Richard Kurkowski, Spencer Stuart

The executive placement firm's finance chief offers up advice on surviving -- and thriving -- during difficult economic times.
Jennifer CaplanOctober 26, 2001

When Richard Kurkowski doles out career advice, CFOs listen. Kurkowski is not only a veteran finance executive, he’s currently CFO of Spencer Stuart Inc., one of the largest privately held executive search firms in the world. Kurkowski joined the recruitment specialist in 1981, and he’s seen the job market go through a fair number of peaks and valleys during these past 20 years.

Kurkowski has also accumulated some hefty professional experience of his own. Prior to joining Spencer Stuart, Kurkowski was a director at McDonald’s Corp. and a manager at Uarco, a manufacturing company. He spent the first five years of his career as an auditor for Arthur Young. In addition, Kurkowski is a C.P.A. and also serves on the United Capital Investments board of directors.’s Jennifer Caplan recently asked Kurkowski to talk about his own career path, the current job market, and what advice he would give to employed–and unemployed– finance executives during these worrisome times.

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What have been some of your most valuable job experiences, and how have they made you a better CFO?

I think the C.P.A. route was the best way to start because I got a broad exposure to lots of different companies and industries. You never know which of those experiences will be important later in your career. One of my early audits when I was working at Arthur Young, for example, was a very small management company that owned Holiday Inns. Years later, the fact that I had audited a partnership that was heavily focused on tax planning became incredibly valuable in my work at Spencer Stuart, where tax planning is a big part of what I do. I think you really want to start in a C.P.A. firm if you can and get as much broad and varied experience early on in your career as possible.

Do you think it’s ever too late to move out of finance to, say, operations, in order to round out your skill sets?

I definitely think it’s important to try to broaden your experience as much as possible. A large part of my focus at Spencer Stuart goes beyond financial functions. It includes management of our information systems and technology. Over time I’ve also had roles in marketing, training, and some of our research functions. So, it’s extremely important to make sure that once you’re in a finance job, you’re taking advantage of any opportunity to broaden your horizons in areas that are not pure finance, accounting, or controllership. It puts you in the operations side of the business and gets you used to being involved in some of the risk-taking that every business has to do to succeed.

As you move through your career, however, you chose an industry. My expertise is clearly in the area of professional services companies with a lot of other tangential strengths like tax planning. I think that it would be difficult for me today — probably impossible — to become the chief operating officer of a manufacturing company. On the other hand, I could become a COO or CEO of a professional services business, because I’ve had broad experience beyond purely finance.

Having made it to the top of the finance track, I imagine you’ve been put through some tough tests. What skills and strengths do you think Spencer Stuart managers saw in you when they made the decision to hire you as CFO?

In most professional services firms, there is a degree of democracy in the culture. You have to be able to manage 300 consultants who expect you to respond to all their needs. You really have to be capable of handling that responsibility in your day-to-day job, whether you’re the CEO or CFO.

The strength and mettle of a CFO is truly tested during difficult times. Many CFOs out there are probably very nervous about losing their jobs. What skills do you think are most helpful for CFOs struggling to navigate these choppy economic waters?

It becomes more important than ever to have a great relationship with your boss. But you also need to have the guts to disagree and stand your ground. Nobody wants to deal with some of the issues we have to deal with in these times, whether it’s staff reductions or less compensation to go around. But you need to have the confidence to stand firm and say what you believe is right, even if it’s not what people want to hear.

Obviously, companies in just about all sectors have been laying off workers. But some industries have been hurt worse than others. Could you tell us about the parts of your business that have fared badly, and ones that have held up relatively well? I think that would give our readers a sense of what’s really going on in the job market.

The Internet area, which went from virtually nothing as a percentage of our business to almost 15 percent, has now disappeared. That started to decline pretty rapidly roughly 12 months ago. Life sciences, which include health-care and pharmaceutical companies, is a positive at our firm. Demand for management positions in those companies has been pretty steady. Another area that has done particularly well in the last year is board services.

How has your CFO business been doing?

Demand for CFO jobs has remained pretty flat. What tends to happen as a consequence of job cutbacks is that there continues to be demand at the higher CFO level, and less demand at middle-management levels below the CFO. The CFO may not have as much staff as a result, but you still end up with requests for CFOs, particularly those with turnaround experience.

What types of skills and backgrounds do you think companies are looking for in a CFO at the moment?

These days a lot of companies are having difficulties, so many are certainly looking for CFOs with turnaround experience. Also, if you take some of the dot-coms that survived, those companies are looking for people that can reengineer a business which started on a certain path and failed, but has enough of a concept to keep going. Those companies are looking for people that are capable of restructuring a business in a way that might work.

Do you think a layoff on a resume is a scarlet letter?

I think five years ago it would have been a scarlet letter. Today the world has changed so rapidly and so dramatically that I don’t think the scarlet letter concept applies. I think there are a lot of jewels out there that just made bad decisions. A great CFO goes with an Internet company thinking that it’s a great way to crown his career. And now, the company is gone. You still have a great person. I don’t think that a layoff on your resume is, in and of itself, a killer to one’s career.

How can CFOs who have lost their jobs in recent months reposition themselves to land a new role? What are good strategies for getting on the radar screens of executive search firms in this environment?

Networking is important, and you always want to be improving your skills. I think an opportunity to work with a nonprofit organization would be very helpful. What you don’t want to do is become stale. To stay sharp, if you’re between jobs and can find a nonprofit organization that would love to have a CFO steer their activities for a period of time–while you look for another job–I think that’s a great idea. Even sitting on a nonprofit board in your downtime gives you good networking opportunities. Anything you can do to stay active and visible is really important during times like these.

In addition, you definitely have to be flexible and willing to change; that’s really the key. You can’t say, “I’m only going to work for an executive search firm.” You really have to look as broadly as you can given your particular skill set. In my case, I would talk to law firms, general consulting firms, or compensation consulting firms, for example.

You would think this is a good time for a company that needs to eventually hire an executive to do so. There’s certainly a lot of talent available. Do you think companies will soon be hiring with that thought in mind?

We were sensing some strength the first week [of] September, but we are in a period now where normal forecasting may not be as reliable as in the past. Right now I would say that October feels better than the preceding three months, but we’re barely halfway through the month. Also, if it had not been for September 11, I would have said things were coming along quite well. In this environment, with a war going on and all the rest, the fact that we had a good first half of the month may not mean that we will have a good month in total. It has just gotten so erratic out there.

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