Being a CFO for a private company looks like a pretty good gig these days, what with the agonizing gyrations of the public markets. But those jobs seem to come at the price of lower compensation, at least in terms of cash. 

According to a new survey by MyCFOnetwork, a group for finance executives currently in eight cities, public-company CFOs earn about 45% more than their private-company counterparts, taking home a median cash salary of $267,976 compared to $190,715 for private-company CFOs. (See Pay Gap below for some specifics.)

The survey, which ran in the first quarter, had 500 respondents, mostly from private companies with under $100 million in revenues.

“Looking at the survey makes me want to slap my desk” in frustration, says Tommy Souther, CFO of US Ag, a privately-held agricultural products distributor based in Dallas who participated in the survey. “I know there will be a day when I want to look for a different job; now I have a tool I can use to negotiate,” he says.

The compensation differences vary wildly by company size. Finance executives at private companies with revenues between $21 million and $90 million are closest to their public-company peers, taking home 14% less in total cash compensation. At private companies with more than $500 million in revenues, the median variance is 85%. 

Some of the difference is due to the “more visible battle” a public-company CFO must fight,says Myrna Hellerman, an executive compensation expert with Sibson Consulting. While finance executives at private companies may face a few difficult owners, at a public company, “you have many stakeholders beating up on you from different angles,” she says.

What the survey does not cover is the value of equity packages, a factor some experts argue could true up the two groups. “The upside at a private company could be substantial, particularly if the company is about to go public or have some type of sale. At a public company, the gain may not be as sizeable,” says Jody Thelander, head of an eponymous consulting firm that tracks executive compensation for venture-backed firms.

Ownership structure can make a big difference, as well.  Thelander says CFOs at pre-IPO firms tend to earn around $250,000 at the median, and that the range is pretty tight, with only a few outliers. The standard equity package is about 1% of the firm’s shares.

That being said, some items were virtually identical for both groups. More than 40% of both public- and private- company CFOs said they did not get a raise in 2010. The factors that influence bonuses, and their relative importance — company performance, achievement of personal goals, EBITDA, and budget, in that order – were also very close. (Respondents did not provide data on actual bonuses).

One bright spot: nearly 70% of private-company CFOs said they have employment contracts, compared to 45% for public companies. That, and, “the reality is a private-company CFO probably has a lot more fun than the CFO of a public company,” says Thelander.  Especially these days.

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