. “She was remarkable from the start, and she really wanted the job,” which she proved in part by making the London-Norwich round trip twice within a week, he says.
Johnston says his approach to conducting an executive search could work for any number of firms, and he’s hoping to do more searches. He does offer one piece of advice for would-be finance chiefs: take a lesson from the sales team. “Sales vice presidents are much better interviewers than CFOs,” he says. “In fact, they’re harder to hire — because they’re all so good at selling.”
For its part, King Arthur hopes it won’t need Johnston’s services again anytime soon. “What we’re really looking for is a good match,” says Voigt, “not just someone who is going to swing in for a couple of years and then move on to something more interesting.”