Is There a Pulse in the CFO Market?

The demand for finance-executive talent is slowly reviving.

After more than a year of dormancy, the job market for finance executives is showing signs of life. “The market is definitely coming back,” says E. Peter McLean, chairman of the financial officers practice at Korn Ferry International. “There are a good number of high-level, big positions in the market that weren’t around last year.” Walter Williams, a finance recruiter at Amrop Battalia Winston, says his firm won more assignments in March than in any other month going back more than a year.

As the open positions are filled, the usual domino effect should kick in, says McLean, as other finance chiefs move into newly vacated positions and leave more open slots in their wake. Still, as with so many other aspects of the economy today, the road ahead for the CFO market is not entirely clear. Williams says a large number of finance executives are not ready to jump to a new position yet, even though they may be unhappy.

And confidence among executive recruiters has slipped in the past few months, according to a survey by ExecuNet, an executive-networking company. While 64% of recruiters in the January survey said they were confident or very confident that the executive-employment market would improve in the next six months, only 53% reported such confidence in the most recent survey, conducted in March.

But it’s still a far cry from the period between December 2008 and October 2009, when the market for CFOs was “totally dead,” says Williams. Some firms, anticipating a return to growth, are starting to look for fresh talent to lead them through the recovery. Whether a company will switch finance chiefs will depend in part on the way its current CFO approached the recession and the belt-tightening that went with it, says Williams. A company whose finance chief was forced to make overly draconian cuts “may need someone without that legacy,” he says.

One item on the résumé that will help finance executives land new roles when they are ready to look around — in addition to a strong track record of thoughtful leadership during the recession — is a background in mergers and acquisitions, says Williams. With many firms looking to scoop up weakened competitors, deal-making skills will be an important qualification for finance chiefs.

What will ultimately give CFOs and boards the confidence to make a change? “We need to see new top-line growth,” answers Williams. “We’ll see what happens this earnings season.” With many CFOs feeling overworked and underappreciated, he says, “when the dam does break, there will be an awful lot of turnover.”

 

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