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A mid-career detour into IT can have unforeseen consequences. An unlikely one is a later promotion to finance chief, but you never know.
Robert Hertzberg, CFO.com | US
July 7, 2008
Stacy Smith of Intel is one of them. Robert Sanchez of Ryder Systems and James Yost of Dana Holding Corp. are two others. Until last week, Khaled Haram of Handleman Co. was a fourth. They all are chief financial officers who have also held the title of chief information officer — but finance professionals bent on making CFO might want to think twice about emulating them.
Hands-on experience with technology certainly can help a CFO, given the critical role of systems in many companies' cost-reduction and streamlining efforts. The four cited above are a rare breed, however.
For career-advancement purposes, experience outsourcing technical development work or running big software projects is a far cry from having overseen different types of businesses, worked in different geographies, or managed through different business cycles, notes Barry Bregman, financial services partner at recruiting firm CTPartners.
Even finance executives who have worked in corporate technology seem to regard their career paths as accidental and don't necessarily recommend themselves as models.
Deepak Sarup is an example. Sarup joined Siam Commercial Bank as a senior vice president in 2002 with the explicit charge of helping Siam modernize its operations. A lot of those operations happened to be technology-related, and after less than a year the bank, Thailand's biggest, gave Sarup the additional title of CIO. This year, targeting a set of equally big changes in its finance department, the bank named Sarup CFO and offloaded his CIO responsibilities to a different executive.
"I'm really coming at the CFO job from a change-agent perspective," says Sarup, 53. "It's a very unconventional entry point."
As a longtime information technology consultant who once headed up a small business unit for Alltel, Sarup has the breadth of experience that companies are looking for in their CFOs. The issue for him is depth. Sarup hasn't held a pure finance position since he was a newly minted CPA working for Touche Ross (now Deloitte & Touche) in London.
"I have a lot of things to learn," particularly when it comes to international accounting standards, he says. "Things have changed since I was in finance."
Indeed, the risk of having a CFO who isn't sure about all the guidelines covering regulatory statements or who might misstate some nuance of the company's depreciation schedule means most CIOs-turned-CFOs are internal transfers. That makes them known quantities to board members and, in many cases, to major shareholders. Intel's Smith, Ryder Systems' Sanchez, and Handleman's Haram — who left his CFO post on July 2 after only five months for a foray into private equity — all fit this profile.
The one exception to the rule that a deep understanding of technology isn't necessary is in IT Finance. These specialized departments, which can be found at Pepsico Inc., Charles Schwab Corp., and Safeway Inc., act as liaisons between IT and business units and are responsible for allocating IT costs.
"That's a very sensitive exercise," says recruiter John Wilson of San Francisco-based J.C. Wilson Associates. "When a manager is presented with the bill, sometimes eyebrows are raised and lots of questions are asked."
Besides being whizzes at finance, people in these positions must have a deep understanding of technology and excellent communication skills. The pay is good. At the rarefied companies that have an IT Finance function — mostly those in the upper echelons of the Fortune 500 — cash compensation can reach $600,000 for the department head and $300,000 to $400,000 for second-tier managers.
For the most part, though, becoming successful in corporate finance requires merely a high-level understanding of technology's uses. To have more can even be a problem if the technological depth was acquired at the expense of deep financial training.
That's the perspective of Greg Grocholski, a senior finance director at Dow Chemical. After starting in Dow's accounting department in 1984, Grocholski found himself so intrigued by how technology was reshaping the company's operations that he transferred to Dow's information systems group. He spent more than five years working as an internal software developer and telecommunications analyst, evaluating the new PCs that were coming out, pulling cables and once, he recalls, helping IBM install computers at 2 a.m. "I was a techie to the heart," he says.
A stint in IT audit — the function that makes sure a company's information systems have the proper controls in place and aren't vulnerable to a business-threatening breach — gave Grocholski a bridge back to finance, especially when Dow was starting to transfer all its accounting systems to SAP. "I happened to be in the right place at the right time," he says.
Now, at 47, and after a decade in increasingly visible finance roles, Grocholski is the $53.5 billion company's global cost leader, running a department of 350 people whose job is to figure out what it is actually costing Dow to manufacture things like chlorine and polyurethane. While Grocholski uses some of what he learned in IT — like a methodical approach to testing and a tendency "to look at things from about five different angles" — he is pretty binary, as he might have said during his IT days. Asked if he is a better finance executive for having been in IT, he says, "Probably not. There are other ways to become well-rounded."
"It would be a stretch for me to tell a finance guy coming into the company, 'Why don't you go work in IT for a few years?' That would take you down a career path that you would have to be very careful to reconstruct later," says Grocholski.