Print this article | Return to Article | Return to

A Perfect Fit

The demand for finance talent may be soaring, but candidates refuse to settle for just any job.
Alix Stuart, CFO Magazine
November 1, 2006

It's the middle of August and former Thomasville Furniture Industries CFO Paul Dascoli, 45, is riding a 300-foot roller coaster at Cedar Point Park with his two fearless teenagers. But his mind is on a roller-coaster journey of its own, contemplating the ramifications of a corporate reorganization that prompted him to resign rather than accept a diminished role. He has been toiling in a rented office for three months, sending out résumés and working the phones. "It is intense and tiring," he says, "but you can't let up until a deal is done."

Cut to the West Coast, where Ashley Spencer has a different attitude toward her job search. On a whim, the newly minted CPA flew from Portland, Oregon, to New Zealand and spent six weeks touring after leaving PricewaterhouseCoopers following her fourth audit season. Still not ready to work, the 25-year-old spent the next two months attending weddings and visiting friends, expecting that employers would probably move quickly once they saw her résumé.

Cruise south to San Diego and find Adam Luger enjoying life in a similar fashion. Thanks to being laid off in June with a cushy severance package, the former Pfizer finance manager was free to spend a month in Germany watching the World Cup, another visiting family, and plenty of hours enjoying California's coastline. Far from worrying about his next paycheck, Luger, 32, deliberately delayed his job search until mid-August in order to embrace the summer.

Then there's 40-year-old Scott Whitehurst. Wearied by the friction between two bosses, Whitehurst left his job as a divisional CFO at Novartis in Switzerland last February. Since then, he has reconnected with his family and started rehabbing vintage race cars. As of August 15, he had interviewed at five companies, including Microsoft, but is in no rush. "I'm looking for an environment," he says. "It's not about money. It's about finding people I enjoy working with. If I can't find that, I may never work again."

Most people don't relish the prospect of job hunting, but in finance, it's almost a way of life. Given inevitable reorganizations, layoffs, mergers, and pure and simple frustration, many finance professionals end up looking for work every three to five years. And like Dascoli, Spencer, Luger, and Whitehurst, all must make important decisions about what they want next and how they intend to get it.

What's different these days is that many seekers have the luxury of choosing when and where they go next. "Right now, the marketplace for financial candidates is hotter than I've seen it in 20 years," says Ted Buyniski, senior vice president at Radford Surveys & Consulting, thanks in large part to Sarbanes- Oxley-related needs. One indication: Financial Executives International reports that the number of its member executives "in transition" dropped from 778 to 562 between June 2004 and June 2006. "The job market for accountants, finance managers, and internal auditors is still very strong," so much so that "anyone with a college degree" is considered fair game, says Michael Assaad, vice president of permanent placement for Ajilon Finance.

Naturally, no one can count on an offer emerging from every interview, nor expect to jump three reporting levels. Still, "we're seeing companies going to greater lengths" to woo finance talent, says Buyniski. That translates into salary increases across the board (see "Pay Up"). At the CFO level, sign-on equity grants are 2.5 to 3 times the regular annual grant, and employment contracts that protect them from prosecution and takeovers are more prevalent, says Buyniski. At the nonexecutive level, sign-on bonuses can total 10 percent of base salary; staffers can also negotiate four-day workweeks or work-from-home options, adds Assaad.

But as Whitehurst says, it's not just about the money (and, of course, it doesn't have to be when it's so unequivocally good). From CFO to senior accountant roles, many finance professionals have the golden opportunity of not taking just any old job, but going after their ideal job. So what is it they really want? CFO spent a month following several job-seekers through their searches to find out what nirvana looks like for finance professionals and how they go about attaining it.

Cutting the Cord
The process typically starts with knowing what you don't want. At Thomasville (a subsidiary of Furniture Brands International), for example, the company was beginning an organizational restructuring, one that ultimately meant a new president and CEO and a shift from traditional domestic manufacturing to offshoring. For Dascoli, that shift meant that he would have to give up overseeing HR, IT, and brand licensing, a prospect that did not excite him. "The most exciting thing for me was the steady progression of responsibility," so it didn't make sense to stay when that reversed, he says.

In Spencer's case, working at PwC convinced her that there was no "life" in public accounting. After spending busy seasons working at least 12 hours a day, six days a week (often out of town), and long days on compliance work during the summers as well, she could not see any change in routine. "It's not PwC in particular, it's industrywide," she says. "They're always striving to give you a work/life balance, but I don't think it's realistic." Knowing that her credentials were good, Spencer was ready for a consistent schedule, one in which she could make plans and keep them.

