Print this article | Return to Article | Return to

Hire Callings

Leaving a finance career doesn't necessarily mean leaving finance.
CFO Staff, CFO Magazine
November 1, 2006

This year nearly 2,400 public-company CFOs are expected to leave their current jobs. Most will move on to other finance positions, often at larger companies. A few (think Indra Nooyi at PepsiCo) will move into the coveted corner office. But a growing number of CFOs will wave an emphatic goodbye to corporate life altogether and instead launch themselves into a wide variety of other pursuits. While the CFO post is undeniably a pressure-cooker, it can also be an incubator: executives acquire a broad range of skills, experiences, and contacts that leave them well prepared to indulge their passions and interests. They can strike out in new directions even as they leverage the finance savvy they've spent many years developing. Some will become independent directors, others will explore opportunities in the private-equity/venture-capital space, still others will take the "left to pursue other interests" boilerplate to heart — and actually pursue the dreams they feel they've put off for far too long.

The reasons for the exodus are multifold: increased regulation, corporate politics, a desire to more fully embrace the spirit of casual Friday. The destinations are also diverse. After all, CFO pay being what it is (see "Pay Up"), many finance chiefs can walk away from the job and live quite comfortably, thank you. They can often come back whenever they want — or need — to. Ken Yamamoto, for example, left the CFO post at Gartner to run a cleaning enterprise in Georgia; he has since returned as treasurer of Affinion Group. Longtime CFO Ellen Richstone ran a specialty consulting business leveraging C-suite executives, but was enticed back to the CFO post at Sonus Networks after two years.

On the following pages, you'll meet 11 former CFOs who have closed the door on finance — at least for now. What's true for all is that their finance careers have given them a foundation for their new endeavors, whether it's running restaurants, teaching the next generation of finance executives, helping to manage a renowned charitable organization, or writing the Great American Novel. Most of these CFOs recall their business careers fondly, but seem decidedly more excited to talk about their current pursuits. Not that they regret their former jobs. As one career-changer notes, "When you're a CFO, you can pretty much do anything."

Become a Restaurateur
To those who know her, Susan Frasca has simply fulfilled her childhood dream. Even as a nine-year-old, she whipped up crepes and Baked Alaska in her family's kitchen. "My mom used to think I would be a cook when I grew up," she remembers.

Instead she became an accountant, capping her career in finance with the CFO post at Restaurants-America, which owns 45 upscale restaurants nationwide.

Then, nine years ago, she traded in her calculator for a chef's knife. Frasca secured a 100 percent-funded nonrecourse loan and took over four of the group's restaurants. "When you're a CFO, you can pretty much do anything," she says. "A business is a business regardless of industry."

After changing both the staffs and the menu selections, as well as sharpening her wine and culinary tastes, Frasca has made two of the original four (Kinzie Chophouse and Mambo Grill) quite profitable. In fact, Kinzie Chophouse grew 40 percent in its first year under her management. Today, those restaurants are worth $5.5 million, more than double their $2.3 million value before she stepped in.

"Running a restaurant is very similar to finance," she says. "You have to have a business plan, and then you follow a science." In this case, that meant adding prized family recipes to the menus, and tweaking them just enough so they would cook quickly in large volumes and satisfy varying palates. At the Kinzie Chophouse, for example, the apple pancetta salad features a dressing straight from her grandmother's cookbook, with one minor change: it's served with a pastry puff in place of the traditional Italian bread.

Frasca's success rate is running at 50 percent — not bad when you consider that 90 percent of restaurants fail. She sold one restaurant in 2000 when it failed to reach her expectations. "I kept wanting to fix it, and spent too much of my time there," she explains. When a similar situation materialized with a second restaurant, Frasca reacted much more quickly and closed the facility in October 2003. "I learned when to stop fixing and just get out," she says.

Despite long hours and a hectic pace, owning restaurants has its advantages. For one, Frasca has been able to combine business with pleasure by becoming a certified sommelier. Then, of course, there's the fact that she can have her favorite meals — the New York strip steak at Kinzie Chophouse, for instance — prepared the way she likes whenever she wants. Sometimes, she says, "it's great to be your own boss." — Laura DeMars

Teach the Next Generation
Call it serendipity. The day after Christopher B. Paisley, the former CFO of 3Com, said in a press release that he would be retiring at the end of the year and hoped to teach, he got a call from Santa Clara (California) University. Six months later, he became the Dean's Executive Professor of Accounting and Finance at the Leavey School of Business.

