It’s been a dizzying couple of years for Tatum, the large CFO-outsourcing firm. In early 2010, the company was purchased by SFN Group, a provider of temporary staffing, recruiting, and permanent job-placement services. Shortly thereafter, longtime president Rich D’Amaro left the firm.
D’Amaro was replaced several months later by Karen Macleod, who 15 years ago cofounded Tatum competitor Resources Global. Then, last month, SFN merged with Randstad, a $20 billion workforce-solutions firm based in The Netherlands.
Macleod recently sat down with CFO to talk about the new Tatum and the market for interim CFOs. An edited transcript of the session follows.
Have there been any big changes since the September 2 acquisition by Randstad?
Not yet. Randstad gives us a global platform and a big, healthy, robust company to be attached to. But we’re at the high end of the professional-services spectrum; they don’t have a comparable company anywhere in the world. So we’ll still stand alone and keep our brand. From a processes and systems standpoint there may be headaches, but overall I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal for us.
Who do you report to?
Dan Foley, the head of professional services for Randstad in the U.S.
What are you seeing in the demand for interim executive positions?
It’s getting better. It had been terrible for quite a few years. I think companies have held back from hiring for so long that they now need to get things done, but they’re hesitant to really scale up hiring. When we sit in business-development opportunities, clients are specifically looking not to invest in long-term talent. I just met with a client that wants three people for a large finance-transformation project that will go for up to three years, and [it] didn’t want to hire permanent people for that.
Are most of the clients midsize and small companies?
Well, there’s been some transformation at Tatum. We’re now focused on four lines of business. We’re highly branded with our business providing interim CFOs, CIOs, and other C-suite positions. We also do finance and accounting project work, executive search, and consulting. In our project and consulting services we’re in larger companies, and in our CFO work we tend to serve more small and midsize companies.
I hadn’t heard that Tatum was involved in recruiting for permanent positions.
We’ve always done it informally, but in February we put some leadership on it and formalized it as a service line. But we’re not trying to compete with the true retained search firms.
What do you mean by that?
We’re more focused on clients that know us and on drawing from our network. We’re not calling into companies and pulling people out. We also have a different revenue model, where the fees are more staggered over the search. Part of the fee is to start the search, part to interview candidates, and part to close the search.
One of Tatum’s major channels for interim CFOs has always been private-equity firms. Is that still true?
Yes, and that pipeline of opportunities has been increasing. The interesting part is, it’s not as simple as a client needing a CFO to fill a role. It’s more, “I need to get this company from point A to point B” with some type of philosophy. We’re not just an affiliation of CFOs without jobs.
Private-equity firms that have gotten their investment to a point where it can be transacted feel a lot of pressure to get that done. Yet it’s not necessarily a great time right now for a company to be in its best, most valuable place. So it’s a neat challenge for us.
Are there any other interesting things going on out there regarding CFOs?
Some clients are bringing in interim talent as a permanent strategy. I’ve been in this business for 15 years, and clients often brought in top talent because they had to – there was some crisis, some last-resort position. But now, after the recession, more companies are looking for a permanent lean cost structure. Maybe they want 30% of their talent to be variable, from the top down.
If someone wants that permanently, is the person you place there really “interim”? Would a Tatum person stay at a job for years and years?
It happens all the time. You could say, well why don’t you just hire them? But they’re not on your benefits or in your headcount, and you have the option to stop the relationship at any time. The person also brings an objectivity that clients may find valuable for solving problems and fixing processes, and doesn’t bring in the politics or bureaucracy that causes companies to be less agile.
How do you manage your inventory, as it were? You’ve got to have enough people so that you can fill the demand that’s coming in, but if you have too many you’re top-heavy. How do you maintain a balance?
We have a sphere of about 600 CFOs, 300 in employment status and 300 in alumni relationships. Part of how we’re managing that is expanding more into project services. A company may have only one CFO position but a lot of work in the office of the CFO. So some of our people are carving out projects for others to come in and do. You do have to be careful to make sure it’s not a fox-in-the-henhouse situation.
Is the potential for not having the optimal mix of people one of your top risk factors?
Yes. On the client side, the biggest risk is not having the right person for a particular job. At our level, what we provide is not a commodity. It’s a very precise match with the client’s needs, and there’s no room for somebody who does kind of a good job.
Another risk is about retaining people, because of uncertainty in the job market. Some of our people will leave because they have another opportunity that feels more secure to them. We’re not a traditional type of employer.
Through what mechanism do you monitor their performance?
Primarily client feedback. Something I hate to hear is, “Oh, he was fine.” To me that’s just a terrible evaluation. I look for real enthusiasm, like “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
What does the competitive terrain look like for you?
There are a lot of people out there looking for work right now. In all the years I’ve been in this business, 90% of the time there is more work than people. This is the first time I’ve seen a continued period of more people than work. I still think a client is often better off working through an organization rather than single shingles.
There are many boutique firms where a handful of CFOs have organized into a firm. They are hard competition for us, because they can charge tiny amounts. You can’t run a national firm that way, so we have to be very smart about business development, about going where we make the most sense, and not competing against that type of thing. And we’re still a deal compared to the big four consulting firms.
So if there’s a job that doesn’t make sense for you, you don’t want to pretend that it does so you can take the cash.
In this type of economy, people will chase every squirrel. I would imagine any of our competitors have the same issues about trying to keep their people focused on adding the right kind of value and understanding who they are. I must say this six times a week: if you are not the right solution for a client, have the courage to know that and walk away.
Going macro, where do you see the economic recovery and the unemployment situation going?
I think the United States is very creative and innovative by nature and that we will get our act together. My belief is in companies and in banks starting to lend money to people who are capable of paying it back. Consumers also need to be more responsible.
I view the responsibility of the President as encouraging that behavior. I don’t think the President or the Congress can solve these issues with legislation or policies. In Bill Clinton’s term there was also a huge deficit, and he inspired in people the idea that America was great, so let’s get out there and start innovating, doing what we do best.
It sounds like what you’re talking about is collective behavior: everyone’s got to get on board with this idea.
I think so.
But isn’t collective behavior a pipe dream? I mean, if it would have been possible for all companies to agree that “You know what, we’re not going to lay off 10% of our workforce,” would the economy be in the mess it’s in?
It’s hard to say a company shouldn’t do a layoff if it’s losing money. But when you get to the point where you lay off 10,000 people, don’t you think you’ve mismanaged something?