A New Balance

Today's CFOs are planning a different kind of retirement.
Kate O'SullivanJuly 1, 2005

When Martin Welch left Kmart in May 2001 after the company’s chief executive decided to bring in a new CFO with more retail experience, Welch expected to land a new position soon. But with the economy in the doldrums, few opportunities presented themselves. Welch realized he would have to come up with a new plan.

Since then, Welch, 56, has worked as an interim CFO at an automotive-parts manufacturer, and today he serves on the board of two private companies. “People ask me if I’d ever go back and be a CFO at a big company again,” he says. “I never say never, but I’m not really putting energy into trying to track down CFO opportunities.” Instead, Welch is enjoying the flexibility of his schedule and the new balance of life and work. “If I could line up four or five of these board positions I’d be working three-quarters of the time, and that would be fine with me,” he says.

Welch is not alone in rethinking the second phase of his career. Many finance executives are exploring opportunities besides full-time work as they enter their 50s and 60s. And while many have been financially successful enough to retire outright, few are making that choice. A February Merrill Lynch survey of a random sample of more than 3,000 baby boomers found that just 17 percent of respondents planned to stop working entirely in retirement; 42 percent said “cycling between work and leisure” was their ideal vision for the next stage of life. “What people are hoping for is a new blend of work and leisure,” says Ken Dychtwald, CEO of consulting firm Age Wave and a collaborator on the study.

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Jeff Redmond, president of the Boston-based executive coaching firm New Directions, says he is working with an increasing number of finance executives to help them develop plans for that next stage with a so-called portfolio approach. “A lot of people we talk to may want to go for one more full-time assignment,” he explains, “and then, while they’re doing that, they’re planning for a portfolio of activities to come later.”

A Variety of Options

Earl Baucom, who was the controller at John Hancock until Manulife Financial Corp. bought the insurance giant in 2004, is pondering such a plan. He was asked to stay on at Manulife to help implement Sarbanes-Oxley at the combined company, but he said he would “rather do something different.” Although he has worked in financial services for the majority of his career, at age 58 Baucom is considering full-time positions in other industries, including consulting and construction. He is also investigating part-time CFO jobs, as well as volunteering. “The ideal might be three days a week,” says Baucom, “working 8 to 10 hours a day with a day in there to play golf.” But he admits the transition to part-time work could be difficult. “I’d have to really focus and stick to the three days,” he explains. “I can be something of a workaholic.”

The portfolio approach to late-career work can include a variety of elements, particularly for finance executives, who are in high demand to serve on boards of both public and private companies. Experienced CFOs can also be a godsend for small companies and start-ups that might need an interim finance chief to prepare the company to go public or that need finance expertise only a few days a week.

Teaching is another appealing option, says Nicole Williams, the 60-year-old CFO of American Pharmaceutical Partners Inc. in Chicago, a $405 million publicly traded company. “I have a lot of war stories that the students love to hear,” says Williams, who taught until recently at the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. “A lot of business schools are turning more toward practitioners than tenured faculty for nuts-and-bolts-type teaching.”

Williams had lined up a corporate board position and two directorships at nonprofits, in addition to her teaching position, when the opportunity to return to a full-time CFO job presented itself. She had to give up the teaching — “I can’t do it with this kind of schedule,” she says — but remains on the board at Lake Forest and has maintained her other board positions. She also works with the Chicago Horticultural Society. To balance her roster of responsibilities, “I do a lot of things to make myself more efficient,” she says, such as scheduling investor-relations trips to coincide with board meetings.

To successfully create such a mix of activities requires careful planning, says Redmond of New Directions. He urges executives to focus on what they truly want to do at this stage rather than simply pursuing a replica of their previous jobs or sticking with the type of role for which they are known. For example, “there might be a CFO who is very successful in working with Wall Street who happens to prefer the control side of the business, but no one would ever know that,” says Redmond.

“How do you like to act in an organization? How dominant do you want to be? How much change do you like?” After identifying such preferences, explains Redmond, executives can begin to line up activities that meet their criteria. Age Wave’s Dychtwald cautions executives not to get too hung up on money. “People may say, ‘I’m not going to take that job, because it doesn’t pay what I’m used to,’” he says. “But it may allow you to work on the kind of project you’ve been looking for. Maybe the money is not as important at this stage.”

The Joy of Work

While the rigors of today’s CFO jobs seem more likely to send people running for the golf course than the boardroom, many finance executives say they plan to continue working in some capacity for as long as they can. “People used to retire at 65,” says Redmond. “Now we’re seeing people who have very little interest in retiring at all.”

Dan Junius experienced a few months of early retirement after check printer Deluxe Corp. purchased his former employer, New England Business Service Inc., in June 2004. He traveled with his wife and took a road trip to Colorado with his son. “I wasn’t quite sure I was going back to work,” says Junius. But in May, he became the CFO and senior vice president of finance at Immunogen, a biotech firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Enjoying time off “made me appreciate what I got from working,” he says. “You don’t realize how much you enjoy it until you’ve been away from it.” Although Junius was searching for board opportunities and considering volunteering, the chance to work in an entirely new sector lured him back to a full-time position. But he says he’ll return to such pursuits when it’s time to leave this job.

“I’d like to think I’d always have my hand in something,” says Junius.

Kate O’Sullivan is staff writer at CFO.