Career Swings

Finance career paths increasingly include a stopover in IT.
Jason KaraianMarch 30, 2006

Over the years as a CEO, Göran Gezelius says he’s come across three types of CFOs: accountants, bankers and IT systems specialists. So when Lennart Gustavsson, his CFO at SKr6.8 billion ($857 million) Swedish security equipment firm Gunnebo, announced plans to retire at the end of 2006, Gezelius started asking himself what type of finance chief he needed next. The answer didn’t take long to find.

Having acquired more than 40 companies over the past ten years, Gunnebo’s management decided that the focus in 2006 would be on consolidation and integration, particularly the company’s fragmented IT systems. For this reason, the CEO thought, “if someone could start with a good grip on the IT side and move into the CFO role, bringing the IT department closer to the finance department, that would be great.”

Hans af Sillén was the right man for the job. He and Gezelius had worked together at Atlas Copco, an industrial equipment maker in Stockholm, where af Sillén distinguished himself by moving between several finance and IT posts. Now at Gunnebo, af Sillén will spend this year as CIO before becoming CFO in 2007.

Given the traditionally adversarial relationship between finance and IT, af Sillén’s move is probably impossible even to consider at many companies. But more and more finance executives are spending time in IT as companies recognize the value that financial expertise can bring to their technology operations.

That’s certainly been the case at InBev, the €8.6 billion ($10.2 billion) Belgian brewing giant. Jacques Purnode joined the internal audit department of InBev (then Interbrew) in the early 1990s, rising to finance chief for central and eastern Europe, where he managed a regional rollout of an ERP system. Based on that experience, “I’m not able to customize an SAP system myself, but I understand how the modules interact, the best way to implement them and the art of managing big projects,” he says. In 2004, he was put in charge of a group infrastructure outsourcing project, which will deliver €25 million in savings — more than 20 percent of the original cost — by 2007. And today he’s leading a rationalization effort for the group’s applications.

It can be hard for finance executives to get their heads around IT — “I had to get up to speed on things like voice-over-IP, data centre setups and so on,” notes Purnode — but it’s worth it, asserts Nick Beighton. Last summer, he was appointed finance director of Luminar, a £375 million ($654 million) U.K. entertainment venue operator, after being business change and IT director at clothing retailer Matalan. “Once I broke IT down into processes — goals, inputs, outputs and controls — I could apply analytical discipline to something that I previously knew nothing about,” he explains.

He adds that spending time in IT has made him a better finance chief, both because IT increasingly reports to finance at companies and because IT can create or destroy significant shareholder value. “In terms of my objectives as a finance director, it sat squarely as something that I wanted to do,” he says.