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The Freelance Finance Chief

As demand for executives and controllers grows more slowly over the next few years, CFOs may need to consider going “part-time.”

Coffey agrees. “You can be very candid with these people and tell them what they need to do to accomplish their goals without being afraid of losing your paycheck, because they might be one of seven or eight clients you’re working with right then.” Indeed, Coffey’s role gives him the freedom to fire clients if necessary. “You help them and you guide them and you tell them all the things that they should be doing and they agree and then they don’t execute. After a while you just tell them, ‘I’ve helped you as much as I can help you, and I think maybe you’re better off working with someone else.’”

More Fun, Less Stress
Coffey has spent more than 30 years in finance, including as a partner at KPMG and the finance chief of a $3 billion turnaround company. In 2005, he left his job as a vice president of finance at Unisys after a management change. “I interviewed for other public company CFO positions. And I think I was just a little exhausted. After I went through the interviews and met with some of the CEOs, I just didn’t want to go through it again. So I decided that I would consult part time.”

An investment banker friend of his was helping to sell a company and he brought Coffey on as a consultant. Coffey developed a website and became a partner at B2B CFO, a firm that provides part-time CFO services to companies. Now, he says, his part-time CFO role is an on-ramp to retirement. His wife often teases him, saying he’s not really retired because he works too hard. But Coffey assures that he still takes time off to travel to Florida and play golf. “It’s what you make of it. I mean, I’m very engaged in business still. I get energized by it. But trust me, I take a couple of days off.”

Coffey doesn’t make as much money as he did when he was a public-company CFO and received stock options and bonuses, but he has had some lucrative years as a freelance finance chief. “If we have a successful exit I get a success fee for helping them close the transaction,” Coffey says. “Some years if I have a couple of transaction closings in addition to my hourly fees I do very well. But it depends on the size of the company.”

When Coffey was CFO of a $3 billion dollar public company, he faced an SEC investigation, shareholder lawsuits, refinancings and other problems. “For all that stress and agony, and the fact that I probably aged a decade in two-and-a-half years, they pay you very well,” he says. But being a part-time CFO is worth the trade-off, because Coffey takes on only the clients he thinks he can help.

Coffey particularly likes working with entrepreneurial businesses, because they have fewer internal politics and external pressures. “They don’t worry about quarterly earnings,” he says. “They worry more about creating profit over a longer period.” And the early-stage firms appreciate a part-time CFO more than mature companies. “They’re very appreciative of the skill sets that someone with a CFO background can bring to help them establish some infrastructure and methodology, so they can become better at planning and budgeting.”

12 thoughts on “The Freelance Finance Chief

  1. As someone intending to transition from banker to part-time CFO, I am interested in the fee schedules successful such part-time CFOs propose. Is it hourly, monthly retainers or annual contract? Also, how does one determine what is a “fair” charge?

    Any insights would be most appreciated.

    • Jonathan,

      There are lots of “1-armed Johnnie’s” who label themselves as CFOs but are really doing accounting manager and controller-level work at cut rates ($45 – 90 per hour). For true CFO work that includes pricing strategy, cash flow management, capital formation, Board reporting, etc. such as our TechCXO CFOs — who have public accounting and public company CFO experience — the range is closer to $190-$250 per hour. There are some fluctuations depending on markets. If you go to TechCXO.com/independence there are more details.

  2. As with many professions, many outside of their own have different definitions of a CFO… And different levels of services provided… And different qualifications. … An ex-banker might be be able to raise funds but a CFO, but a CFO worth their salt will have a CPA, public accounting experience, preferably Big 4, and be able to provide the proper financial and operational discipline, system and process and strategic guidance to prepare for and steer growth. http://Www.yourowncfo.com

    • All great CFO’s are high level thinkers who make all the moving parts of the finance function (and people) work together to accomplish the long term vision of the company.

      Not all of them are CPA’s.

  3. To weigh in on this discussion, rates vary by market. In the Austin TX market, a qualified P/T CFO goes from $150-$175/hr if you are doing work for young tech companies. In the Boston, MA market, similar qualifications command upwards of $250/hr. I am told Silicon Valley rates are similar to Boston. These rates vary depending on qualifications, size of client, issues to be addressed, industry. In this business, breadth of experience is very important as well. It is good to be able to raise capital, but you should also be able to do a lot of other things ranging from budgeting to contract negotiation, understanding IP issues, and taking out the trash at night. As far as a Big 4 CPA, I do not have one and have been doing this successfully for about 15 years. I do however have a very presentable MBA and excellent experience that only time will give you. And, yes, we always live in fear that the pipeline will dry up – my advice if you want to do this – 1) treat it as a business, not a job 2) expect to work 50 hrs/wk of which 30 is billable 3) do some biz development every single day and 4) keep up on CPE’s even if you are not a CPA.

  4. Fantastic article! Our experience with compensation varies by market and is commensurate with experience, availability, and utilisation, the range for “True” part-time CFO work can range from $1,000 to $2,500 per day.

    If you are interested in pursuing a “Freestyle” career, The CFO Center is currently seeking high-caliber part-time CFOs to work with a portfolio of mid-tier private, public, charitable, and not-for-profit businesses across multiple industries in the Boston area. If you are a qualified professional accountant (CPA, CA, CMA), and have been a frontline CFO, we want to hear from you. bill.starr@cfocenterllc.com (http://www.cfocenterllc.com)

  5. Hi Amy,
    A good article, I am currently considering this move myself, but in the UK, any help would be appreciated for the UK market?

  6. Great article. I have been doing contract-CFO work in both SF and now NY at rates from $150-200/hour. There seems to be a lot of startups that neglect to staff FT hires in the finance area early on, so there are now multiple firms targeting this area. I just relocated to NY and have found VCs are a great lead-gen target for PT gigs. I agree that you need to focus on BD at least one day a week.

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