That was more than six years ago, and Paisley hasn't looked back. In fact, the 54-year-old always fancied himself a teacher. "My mother taught first grade and my father was a principal," he says, adding that he actually taught accounting at De Anza Community College in Cupertino, California, while working at Hewlett-Packard early in his career.

Paisley knew even then that he would eventually go back to the classroom. The turning point came in 1999, when 3Com was approaching $6 billion in revenues and the board prepared to spin off its Palm unit, asking Paisley to be CFO of the new firm. "It was really tempting," he remembers. "But if I did it, I had to commit for a number of years and possibly never get back to teaching." Thus the fateful press release.

Now carrying a full-time teaching load, including the introductory accounting class, Paisley sprinkles his lectures and class discussions with his own experiences. There is plenty to tell from his 15 years of growing a high-flying technology company. And he keeps adding to his repertoire. Last year, as chairman of the audit committee at Brocade Communications, Paisley led the internal investigation into the backdating of stock options there. "It was an eye-opening experience," says Paisley, who attended 88 board meetings in one year at the company, where two former executives became the first indicted in the scandal.

Still, the most satisfaction he finds these days is in class. "Almost without fail, at the end of a quarter one or more students will shake my hand and say it was the best class he's ever taken." — Lori Calabro

Open a B&B
Travel to the Annabelle Inn, in Aspen, Colorado, and you'll find plenty of evidence of owner Dennis Chookaszian. Scattered throughout the one-story bed-and breakfast are the ski boots and poles his family has used over the past 50 years. Even the name Annabelle has a connection: it's his mother's.

What might not be so readily apparent is the sweat equity that Chookaszian put in to bring the stylish B&B into existence. Chookaszian, who was CFO of CNA Insurance for 15 years before moving to president and chairman, spent 4 years developing the hotel that opened in January 2005 and describes it as "a labor of love."

Not that it didn't have a difficult birth. "Construction was a nightmare," remembers the 63-year-old, who worked on the design with an architect and oversaw the entire process. The first contractor went bankrupt, the permitting process took two years, and building in the mountains offered endless obstacles. Chookaszian's finance skills were always in evidence, although he says there was "nothing sophisticated about it." But he did fall back on his engineering knowledge (he has degrees in chemical and biological engineering). Case in point: the former owner refused to allow inspectors, so Chookaszian had to determine himself that the original structure needed to be torn down.

The result is an inn with all the amenities Chookaszian likes to have in his own travels. Sitting on six public-company boards means that "I still travel 200,000 miles a year," he says. So it's not surprising that the inn features all the most up-to-date electronics, with a flat-screen TV in every room and wireless Internet access. And there is "air conditioning in each room, which is actually very important in Aspen," he adds.

Chookaszian admits that his ventures seem somewhat removed from his days in finance, but he says he now has something even better to crow about than a rising stock price: "TripAdvisor has rated us number one of all the B&Bs in Aspen." — L.C.

Grow a Nonprofit
There should be plenty of reasons Lyn Jensen would want to leave finance altogether. After all, the former CFO of Napster was put through the wringer as the online-music pioneer was bombarded by lawsuits and eventually plunged into a near-fatal bankruptcy.

But she doesn't. Although Jensen admits that her time at Napster — where she was literally the last employee — was "a roller coaster," she insists that her new position, as CFO of Habitat for Humanity International, is not her way of turning her back on Corporate America. Instead, she says that accepting the position at the home-building organization was a matter of timing. "Some people get called to a mission at an earlier stage," she says. "But God wanted me here."

At Habitat, Jensen, age 61, is on a mission to bring corporate best practices to the nonprofit, which operates in 92 countries and took in about $357 million in revenues last year. "We're [upgrading] technology so we have end-to-end processing," she says, adding that "on the people side we are adding the right skills to run the group to scale."

