Sarbox Burdens Prompt CFO Job Churn

Will Sarbanes-Oxley turn CFOs back into bean counters? Finance chiefs have had little time for strategy in the four years since the law was passed,...
Marie LeoneJune 9, 2006

Here’s one more thing to blame on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act: an increase in job churn for CFOs of Fortune 500 companies. A study released this month by Russell Reynolds Associates found that 19 percent of large-company finance chiefs left their posts in 2005, up from 16 percent the previous year and 13 percent in 2003.

While resignations helped boost the total, promotions did not. Russell Reynolds, a headhunting firm, found a 25 percent decrease in the number of CFOs who rose to the chief executive slot. Further, the report attributed 3 percent of the CFO leave-takings to dismissals, a higher percentage than in either of the two previous years.

Controller and treasurer turnover at big companies is also on the rise. Controller departures jumped to 18 percent from 15 percent in 2004; meanwhile, treasurer turnover inched up one percentage point, to 13 percent, in 2005.

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Much of the career upheaval stems from the lasting burdens of Sarbox, according to Lorraine Hack, executive director of Russell Reynolds’s financial officers practice. Hack and her colleagues were shocked that four years after the law was passed, the turnover numbers were still rising at a significant clip.

“We expected a Y2K effect,” noted Hack, referring to how technology-job turnover peaked about two years after worries about a millennial computer glitch disrupted the market. But financial executives continue to leave their spots in rising numbers.

Many CFOs express a “get me out of here” attitude, voicing ongoing frustration about being too consumed with regulatory compliance and not having enough time to focus on corporate strategy and operational finance projects, according to Hack. “Many CFOs resent the accounting handcuffs of the job and mourn the loss of their role as financial consigliore to the CEO,” the study concludes.

The angst isn’t likely to abate any time soon. The promotion rate among CFOs was only 19 percent in 2005, down from 30 percent in 2004 and 27 percent in 2003. That’s a significant departure from the recent decade-long rise in the number of CFO elevations to the CEO spot. The declining rate underscores that “the CFO role no longer is an effective managerial launching pad,” according to the study.

As recently as last year, however, a CFO magazine review of chief executive backgrounds found that 20 percent of Fortune 100 chief executives were once finance chiefs, up from 12 percent 10 years ago.

Hack thinks the heightened churn is temporary, but she notes that many CFOs are impatient in their current role and moving out of corporate finance completely. Thirty-two percent of large-company CFOs that left their posts in 2005 simply resigned, while 19 percent chose to retire.

Other departing finance chiefs became corporate-division heads or start-up chiefs at public companies, while some moved into management at privately held companies to escape Sarbox’s reach, according to the executive-search firm. In both cases, they widely cited the chance to do more strategic work as a prime reason for their move.

The figures on controller departures follow similar patterns. Fortune 500 controller retirements rose to 13 percent in 2005 from 6 percent in 2004, while resignations stayed level at 22 percent. But promotions for controllers dove from 45 percent in 2004 to 17 percent in 2005.

Hack attributes the decline in promotions for CFOs and controllers to the notion that boards — and sometimes CEOs — want to keep trusted and effective finance executives in place. Directors and senior management want to maintain stability during a time when capital markets are volatile and compliance problems represent a significant risk, she thinks.

But controller turnover may have a silver lining. Indeed, controllers are turning into the “rock stars” of corporate finance because of their familiarity with Sarbox, the recruiter says, noting they are currently “incredibly well paid.”

The turnover rate for treasurers has gone through less-dramatic changes than the churn for CFOs and controllers. For instance, turnover for corporate treasurers at the Fortune 500 companies rose just one percentage point a year from 2003 to 2005. Promotions for treasurers are down — from 37 percent in 2004 to 23 percent in 2005 — but so are retirements, dropping to 8 percent in 2005 from 14 percent the year before. Resignations held steady at 22 percent in 2005.

The unintended consequences of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act may be the “unanticipated human capital repercussions,” the study’s authors conclude. “The changing nature of the financial officer role is not a temporary headache,” they contend, “but a long-term departure from the traditional requirements and responsibilities of the job.”

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