"You Take Risks and You Own Them."

CFOs at private equity–backed companies love the challenge, and the payoff. Interviews with New Breed CFO Rick Wimmer, Culligan CFO Maria Henry, Eemax CFO David Brault, and Opal Ferraro, CFO of PSA Healthcare.

From an intellectual standpoint, private equity is harder than public or non-PE private. But I enjoy it. You know, the grass is always greener. When I was a public-company CFO I was always getting picked up by a limo to go to the airport. Now I get in a car and drive myself, saying, “Man, I really miss that limo.” But I have more control over my day-to-day operations, I’m a contributing member of a team, and I’m moving a small company quickly.

CFO: Opal Ferraro
Company: PSA Healthcare, a 4,000-employee private nursing firm
Start date: May 2010
PE owners: Portfolio Logic, D3 Funds

For 10 years I was CFO at a start-up retailer, Babbage’s, that we took public and later merged with other companies. But I really enjoyed moving to the private side.

At a public company, the repercussions of being wrong about anything are pretty severe. There is enormous public pressure to meet numbers in the next few weeks and achieve a certain price point. With any little fluctuation in the market, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the business, the phone rings and your day is taken up with investor relations.

There’s pressure in private equity, too, of course. I’ve been with three PE-backed companies, and each investor had its own style and ways of applying pressure. Success is a matter of adapting. You learn what’s important to the owners and manage to that.

I still feel the same obligation as on the public side, from a fiduciary standpoint, to make all the right decisions at the highest level. But the repercussions are not public. You deal with the owners on a very eye-to-eye basis.

Clearly, as a CFO in a private equity–owned company, you’ve got to drive toward an exit. But there are milestones along the way. Perhaps it’s a turnaround situation, and success is the result of that. Maybe the owners want to roll up several companies, and there’s success in that. Maybe there is a growth opportunity that has not been exploited by previous management. It gets back to understanding the owners’ point of view and tailoring your actions, reporting, and dealings with the board toward that.

But there is nothing about ownership that keeps me awake at night. My concerns are about growing the business and focusing on issues we have. For example, I have to be cognizant that we are in the health-care industry, because there are societal and legislative things going on that we have to react to in order to manage the business.

If you’re considering a job in private equity, look at the business issues, but do not shirk full due diligence on the people you’re going to work with. It’s a very personal relationship.

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