Luger didn't have much choice in his departure. Laid off as part of Pfizer's "adapting to scale" initiative announced in April 2005, he was given the option of interviewing at other locations, but used the opportunity to reevaluate instead. For one thing, he unwilling to leave San Diego. Plus, he realized he wasn't tied to big-company culture. "Being in a company that size, you couldn't see the whole picture. I was responsible for $110 million out of a budget of $5 billion to $6 billion. A decision I made barely impacted my division, let alone the company." He was also frustrated by the bureaucracy. "You had to get consensus from 40 other people, so by the time you got a yea or a nay, it was irrelevant."

Relevance has taken on a new meaning for Whitehurst. It wasn't quitting as much as taking a break that has made him realize how disconnected he had become, particularly from his family, after working abroad for nearly 15 years. Being out of work "has allowed me to focus on things I didn't have time to do before," he says, in this case, helping a sister navigate the paperwork for a house she was building, working on race cars, and taking his father to cancer treatments. While Whitehurst has responded to recruiters' advances, taking another opportunity comes with some intangible costs.

Aiming for the Moon
More typically, candidates do focus on financial rewards in their job searches. The best bet? Growing companies or industries, which offer much more compensation upside. But, as Dascoli points out, conditions at a firm "where the margins aren't paper thin and you have a chance to invest back in the business" also make the finance department more important.

Opportunities for development are also crucial, says Steven Ehrenhalt, a principal with Deloitte Consulting's financial-management consulting group. To help clients boost their hiring rates, he is working with them to "target people who will be successful two or three levels above the job they're hired for." That, combined with job-rotation programs (including nonfinance roles), tends to make firms more desirable, he says. Not surprisingly, Spencer wants a company where she will find CPA mentors to help keep her skills sharp, and where she won't get pigeonholed.

The ineffable "culture fit" is also one of the first priorities jobhunters target. While it's hard to pinpoint the clues to a good culture, many point to office design. "I want to work with a senior team that treats people as well as they deserve," says Dascoli, "and you can often see that just by observing a facility." One company he liked, for example, had an open-cubicle environment, where the CEO could often be seen holding meetings amid the other employees. Whitehurst also takes note of how "deferential" lower-level employees are. If they insist on calling him "Sir" or "Mr. Whitehurst," he senses more hierarchy than team.

Other applicants are specifically looking for more responsibility and autonomy. Luger wants to be part of a company "where I can have an impact," and "the more senior level, the better." A newly created position, which his previous two jobs were, would be ideal because "you have the ability to create your own destiny."

Full Speed Ahead
Of course, destiny's path is never the same for everyone. About eight weeks after leaving Pfizer, Luger sends out his résumé to several recruiting firms. "I could pound the pavement all day, but will it really pay off?" he says. The response is fairly quick: recruiters line him up with interviews at about 10 companies within two weeks. Spencer and Whitehurst also go the recruiter route: Spencer lands five job interviews for intermediate accountant positions, also within two weeks, while Whitehurst interviews for, among other things, business-unit CFO roles at Pitney Bowes, Cigna Insurance, and Bausch & Lomb, plus two corporate-level positions at smaller companies.

Dascoli has a different plan, however. Having put himself on the job market for the first time since he was 15, he has been working with an executive coach and mastering the art of networking. Within four weeks of leaving Thomasville, Dascoli had moved into his outside office; met with his coach, Dennis Schroeder, executive director and CEO of The Center for Executive Performance in Chicago; and sent out nearly 1,500 letters and E-mails to retained executive recruiters, private-equity-firm principals, and other contacts.

One of his main projects with Schroeder was to rework his résumé. "Where I had emphasized projects I had completed, Dennis stressed themes, like general-management and team development skills," Dascoli says. "Now, nowhere on the front page of my résumé does it say I'm a finance guy." The two also worked on snappy answers to general questions like, "Tell me about yourself." "Dennis helped me put together a good story behind that question — picking the five or six major points I wanted to make about my career experience without repeating what the interviewer already knows," says Dascoli.

Armed with his enhanced job-seeking skills, Dascoli holds himself to a rigorous schedule. His goal is to make seven to eight networking phone calls a day, keep a written journal of everyone he talks to, and hold face-to-face interviews whenever possible. One day he drove six hours round-trip to meet for one hour with a private-equity partner.

