Leaving Home

A foreign post can advance your career, but don't let your sense of adventure get the best of you.
Kate PlourdOctober 1, 2008

After 25 years at General Electric Capital Corp., Keith Helming was ready to fulfill his career goal and become a public-company CFO — even if it meant relocating. So in 2006, he moved across the Atlantic to become the finance chief of Aercap, an Amsterdam-based aviation lessor. Then owned by a private-equity firm, Aercap was preparing to go public, and Helming’s experience (which included 5 years as CFO of GE’s aircraft leasing division) was a strong fit.

Helming’s transatlantic route to the top may become more frequent, because executive recruiters report strong demand overseas for U.S. managers versed in American-style accounting rules, regulatory compliance, and investor relations. In one prominent example last year, James Lawrence left Minneapolis-based General Mills after almost 10 years as CFO to takeover finance at Anglo-Dutch consumer-goods company Unilever. Meanwhile, Kevin Connelly, chairman of executive recruiter Spencer Stuart, notes that a Japanese client recently looking for a CFO specifically requested an American. “The company does a lot of business around the globe,” he says, “and they’re looking for someone with a global perspective who is familiar with U.S. financial reporting.”

Indeed, America’s rigorous reporting requirements have made U.S. finance talent attractive for years, says Dave Lemus, CFO of German biotechnology giant MorphoSys. Twenty years ago, after working in audit for Deloitte and financial reporting for Geico Insurance, and with a newly earned master’s degree from MIT’s Sloan School in hand, Lemus traveled to Zurich to find a finance job. European companies, he found, craved his GAAP know-how. Now he’s an expert in international accounting standards, with a résumé that includes stints as a treasury manager within the Swedish conglomerate Electrolux AB, controller at F. Hoff mann–La Roche in Switzerland, and group treasurer of the Swiss chocolate company Lindt & Sprüngli.

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Even as U.S. GAAP gives way to international financial reporting standards, U.S. candidates remain in demand for other reasons. These days, foreign companies increasingly want finance managers with proven leadership skills. “Foreign companies are just beginning to look for CFOs who act as business partners,” says Stephen Scroggins, head of Russell Reynolds Associates’s financial officer practice. To that end they are scouting the ranks of companies with strong financial-management programs, such as GE. “These U.S. companies have very developed management programs, whereas in Europe they haven’t built that kind of talent internally and the financial role tends to be more of an accounting role,” says Scroggins.

While any type of overseas experience is increasingly regarded as a must have for aspiring CFOs, leading a foreign company’s finance department trumps an overseas assignment at a U.S.-based company, says Helming, who also served as CFO of GE’s consumer finance unit in the United Kingdom. “Trips overseas offer good exposure, but you’re not getting a true global experience,” he contends. “Working outside the United States, with a truly global company that has most of its activity outside the United States, has given me a much broader view.”

Culture Shock

Of course, living and working in a foreign country can be fraught with difficulties. For English-only speakers, performing even simple tasks in a different language can be challenging. “On my second day I went to the post office to send a letter, and I realized I didn’t know how to say that,” recalls Lemus of MorphoSys. To improve his German, he began watching the local TV news every night.

On the work front, business culture in central Europe was far more democratic than the top-down approach Lemus knew in the United States. “I wasn’t used to the importance of consensus in terms of decision-making,” he says. In his various European positions, he discovered that workers on all levels had input on decisions ranging “from the mundane, like sharing ideas for the new company kitchen, to the more important, like voting on a company’s new slogan.”

At Aercap, Helming encountered a culture that placed more emphasis on personal development than even GE did. He adjusted his management style accordingly. “I didn’t work fewer hours or change my level of dedication; it was more about trying to develop career paths for my people,” he says. “I had to learn that that was much more important to be effective in the business climate here.”

Doing extra homework is a must for anyone who wants to work in finance overseas, say expatriate CFOs. “A lot of times people see it as an adventure,” says Helming. “But the most important thing is that the job and the company have to be the right choice — because if you make a bad choice [overseas], it becomes a more complicated misstep than in the U.S.”

Moving abroad has to be the right choice for families, too. Helming says he probably wouldn’t have accepted Aercap’s offer if his two sons hadn’t already gone off to college. For Lemus, on the other hand, limited family restrictions encouraged his adventurous spirit. “It was a difficult decision to leave, given that I had been to Europe only once,” he says. “But there was nothing holding me back.”

Kate Plourd is a reporter at CFO.