In recent weeks, former finance employees of Dell Inc. seem to have been busy conquering the world. Robert Davis, who was vice president of corporate finance and chief accounting officer at the computer maker, was named chief financial officer of Computer Associates. Former Dell finance chief Tom Meredith was named to the board of Motorola Inc. And in January, Lloyd Sorenson was named chief financial officer of Dallas-based Vought Aircraft Inc.

It’s Sorenson’s first CFO position; at Dell, he had been controller of the corporate business group. Though the jump from divisional controller to chief financial officer may seem sizable, Sorenson maintains that he’s well prepared for the top finance job — largely because of his experience working under Tom Meredith. At the PC maker, says Sorenson, nurturing talent was a way of life: “They really had a penchant for developing people.”

From the point of view of recruiters, there’s no question that certain companies are hot places to find talent. For finance executives like Sorenson, working for a business with a reputation for success can mean a shorter path to the big chair, compared with colleagues who have experience at average companies. By working for a top company, “you’re tagged and coded as the top in the industry,” says John Wilson, chief executive officer of CFO search firm J.C. Wilson Associates.

Dell is an especially attractive technology-industry credential on a resume, explains Wilson, because of its groundbreaking success in the personal-computer business. The company’s well-known model of direct sales and customized products allowed Dell to grow from a startup to the PC market’s 800-pound gorilla in just a few short decades. To have been part of the Dell team can make a finance executive a hot prospect for companies looking to replicate that success.

Putting Finance Talent in the Fast Lane

Despite its attractiveness as a source for talent, however, Dell hasn’t been around long enough to be what recruiters call an “academy company.” The term refers to a “blue chip company that has an established track record of developing and growing good finance leaders,” explains Tom Kolder of search firm Crist Associates. Wilson considers Dell an “emerging academy company.”

As for mature academy companies, their names are familiar: General Electric Co., PepsiCo, Motorola Inc., and Honeywell Inc. are a few. The difference, say recruiters, is that while Dell is known for its business success, academy companies are known for developing leaders. They’re so good at developing talent, in fact, that at least one large search firm won’t take them on as clients. “We don’t do business with [academy companies],” says Joel von Ranson of Spencer Stuart, “because we recruit their executives. It would be a conflict of interest.”

Indeed, working at such a company can put a finance executive on a fast track to a CFO role elsewhere. “Academy companies tend to challenge and promote leaders and give them greater opportunities to develop over time,” says Kolder. “Over time” often means beginning in the executive’s 20s, since many academy companies hire straight from business school.

That was the case with John Leahy, who joined technology consultancy Keane Inc. as chief financial officer in 1999 following 17 years at PepsiCo. Leahy began working for the beverage giant immediately after getting his MBA from Boston College; five years later, at age 28, he was in St. Louis serving as the finance chief of Pepsi’s middle-America operations. The philosophy at Pepsi, says Leahy, was that “if you proved yourself, they would throw lots of challenges at you.”

For Dan Mayleben, seven years as a divisional CFO for Honeywell inspired him to take his current position as chief financial officer of HighJump Software Inc. At Honeywell, Mayleben worked with two businesses acquired by Honeywell, building them up and later selling them. “I was enjoying the entrepreneurial aspect of the business,” he says. As a result of those experiences, he decided to strike out on his own as the finance chief of another company.

Since most well-respected corporations are global giants with multiple markets, divisions, and business lines, working for one can often resemble working for a bevy of smaller business. Though Leahy spent nearly two decades with PepsiCo, for instance, he worked not only in the beverage industry but also for two of the company’s restaurant businesses, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell (as Canadian CFO), as well as on international assignments.

Indeed, graduates of academy companies often point to the satisfaction of working in diverse environments. “The thing I loved about Motorola was, you never worked in the same place more than two years,” says John Schoen, whose last position at the company was controller of the fixed-wireless division. Today, Schoen is CFO and COO of PCTel.

Varied experience at a single large company can also provide an edge in the job market. When a recruiter considers an executive who’s spent the last 8 or 10 years with a respected multinational, says Wilson, “one could make the case that they worked at a number of different places.”

Lightning in a Bottle

Besides helping to speed the rise to CFO elsewhere, experience at an academy company provides executives with business expertise that enables them to excel in other employment settings. Before he moved on to PCTel, for example, Schoen became chief operating officer and CFO of wireless hardware and software provider Safco Technologies (later acquired by Agilent). Drawing on his 19 years at Motorola — a prominent proponent of Six Sigma quality control — Schoen simplified the manufacturing process, thereby minimizing errors and lowering costs.

At the time, says Schoen, you might have believed that Safco management “thought I’d invented lightning in a bottle. But it was just what I’d done at Motorola.”

HighJump’s Mayleben made similar changes at his previous employer, business software maker Adaytum (later acquired by Cognos), which was on a two-week close cycle when Mayleben arrived. In addition to implementing the two-day close practiced at Honeywell, Mayleben also assigned responsibility for profit-and-loss statements across Adaytum’s individual business lines — a practice common at many large companies but new to the software maker.

Today, Mayleben says his Honeywell stint was “even better than going to business school, because you get the practical application. You’re not just studying [concepts].”

Many successful finance chiefs who worked for academy companies early in their careers now credit those experiences with their swift climb up the corporate ladder. PepsiCo alumnus Leahy believes veterans of that company, for one, may tend to rise more quickly to CFO positions because “they give you great opportunities in business, earlier than at other companies.”

The PepsiCos of the world also give finance executives the inside track to higher-caliber employers. Leahy observes that friends from his Pepsi days now fill the CFO chairs at Nike, Winn-Dixie, Heinz, Timberland, and General Mills, to name a few. “How many companies can you think of,” he asks, “where in 30 seconds you can rattle off the names of five Fortune 250 companies where its former executives have gone?”

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