Such intensity is not unusual at the CFO level. Aside from the fact that many have families and can't afford to take an indefinite leave, that search style reflects the difficulty of finding a top job in finance. It comes down to culture. "You can check boxes on what you want people to have done," says Lorraine Hack, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles, "but culture fit winds up becoming very, very important on both sides of the equation," since executive teams need to work in sync with each other.

As hotly pursued as these finance professionals are, there are still some items on their wish lists that are tough to get.

For one, it's getting harder to make the switch from private companies to public, thanks to Sarbanes-Oxley. "If candidates stay too long on the private side, they may be shut out from public companies. Whether that's going to be at the divisional-CFO or divisional-controller level, or someplace else, I don't know, but at some point, we're going to see it," says Radford's Buyniski. Even though many private companies are moving to tighten internal controls and governance, "there's still a big difference between adopting Sarboxlike rules that are self-imposed and the discipline of a public company," he adds.

For people who have been division CFOs, the challenge is to land the corporate-CFO spot. "If you haven't been one before, you're technically unproven," says Whitehurst, who was turned down for the CFO position at Beckman Coulter because "they wanted someone with prior CFO experience," he says. But Whitehurst is undeterred. "If you don't have any rejections, you don't have a sense of whether you're aiming high enough," he says.

For former corporate finance chiefs, the big hurdle is breaking into operational roles. Dascoli says he would like to be considered for COO roles, which he feels he is qualified for given his past experience at Thomasville, but "the reality is people see me as a finance guy." In fact, part of the problem may be that finance skills are so sought-after, says Buyniski, that CEOs can't afford to let a good CFO go to waste. It's the old conundrum of "if you're irreplaceable, I can't move you," he says.

Then there's the issue of past associations. Given the number of firms that have gotten in some type of trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Justice in recent years, it's not unusual for candidates to have to explain a difficult episode or two. For Whitehurst, a longtime Hewlett-Packard finance executive, it's explaining his role in helping board member Walter Hewlett build a case against the Compaq merger five years ago. With HP's unrelated board antics currently in the headlines, he says it's been hard to avoid, and he feels compelled to give full disclosure about his decision to provide data to Hewlett. However, it has cost him at least one job offer, and can be a litmus test for him as he assesses a company. "If they can't tell the good guys from the bad without a book, that's not a place I want to work," he says.

Getting to Yes
So, after a month, how are these candidates faring?

By September 1, Dascoli has an offer to be a divisional CFO for a local, publicly traded consumer-products company, and is setting up a second-round interview with a similar company in the Midwest. He is clearly excited by the offer, but even as it comes in, he is still networking. "I try never to let up, because until a deal is signed, it could fall through," says Dascoli. (Working multiple fronts is fine, says Hack, so long as "you're completely transparent to all parties.")

A week later, Dascoli has gone on the second-round interview, letting them know he was close to a deal with another company. Before he hears back, though, he opts for the local opportunity. Not only will he be the CFO and vice president for VF Corp.'s approximately $2 billion jeanswear unit, owner of the iconic Lee and Wrangler jeans brands, he will be staying in Greensboro, working for one of the few large companies in the area. "It's consumer products, with brands that are leaders in their categories, which fits with my experience," says the former PepsiCo and Revlon executive. While he admits that the jeans industry is a mature sector, Dascoli, who started October 2, believes he will find creative ways to help it grow.

Spencer, meanwhile, finds herself with two extremely attractive offers. One is a senior revenue accountant position with WebTrends, a small, private-equity-backed Web analytics company that recently hired a CFO with experience in initial public offerings. The other is an assistant accounting manager job at a big public semiconductor company that guarantees job rotation and is offering a 13 percent higher salary, plus a signing bonus.

Spencer prefers the culture of the smaller company — she immediately clicked with her potential boss and closest co-worker, and the office layout was much more cheerful. But how can she justify leaving nearly $10,000 on the table? A true accountant, Spencer calculates how much time and gas it will take to drive 25 minutes to the semiconductor company's campus and compares that with the 15-minute walk she would have to the smaller firm. Subtracting out the $900 and 240 hours annually helps take away some of the sting. Then she negotiates for a big signing bonus to help make up the difference. "Basically, what sold me on WebTrends is that it's a growing public company, and that creates a lot of opportunities," she says, adding that she also "can't imagine getting bored" there. (Spencer started on September 5.)