The ability to scale is crucial at an organization that has doubled its revenues since 2004 and has had to respond to such monumental disasters as Hurricane Katrina and the December 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia. Case in point: previously the organization manually processed its donor checks. But with 2 million of them pouring in annually, Jensen is currently automating the procedure. At every step, however, the challenge is to "build an infrastructure that will allow exponential growth" and to do it "within the framework of a ministry," says Jensen, who started as controller of HHI in June 2003.

Jensen seems suited to the task. In describing her experience at Napster, she says, "It had lots of intense times, but I was definitely the calming person and I tried to keep an even keel." Bringing that influence to a rapidly growing nonprofit, she realizes, would not be the choice of many finance executives. "They need to know why they want to go into the nonprofit world," she cautions, adding that for her, "it isn't about the money. This is where I am supposed to be." — L.C.

Return to Your Roots
Tom Sager grew up in a family-business environment. His father, Howard, ran a milk-delivery business with a heavy emphasis on customer service and small-town values — the very values that Sager, who worked at six different companies, including two stints as CFO, found lacking in Corporate America.

"I spent years building my credentials to get to the top. And when I got there, I didn't enjoy it," says Sager, who mostly blames the "quarterly board-meeting mentality" for souring him on corporate life. So in 2002, the 47-year-old left his position as CFO of Zoots, a national dry-cleaning chain, to run his own family business: Tri-Valley Sports, in Medway, Massachusetts.

"It just came naturally to me that this business would be something I'd enjoy," says Sager, who, along with his wife, has been both coach and cheerleader for the multiple teams on which his three children, Kevin, 22; Valerie, 21; and Craig, 18, played. "Watching kids play, providing them with equipment, that's real fun," he says.

Still, Sager has called on many of his finance skills to run the small store, located just eight miles from his home. At Zoots, Sager was involved in installing an innovative system that helped turn "a mom-and-pop operation into a big, centralized cleaning company." At his own company, "we put in a new computer system," he says, "so we're now able to track inventory with a great point-of-sale software application." While Sager does not plan to grow to Zoots's level (78 stores in nine states), he is certainly keeping an eye out for the future, despite having "no short-term, definitive plans. The business is growing organically, and when it has grown as much as it can, I'll look to broaden the market."

Being the owner, however, allows Sager to be much more hands-on both with day-to-day decisions and customer interactions. "You don't need a Harvard MBA to be sincere and polite and fair with customers," he says. And while he's happy to be out of corporate finance, he is thankful for the experience. "I'm absolutely happy with my decision," he says. "You may not know what you want to do, but you certainly know what you don't want to do." — Gareth Goh

Start a Winery
Ask Dennis Groth to order a 2003 cabernet sauvignon and you'll probably make out OK. The onetime Arthur Young partner became a wine connoisseur during his time in the company's San Francisco office, partly because of the time he spent entertaining clients. And in the early 1980s, that passion led him to scout properties in Napa Valley.

Groth wasn't just window-shopping. In the back of his mind, he had the audacious notion that he could make wines. Of course, drinking wines and making them are decidedly different pursuits. Moreover, Groth was already knee-deep in his second career as CFO at electronic-games pioneer Atari, which at the time was on a roll.

Still, once Groth and his wife, Judy, found their dream 165-acre vineyard in Oakville Appellation, he parlayed his accounting background and Atari's success into bank financing to start the operation. It was short-lived, however. Within months, the overheated video-game industry crashed — and so did Groth's financing. But instead of pulling out, the 64-year-old left Atari and moved his family onto the farm. Armed with only a building permit to construct a wine-making facility, he got creative, opting to outsource his grape-growing — a common practice today, but unusual in 1984. "We put off constructing our building," he explains. "We wanted to first demonstrate we could make good wines."

The gamble paid off. Although it took Groth Winery and Estate two years to sell all 10,000 cases of its 1983 cabernet sauvignon, word spread. Then, in a stunning development, critic Robert Parker gave the 1985 Groth Reserve Cabernet a 100 rating — the first California wine ever to receive his perfect mark. Suddenly, business skyrocketed, with sales doubling and then tripling.

Last year, Groth Winery and Estate sold 65,000 cases, and word is that several larger operations wouldn't mind buying the farm. But Groth has too much skin in the game. "Judy and I were looking back at the data recently, and we said, 'What ever prompted us to take this risk?' We put everything we had into it." — John Goff

Spread the Word
Blythe J. McGarvie remembers the trigger very well. It was August 2002, and she was a shocked bystander as former accounting giant Arthur Andersen — the firm where she had spent her formative work years — was dismantled, almost overnight.

