Job Hunting

Out of Control(lers)

Good controllers are hard to come by. Here's how companies and search firms are slotting the second tier.
Alix StuartNovember 1, 2000

Last February, John Dutil left his job as CFO at a small private company to become the corporate controller at bigger, publicly traded TrueTime Inc., a $20.6 million precision time and frequency devices maker. The move was calculated to build his skill set, gain some options, and eventually get promoted. His strategy paid off faster than expected: in June, his boss decided to leave and he was once again a CFO. The transition, however, left Dutil with a major challenge: backfilling the controller spot.

Challenging indeed. Controllers, treasurers, and other upper-level finance people are among the hardest to find these days, say recruiters. As the growing number of dot-coms create more CFO spots, the best controllers are finding their careers advancing fast. “I’m increasingly finding that controllers won’t move to other controller positions–they want to be CFOs,” says Walter Williams, a partner who leads the CFO search practice at TMP Worldwide Executive Search, in Boston. And since about 65 percent of controllers report to CFOs, according to a survey by Georgia State University and Gunn Partners Research, finance chiefs are often put in charge of the chase.

Dutil’s four-month search for a controller, which involved four staffing agencies, ads in three newspapers, one headhunter, and various Internet career-site postings, yielded fewer than 60 résumés–“not that many,” he says, considering the Santa Rosa, California, company’s favorable geographic location and the broad scope of responsibilities being offered. Eventually, he had to narrow his list of requirements and expand his search to other states. “It became very time-consuming,” says Dutil. “One of my biggest challenges was trying to find someone with both managerial/accounting and financial/accounting skills.”

Dutil found a good match in Elaine Keicher, who had Big Five and manufacturing industry experience, and who was a controller at a smaller company in Santa Rosa that planned to move across the country. Still, he had to make some concessions, such as agreeing to Securities and Exchange Commission reporting training and an extra week of vacation, to complete the deal.

Outpacing CFO Salary Gains

Such compromises are a necessary part of getting the best candidates, says Mike Colman, president of the American Association of Finance and Accounting, a network of search firms. But first, he says, based on his experience placing 50 to 100 controllers a year through his Chicago-based executive placement consulting firm and the AAFA network, a company must start with a “unique selling proposition.”

Recently, for example, Colman helped a $300 million company in the Chicago area lure a controller away from a $50 million company in the same state. The price tag to his client included a $25,000 sign-on bonus to compensate for a forgone bonus at the old company, a 25 percent increase in base salary, an annual bonus of up to 30 percent of base, and stock options. “It’s a big increase, but that’s what they had to do,” he says.

Controllers and treasurers are privy to a growing number of options, with option package values increasing 41 percent for controllers and 29 percent for treasurers over the past two years, according to a survey of 55 Fortune 500 companies conducted by Pearl Meyer & Partners, a New York-based executive compensation consulting firm.

These companies “are treating [controllers and treasurers] more like CFOs,” says David Swinford, managing director at Pearl Meyer. Meanwhile, cash compensation is swelling, as well. Surveys conducted for CFO magazine’s own compensation surveys (see “Taking Stock,” June) show the total value of base salaries and bonuses has risen 46.5 percent for controllers and 36.5 percent for treasurers since 1998.

Making the Job Attractive

But beyond money, companies need to provide a compelling career path to potential controllers and treasurers, experts reiterate. Casting the controller as a “business partner” is especially prized, according to the Georgia State/Gunn Partners survey. For example, Keicher took the job at TrueTime largely because of the operational experience she expects it to afford her. “It’s the opportunity to come in and create my own team,” she says.

To entice more-seasoned managers, turnaround opportunities tend to be appealing. At E-spire Communications, class-action lawsuits brought against three of its former officers on charges of violating financial reporting laws decimated the finance team earlier this year. In the search for a treasurer, new CFO Bradley Sparks turned to Bank of America banking veteran Donald Bush, with whom he’d previously negotiated financing arrangements.

Despite the lawsuits, Bush welcomed the chance to “sit on the other side of the table” and the challenge of winning back investor confidence, he says, with an eye to the “equity upside” he could gain. “For me at this stage in my career and personal situation, it was a reasonable risk,” adds Bush. Signs of revitalization have already appeared, he notes, with the $125 million in new equity funding E-spire secured in late September.

In this case, the treasurer’s decision actually changed the CFO’s career path. Sparks had planned to stay with the Herndon, Virginia-based company on an interim basis only. However, once Bush agreed to join in June, Sparks decided to stay permanently. “When Don came on, I said, ‘Gee, I have to stay–we’re too good together,’” he says.