A Mentor Makes a Career

A young accounting manager who didn't see herself as CFO material trusted the judgment of her employer's famous audit committee chairman, and wrote...
David McCannOctober 9, 2008

How do you become the CFO of a public company at age 35, despite never having imagined it, let alone actively pursued it? One way is by having a champion who believes in you even more than you believe in yourself. And it doesn’t hurt, by the way, if that champion is one of the business world’s most well-known, well-regarded executives.

Now 40, Katy Murray is in her third CFO seat, at Taleo Corp., a $180 million provider of talent-management software used by human resources organizations. But in January 2004, when she got the first one, she had been principal accounting officer at i2 Technologies, a Dallas-based maker of supply-chain-management software where she had worked since 1998, for less than a year.

After i2’s previous CFO had made known his intentions to leave, the company began seeking external candidates for the job. Murray says she did not feel angry, slighted, or even surprised; she figured it was the obvious and right thing for the company to do, since she doubted whether her experience was adequate for the task.

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It took someone with unique vision to see a CFO where no one else did. That person was the chairman of i2’s audit committee, former American Airlines boss Robert Crandall. Why, he asked company management, are you opening this up, when you’ve got someone you can promote from within?

Crandall, says Murray, trusted her accounting, her knowledge of internal controls, and her credibility with auditors and the audit committee. “I think to some degree, because he had gone through his own challenges, with re-audits and restatements, he believed that I was above board in that everything had to be done a certain way,” she recalls.

Katy150When Taleo Corp. finance chief Katy Murray was offered her first CFO job, her reaction was, “Are you sure?” A lot has changed in the five years since that time.

The board, the audit committee, the CEO, and the outgoing CFO all agreed to trust Crandall’s instincts, and Murray was offered the job. “I was like, are you sure?” she says. “I questioned myself, wondered if I was the person who could do this.” But her famous mentor’s advocacy, she says, was “overwhelming.”

“He told me, ‘Katy, you can do it. You’re the one. Take the opportunity.’ ” So she did.

If I Can Make It Here…
A measure of Crandall’s wisdom was that within a year and a half, Murray had gained so much confidence in her ability to run a finance organization that she began to itch for the challenge of doing it somewhere else. “When I took the role at i2,” she says, “I already knew the business and the management team. This was about proving to myself that I hadn’t just been handed the job, that I really did have the capabilities.”

She landed at EXL Services, a business process outsourcing company with its corporate base in New York and business headquarters in Delhi, India. She was attracted to the idea of moving to New York, where she had worked for a year earlier in her career and loved, and also to the fact that EXL was gearing up to go public.

Murray joined the company in May 2005 and guided it toward its initial public offering in September 2006. But she missed the software business, and when Heidrick & Struggles recruited her for the CFO job at Taleo, which she saw as a better fit, she took the opportunity.

And she’s very glad she did. Taleo is growing fast, with a forecast for $178 million in revenue this year, exactly $100 million more than it brought in two years ago. Amid a corporate landscape littered with enterprises struggling mightily to find sufficient capital to fund daily operations and make payroll, Taleo wound up the first half of 2008 with $100 million in cash and no debt. In fact, Murray says, the company has not had to raise any capital since it went public in 2005. “We have a very healthy balance sheet,” she says. “It’s a result of driving cash flow. We’ve never had a loan, debt, revolver, or anything since I’ve been here.”

Some of the growth is organic, some through acquisition. Taleo used some of its excess cash in the third quarter to purchase Vurv Technology Inc., another talent-management solutions provider, for $37.5 million in cash and 3.8 million shares of common stock. Taleo also bought a minority stake in Worldwide Compensation, a maker of compensation management software, that came with an option to buy the company.

“This is a fantastic job,” Murray says. “Coming here was a huge move for me, with the visibility we have on the investor relations side — there are 17 sell-side analysts that cover us. We’ve done three acquisitions since I’ve been here. All of this has been pivotal for my career.”

The Right Moves
It’s been an interesting career, at that, for someone who started out in a pre-med program at Louisiana State University. When Murray couldn’t get engaged in classes like organic chemistry, she switched to business administration with an accounting focus, because she’d always been good at numbers.

After getting her Master’s and CPA designation, she decided not to take the public accounting firm route. “I didn’t want to run around from client to client and not own anything,” she says.

Murray’s first significant job was as a tax specialist in Dallas with First USA Bank, which later was acquired by Bank One. She worked in that department for a couple of years, and it looked like a career in tax was shaping up. “I thought I would stay focused on that and ultimately be a company’s tax director,” she says. Being a CFO was not on or near her radar screen.

In 1995, though, First USA acquired two companies in New York, and Murray accepted a role integrating their accounting operations into the parent company’s. After a year of doing that, she went back to Dallas with a promotion to accounting director. Right at that time, the bank was implementing an Oracle financial system, and Murray took on responsibility for some aspects of the project.

That experience turned out to be her ticket into i2, which was a high flyer during the Internet bubble period, with revenue surging to about $1 billion and a share price over $200. The software firm, too, was launching Oracle, and Murray was hired as project manager for the worldwide implementation.

In that role she reported to the controller and then the CFO, and while keeping her Oracle responsibility she took on new ones, one by one: international accounting, billing, general ledger, the daily close, revenue accounting. A realization that she was on a CFO track jelled only gradually — until Bob Crandall became her champion. “The reason I’m in the position I’m in today is because he recommended and supported me,” Murray says.

Befitting a company that makes its living in the talent management area, right now Murray is looking to hire someone she can groom as her successor. Not that she’s going anywhere. “I don’t like jumping around,” she says. “It’s the same reason I didn’t go into public accounting. I like to own something, understand it, be able to build it from the ground up and know what it is.”

What she’s looking for is someone who can free her to spend more time on strategic matters. When it’s pointed out that a mix of finance and strategic experience might qualify her to be a CEO, she doesn’t object. “It’d be fun to run a company, and definitely interesting,” she says. “I hope I can build my skill set and talents to have that opportunity someday.”