"If a company of that historic caliber and ethics could disappear, what did that mean for so many other companies that didn't come close?" she says.

At the time, McGarvie was three years into a CFO stint with Bic Group, living in Paris and New York, and had returned the maker of disposable pens and lighters to a positive cash-flow position. It was her second CFO gig, having previously been finance chief at Hannaford Bros., a Maine-based grocery retailer. But the whole Andersen episode "shook me" so much, she says, that she paused to reevaluate her skills — which included communication in addition to finance — and her most satisfying accomplishments — developing future finance leaders.

That reassessment gave rise to the novel idea that she might help company leaders gain "financial savvy, a global perspective, and integrity." By January 2003 she had done the unthinkable: moved back to the United States to start her own company, Leadership for International Finance LLC — one part consultancy, one part executive coaching firm, and one part advocate for the importance of finance, even for nonfinance professionals.

Almost four years later, the 49-year-old McGarvie describes her new life as "more like jazz than a symphony." She has published a book, Fit in, Stand out: Mastering the FISO Factor for Business and Life (October 2005, McGraw-Hill), in which she outlines her six "catalytic agents" for becoming a more effective leader, including financial acuity and integrity. In addition, she addresses audiences around the world on finance's potential and also finds time to sit on five for-profit boards, including Accenture. And while McGarvie admits that she would jump back into the C-suite if the right offer came along, she cautions, "I'm probably not free for a while." — L.C.

Travel the World
Christine Mead got the travel bug early. By the time she was 25 she had lived in three countries, including Zambia. So it wasn't a total surprise 11 months ago when she left her CFO post at Seattle-based Safeco to bicycle around the world.

"With Safeco financially secure and a strong finance team in place, the option was too exciting to ignore," says the 51-year-old Mead, who was brought in to help turn around the property-and-casualty insurer in 2002 by then-CEO Mike McGavick. (McGavick also left the company this year, to run for the U.S. Senate; Mead declined to be a candidate for CEO.)

Currently, Mead is exploring Tibet with three other women who have also taken time out from their careers for the 18-month trek. "The first phase took us from London through southern England, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Romania," she says. To get to the Asian leg, they had to take a train to Istanbul and fly over Iran and Pakistan. "But the beauty of traveling [mostly] by bicycle is that I see and experience so much more than by car, bus, or train," explains Mead, who is also an avid hiker, skier, and climber. "Whenever we stop, we're immediately joined by a crowd fascinated by our gear, panniers, GPS system, and maps."

In addition to managing the group's expenses, which are funded by personal savings, her other business skills are also apparent. "My adaptability, teamwork, and problem-solving skills all come into play," says Mead, who was previously a divisional CFO at Travelers.

For example, Mead, who took both first-aid and self-defense courses before embarking on the trip, makes sure she doesn't travel after dark and keeps a low profile in tense situations. That's particularly important, since "some countries that we visit are in the midst of political transition," she says. Ditto for many companies.

So far the trip has supplied both unique opportunities and inspirational encounters. In Nepal, for example, Mead met three sisters who developed a trekking company that strives to empower women by training female guides and porters. "It was fascinating to learn about their experiences building the company," she notes, adding that she also "enjoyed encouraging them in their groundbreaking roles."

As CFO went to press, Mead was in Tibet, on her way to China. Upon her return to the United States, she has no set plans beyond possibly reconnecting with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, where she served as a member of the board before this trip. "It's 10 months away, so I have an open mind at this point," she says. — L.D.

Write the Great American Novel
There may not seem to be much common ground between serving in Vietnam and serving as a CFO. But don't tell that to Christopher Joyce, a retired divisional CFO at AT&T Corp. and a marine veteran, who weaves both experiences into the plot of his first mystery novel, Last Effects.

Published in 2005, Last Effects tells the story of a business consultant who decides to investigate his brother's death during the Vietnam War. As the plot unfolds, the main character, Jack Keane, is weathering a career challenge in the form of a new client even as he begins to realize that his brother's death may not have been accidental. "I wanted the protagonist to be challenged professionally and personally," explains Joyce, who spent three years in the Marines, including a stint in Vietnam.