Luger, meanwhile, considers an opportunity he likes — as a financial analyst at a real estate investment trust — and has interviewed with the company's CFO, chief administrative officer, and executive vice president of operations, among others. Three weeks go by without an answer. Finally, he writes to the CFO (with the blessing of his recruiter) to reiterate his interest. Again, he gets no immediate answer. "One of the things these companies forget is that it's someone's livelihood," says Luger. "This isn't a little game. This is my life. This is my career."

So with the clock ticking on his severance, Luger pursues another position, this one with a San Diego–based subsidiary of Ledcor, a construction company headquartered in Canada. While he wasn't initially interested in the industry, he is intrigued by the chance to be the sole finance guru on a four-person team. Two weeks later, he has an offer to be a financial analyst. After negotiating a better title (senior business analyst), a bigger salary than the company's initial cap, and a reasonable start date (October 4), Luger takes the job. Among the many things that got him to yes, says Luger, is the company's flexibility. Working remotely is fully accepted, he says, and the people he interviewed with spoke freely about how they have engineered work to fit with their personal lives.

As for Scott Whitehurst, he backed out of talks to be CFO of Bausch & Lomb's $1 billion European division, and decided to aim for a corporate-CFO slot. An opportunity to interview for one with a San Francisco technology firm is waiting for him with the same recruiting company. The job could be "perfect," Whitehurst muses, but he's still reserving some enthusiasm. "If I get an offer and turn it down," he says, "I'll have to admit to myself that I'm just not ready to go back to work."

Alix Nyberg Stuart is senior writer at CFO.

The Finer Points

Finance may be a revolving door, but it still behooves job seekers to hone their search skills so that the door doesn't hit them from behind.

Take interviewing skills. Brushing up on them before the search starts is crucial, says Dennis Schroeder, executive director and CEO of The Center for Executive Performance. He says many clients, even the most senior ones, are initially unprepared to answer the two most basic questions: "Why are you leaving?" and "Tell me about yourself."

The right answers? When describing themselves, finance people should avoid "trying to sell their financial brilliance" and instead focus on their broader leadership and strategy skills, with finance as a bonus, says Schroeder. As for departure descriptions, "you need to tell the truth, but keep it short — one or two sentences — and move on," he says. Belaboring problems at a former employer will generally backfire.

The next step, of course, is getting the phone to ring. Schroeder sends his clients' résumés out to about 1,400 retained availability. Recruiters are generally amenable to this approach — with a few caveats. "If you're going to do a blanket mailing, don't make it look like it," says Lorraine Hack, a partner at Heidrick & Struggles. Address the recruiter by name, show some knowledge of his or her specialty, and keep it short, since "long shows desperation." Aiming at multiple recruiters within the same firm is generally taboo. E-mail is preferred, because it's easier to respond to. The magic words to ensure a callback? "Please let me know if I can help you on any other searches even if I'm not a candidate." Says Hack: "It's just natural that you'll keep someone in mind more if they've helped you."

The same holds true for networking with peers, says Robert Gold, a Schroeder client and recently appointed Insight Pharmaceuticals CFO. He says his biggest takeaway from past searches is that "a good networking call is not so much about what someone can do for me." Instead, he says, ask what you can do for them, and then add, "By the way, I'm in transition." — A.N.S.

Scott Whitehurst

Previous Jobs:
CFO, animal-health division, Novartis;
VP of finance, PC division, Hewlett-Packard

Reason for the Switch:
Tension between division and corporate bosses

Current Position:
Interviewing for jobs in diverse industries

"I'm prepared to take an offer, but only if it's exactly the right company, in exactly the right place, doing exactly what I want to do."

Adam Luger

Previous Jobs:
Finance manager at Pfizer;
Accountant for San Diego Padres

Reason for the Switch:
Companywide layoffs

Current Position:
Senior business analyst, Ledcor

"Now I know what I'm working for: early retirement!"

Paul Dascoli

Previous Jobs:
CFO of Thomasville Furniture Industries;
VP of financial operations, Revlon;
Two divisional CFO roles, PepsiCo

Reason for the Switch:
Reorganization at Thomasville would have shrunk his role

Current Position:
CFO and VP of VF Corp.'s jeanswear unit

"If I land a role that could continue to expand, I could retire there."

CFO Publishing Corporation 2009. All rights reserved.