A Mom’s Hard Career Choice

An accountant's dream to be a CFO took second billing to maternal instincts, but after a long career pause the dream is alive and well.
David McCannSeptember 9, 2008

For a woman in finance, dreams of one day being a CFO can go “poof” when the real-life demands of motherhood dawn. Some women see an unhappy choice: continue climbing the ladder, or be a good mom.

Diana Truss was 43, and loving her professional life as a controller for a $30 million machine-tools company, when she decided she had to devote more time to her then-10-year-old daughter, Sarah. It was heartbreaking to abandon her desire to run a company’s finances, which she had nurtured throughout more than 20 years of landing better and better jobs with an incredibly diverse series of employers. But she felt she could not give her career the energy that she demanded of herself while doing what she had to do at home.

Dreams, though, can be stubborn. After devoting most of nine years guiding her daughter through puberty, adolescence, and college preparations Truss reentered the work force this summer, lucking into a position with a fast-growing specialty pharmaceutical company. Although at an age, 52, when many CFOs these days are looking for the exit sign, Truss is enthusiastic about her prospects of finally achieving her career goal.

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“I’m very excited,” she says of her job as comptroller at OncoMed Pharmaceutical Services, based in Manhasset, N.Y., on Long Island, which currently has only a handful of full-time employees. “They created this position for me. No one here has an accounting background but me, and ultimately, they’re going to need a CFO.”

Youth Movement

It might have never been. Although she had been honored as “accounting student of the year” in her senior year at Adelphi University and landed an auditing job with Arthur Andersen, at age 23 she wondered whether she had chosen the correct career, because she found the CPA exam so difficult.

On her second try at winning her certification, Truss says she was hyperventilating as she called her father to ask whether her exam results had arrived in the mail. “I was praying to God — ‘Please, I can’t take this test again, it’s too hard.’ ” But the news was good, and made for one of the best days of her life.

Truss worked at Andersen for about 18 months full of great learning experiences, but that particular kind of grind was not to her liking. “I really didn’t see it as a long-term thing,” she says. “I was putting in so many hours that I didn’t even have a chance to date. From a personal standpoint, at 24, that was important.”

Soon, however, she met her future husband, whose work led them to move to a small town in upstate New York. After spinning her wheels for awhile as a tax-return preparer at a mom-and-pop shop, she went to work for IBM, where her first role was to handle the accounting for employee moves. Then she moved on to the inventory area, which she found to be more interesting because it involved visiting warehouses around the country. “You had to climb up a rack like a monkey and count things,” she recalls.

Taking on more responsibility, Truss began handling letters of credit from South America, making sure the company got paid for shipments of its first-generation personal computers. “It was a big deal — IBM was shipping these new PCs all over the world,” she says.

She and her husband decided to move back to Long Island, and IBM gave her a position managing cash flow from an office in Manhattan. But she found the daily commuting prohibitive, and so she took a job with the Long Island Lighting Company, a public utility. There, she says, “I didn’t really understand what I was getting into.”

For the next four years she was a “depreciation supervisor” at LILCO, which involved doing studies on the useful life of plant equipment and providing the information to the New York Public Service Commission for use in building the rate structure for electricity. “If I had been a statistician, it might have been interesting,” she reflects.

Aiming for the Big Time

That was when her daughter was born and, at almost the same time, her marriage came unraveled. Truss moved back in with her parents, which turned out to be a boon to her next career move.

While on maternity leave LILCO had restructured her department, which in effect downsized her responsibilities. So she sought another opportunity, and it came at Ebasco Services, a large engineering firm located in the World Trade Center.

This job Truss loved. Her role initially was to cost out the construction and technology projects Ebasco worked on all over the world. That brought her into occasional contact with the company’s top executives, who were impressed enough to promote her to a financial planning position. “I saw for the first time how a large company is put together, and there was a big international aspect to it — many of our jobs were in Europe and Asia,” she says.

Despite putting in long hours, it was a great time in her life. Truss loved her colleagues and was excited to be working on the 93rd floor of the trade center, with the whole city at her feet. She also was dating the man who would become her second husband. All of it was made possible by the child care her parents provided.

In 1993, after she had spent five years there, Ebasco was bought out by Raytheon, which began selling off pieces of the company. That was OK with Truss, who had no desire to work for a quasi-governmental company anyway.

Her next stop was at Philip Morris, where her title, operations specialist, belied the scope of her responsibility. Her job was to identify cost-efficiency opportunities at the company’s facilities and in facility contracts, reporting directly to the facilities manager.

While she was making more money than ever, Truss says the work wasn’t quite what she had envisioned for her career. “I like seeing how a company is put together,” she says. “Ultimately, I wanted to run a business on the financial side.”

In the meantime, Truss and her family had moved to rural New Jersey and again she had a long commute into Manhattan. With relief, she found a great job as controller of a nearby company called Italian Technology Association Inc., which sells U.S. companies high-end machine tools made by members of the Italian consortium that owns the business.

“It was the best opportunity I ever had,” Truss says. “It was on a smaller scale, but I could see every aspect of the business. Since we weren’t huge, I had to deal with HR issues. I interviewed sales managers and accountants. I set up a 401(k) plan for the company. I dealt with cash flow and payroll. Every day I talked to people in our offices in Italy, and I got to travel to Milan, where I was wined and dined and drove a Ferrari.”

A Matter of Priorities

Yet Truss was increasingly tormented by what she viewed as a lack of attention to Sarah. Her husband was doing well in his career as president of an oil company, so she made the decision to put her career on hold.

“From 10 to 15 is a crucial age in children’s lives, especially girls,” she says. “I believe children are our legacy, and my daughter was my treasure. I told myself that I could always get another job, but I couldn’t make up for time not spent with my daughter.”

And so the years went by, and Truss’s career faded into the past. Aside from a couple of temporary consulting gigs — an extended one with Newsweek‘s accounting department and another working on the initial public offering of WebMethods, a business process integration software developer — she was content to be a stay-at-home mom. “I don’t regret it at all,” she says.

Life changed again for Truss when she divorced her second husband and moved back to Long Island. With her maternal responsibilities also now lessened, she was preparing to mount a job search when a friend who works for OncoMed called to tell her the company — which sells cancer drugs wholesale to doctors and hospitals — was looking for an accountant. She said she was interested, and within minutes she was doing a phone interview with the company’s owner.

At her new post for less than two months, Truss is handling a blizzard of responsibilities in her one-person department: tracking cash balances, making payments to vendors, managing the payroll, processing receipts, billing customers, cleaning up accounts payable and accounts receivable, redesigning the accounting system, and working with an outside CPA to make the balance sheet pristine in preparation for an eventual certified audit.

For Truss, 52 is just the right age to be embarking on a whole new career direction. “I have the time now,” she says. “Our careers are like gems to us, and mine is a very large part of myself.”

Alluding once more to her vision of becoming a CFO, she adds that throughout her career, “I knew in my heart that all of the particular jobs I had were going to get me where I wanted to go. I just knew it. And I believe it still.”