Typically, says the 57-year-old, "CFOs get in trouble if they get creative. Finance and writing have a lot in common; both have their own language and both require you to string words and numbers together to produce a complete story or picture." When they are combined — Joyce wove his knowledge of fraud-recognition software into the plot of Last Effects, for example — it generates "a bit of authenticity and color," he says.

Having a passion to write doesn't guarantee success, however. After facing multiple rejections, Joyce quickly realized how "very difficult [it is] to get into publishing houses and booksellers if you haven't been published before," and opted to launch his own publishing company, Centennial Books. "It's become quite an expensive hobby," he says. And while his first book has sold only 200 copies, Joyce is hopeful that the second one, Father Land, will do better.

"Our motto at Centennial Books is, 'Publishing fact and fiction for fun and profit,'" he says. The profit part may not have been realized yet, but for Joyce, it's much more satisfying than writing a 10-K. — L.D.

Save the Environment
Joy Covey looks back at her time as CFO of as "180 percent intensity on one narrow slice of life." When she left in 2000, at age 37, she says, "it was time to think about the rest."

Not "rest" as in taking it easy, of course. Living in Utah with her family, Covey has since focused much of her energy on environmental issues and maintaining open spaces in the West. "It's the area I feel the most urgency about," she says. "The Bush Administration's assault on the environment has been very energizing."

Her response has been to start the Beagle Foundation with her anesthesiologist husband, and to serve on several boards, including the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Santa Fe Institute, which is devoted to the study of problems that transcend traditional fields of study.

Covey launched the foundation in 2000 with a broad mandate that included making environmental grants. She and her husband sharpened their skills by attending Philanthropy Workshop West, a crash course in maximizing effective giving.

The foundation, funded largely with appreciated Amazon stock, is named for the ship Charles Darwin took to the Galapagos Islands. (It was in planning the first trip there with her husband that Covey came up with the idea for Beagle Foundation — naming it after herself was just not her style.) Today, their foundation "is not huge," she says, describing their endowment for it as "seven figures, although we're planning to turn it into eight at some point."

One project of which she is particularly proud is the Beagle/ Harvard Law School Fellowship, which sends recent graduates to the NRDC for two years of training in nonprofit environmental law. Another program funded by Beagle Foundation's $1 million gift to Harvard Business School was directed to the Harvard University Center for the Environment. (Covey holds both law and business degrees from Harvard.)

While her passion for the environment was less a factor in her decision to leave Amazon than were "the fertility tables," Covey doesn't rule out at least a part-time return to the workforce, perhaps when her young son starts school. It may not end up being a CFO role, she says, but finance "is so much a part of my vocabulary that it's hard to identify anything that I now do differently." — Roy Harris

Mix It Up
The simple life is not in Thomas J. Meredith's nature. If he were "etymologically based," the 56- year-old former Dell Computer CFO laughs, "I would be a compound complex sentence."

On the one hand, there's his private-equity investing. Meredith's last brief job before leaving Dell, running Dell Ventures, taught him "how hot — and then how not — the IPO market would be for technology companies." While there, he teamed with former Dell treasurer Alex C. Smith to create an investment advisory firm, Meritage Capital, that specializes in multimanager hedge funds. Meritage now has about $350 million in assets under management.

Then there is his family charity, MFI Foundation — whose mantra is "inspiring, investing, and involving" — making a difference in the world with the personal wealth that he considers largely a product of luck. "I was fortunate early on to be involved with technology companies that got to be big," says Meredith, who was treasurer of Sun Microsystems before joining Dell. MFI Foundation takes the notion of a family foundation literally: Meredith and his wife, Lynn, run it, and all four of their children participate. "It's been really fun to watch them invest," says Meredith, recalling with special fondness his then-9-year-old daughter's effort to organize a benefit screening of the first Harry Potter movie to aid the families of those killed in the September 11 attacks.

Mixed in are myriad causes to which Meredith lends his finance connections and his sense for a reasonable ROI. For example, he is on the board of One Laptop Per Child, which is developing a $100 laptop for distribution to millions of impoverished children. And while simplicity may not be the end result of all his endeavors, he hopes they add up to "significance." — R.H.

CFO Publishing Corporation 2009. All rights reserved.