CFOs Cool Their Heels

CFO turnover in the Fortune 1,000 falls further in 2010, as conservatism reigns and the capital markets stay down.

While economists and pundits continue to squabble about whether the recession is over and meaningful recovery is taking place, a continuing trend in the job market for CFOs suggests otherwise.

In down economic times, employers and their finance chiefs both tend to take a conservative “devil that you know” attitude. So it bears noting that during the first three quarters of 2010, the rate of CFO turnover in the Fortune 1,000 dropped for the second straight year, settling at half what it was nine months into 2008, just as the economic meltdown was beginning.

Defined as the number of positions that opened up, the CFO turnover rate so far in 2010 is 7.5%, down from 9.4% in 2009, according to an analysis by recruiter Heidrick & Struggles. “Given what’s happened the past two years, companies and candidates are both reluctant to move,” says Jeremy Hanson, head of the firm’s financial officers practice in North America.

Another factor is that many CFO searches are triggered by private-equity investments, as new owners bring in their own finance chief, and by initial public offerings, which typically demand a CFO with experience in that area. Both markets have been depressed.

A further manifestation of the conservative mind-set is that a growing majority of those CFOs who are hired come by way of internal promotions. That was the case for 57% of the Fortune 1,000 jobs filled through this year’s first three quarters, compared with 54% and 50% in the previous two years. It’s less risky and expensive to promote someone than to go outside, notes Hanson.

New jobs

That means there are few opportunities for would-be finance chiefs who are blocked from a promotion by a sitting CFO. Hanson has little advice for them, other than to broaden their skill sets and be patient. In particular, controllers and chief accountants are 10 times more likely to win the role at their current company than elsewhere. So far this year, they’ve accounted for 30% of internal CFO hires but only 3% of external ones, where the preference is to find someone with operational finance experience.

In fact, 78% of the external hires had been either sitting CFOs or divisional finance executives. That kind of experience was far more relevant than industry experience, as 56% of those brought in from outside came from a different industry. That was a big spike from the 39% figure for the first nine months of 2009: a figure that may have been a statistical quirk, since the total number of external hires among Fortune 1,000 companies was only 37. Still, Hanson says, there is an evident willingness to hire the “best athlete” rather than someone from a similar company.

More CFO positions — 31% of the total — were filled at industrial companies, followed by consumer and financial-services firms (16% and 13%, respectively). By contrast, the technology and telecommunications sectors each had only 3% of total positions filled.

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