Over 50, Out of Work, Open to Change

More and more finance executives fit that description in these days of recession and downsizing. The best cure: constant effort and a positive outl...
David McCannMarch 24, 2009

Kenneth Zuerblis, the former CFO of ImClone Systems, just turned 50 and is out of work — and he could not care less. If his unemployment lasts for four years, he says, he won’t be bothered at all.

Such a carefree attitude is a luxury that many other “in transition” finance executives in their 50s and 60s cannot afford, the stock-market plunge having devastated their retirement savings. In the case of Zuerblis, money is not an issue, which is why he says he is being “extremely picky” with potential employers.

And why not? That mindset worked the last time he was looking for a job, starting in 2005. That was when he left Enzon Pharmaceuticals, where he had headed finance for 13 years, a wealthy man thanks to a huge spike in the company’s stock price and, hence, the value of his equity-based compensation awards. Zuerblis looked around ultra-carefully for the next lucrative opportunity, which turned out to be with ImClone in early 2008. (This was several years after the wide-ranging insider-trading scandal that earned ex-CEO Samuel Waksal a long prison term, and eventually led to jail time for media celebrity Martha Stewart.) 

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Zuerblis’s ImClone gig lasted less than a year, during which the CFO helped engineer the company’s November sale to Eli Lilly for $6.5 billion — a figure that translated to a premium of about 70 percent above the price at which ImClone’s stock was trading. Three months later, once again he left his employment with his bank account generously fattened.

Now he’s back in the job market, talking to contacts about opportunities and keeping his ears open. But there is no rush. “I’ve had two very big winners, and I’m not willing to jump into something that would hurt my reputation on Wall Street,” he tells “It’s going to take a long time to find, I think.”

For Zuerblis, a golden reputation trumps advancing age, no contest, when it comes to job search. “At 50, a reputation like I have is great,” he says. “If you didn’t have that, 50 is not so great.”

Unfair Hiring Practices?

Indeed, despite federal age-discrimination laws, there clearly is an unwritten age bias against candidates in their 50s and 60s, particularly out-of-work ones, most observers believe.

“Hiring managers may look down their noses at people 55 or older, because of the benefits costs being higher, or a feeling that a lot of time will be spent acclimating a person who will be gone soon anyway, or a preference for someone who can still move up in the organization and is still growing,” says Terry Gallagher, president of executive search firm Battalia Winston.

Those who do find work, though, may be in a good position. Some percentage of the vast Baby Boomer population will retire on schedule over the next few years, and their replacements, Generations X and Y, are much smaller in number. “You’re going to see companies extending retirement ages to 70 because of the intellectual capital these people have accumulated and the dearth of people behind them to pick up the rope,” Gallagher says.

In the meantime, the going can be rough. “If someone is going to discriminate against you because of your age, you just have to deal with it,” says Jack Heyden, a partner at Grayhair Management, a career coaching and outplacement firm that specializes in assisting people with more than 15 years’ work experience. Regardless of age, he notes, the key to landing a job is to convince a hiring manager that you are the person best able to fix whatever problem needs to be fixed.

Bound to the Windy City

Not everyone of a certain age feels discriminated against, though. One Grayhair client, Alan Milasius, says he has seen nothing to make him think that companies view people his age, 55, as past their primes. “It’s not like I’m 75,” he says. “I’m not pessimistic about getting something, even in this economy, although it may take a little longer.”

Milasius’s experience suggests that he would have much to offer the right employer. From 1997 to 2006, he was senior vice president and director of audit operations for Chicago-based LaSalle Bank. For the last two years of that stretch, he additionally served as global manager of quality assurance for LaSalle’s then-parent company, the Dutch bank ABN AMRO. Before that, at First Midwest Bancorp, he variously filled the roles of audit director, due diligence manager, corporate secretary, and insurance risk manager. That followed nine years in public accounting with Arthur Young. Milasius has both a CPA and an MBA.

When ABN AMRO put LaSalle through a restructuring phase in 2006, he found himself downsized out of his job. He says he always wanted to try being an entrepreneur, so he spent a couple years attempting to get his own executive coaching service off the ground. Ultimately, the income stream wasn’t enough, and he started mounting a job search in January.

Milasius’s strategy includes working with Grayhair to sharpen his message to employers, and expanding his network, largely through LinkedIn, the online business networking service. He says he spends 30-35 hours per week on networking, including two full days most weeks in downtown Chicago devoted to in-person meetings with new contacts, and “has gotten nothing but positive response.” About 10 more hours per week are spent evaluating job leads furnished by Grayhair and responding to job-board postings.

Though most of his career has been at banks, he’s not limiting his job search to that segment, and in fact, moving in a different direction could provide some fresh air. He wants to use the full spectrum of his internal audit and risk management expertise, and “in a non-regulated industry you have more freedom to experiment and dig into the true risks of the business.”

One factor that Milasius acknowledges may work against him is a desire, for family reasons, to remain in the Chicago area. So far, financial hardship is not part of the equation, though he did not take his annual ski vacation this winter and sold his airplane a couple of years ago.

He says he has no specific time frame in mind for finding a job, but allows, “I don’t want to be out of work for five years.”

No Taste for Retirement

Someone a few years older may understandably be a bit less patient. Peter Macaluso, 62, laments that he has been seeking work for eight months now, despite a stellar resume. And he makes no pretense that he doesn’t understand why.

“To be honest with you, I’m sure it’s purely an age thing, though no one talks about that — it’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” he says. Macaluso tries to get the topic out in the open when he networks or interviews, pointedly saying he wants to work 7 to 10 more years, is in great health, and runs half-marathons.

Recruiters have told him that his background is almost ideal: several different jobs lasting 5 to 10 years and two stints as a CFO who took companies public, though the most recent of those was in the late 1990s.

Most recently Macaluso was vice president of finance and controller at EasyLink Services Corp., a public, $100 million business-to-business messaging company. After Internet Commerce Corp. acquired EasyLink in 2007, he helped with the transition for a year knowing that the job was to be eliminated. “I had time to psychologically get ready to do something different,” he says, “but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Macaluso, who has spent most of his career with telecommunications and Internet companies and is looking primarily in that area, says his most productive networking has flowed from his membership in The Financial Executives Networking Group. Among his dozen or so interviews, several came from leads found in FENG newsletters and chapter meetings. A New Jersey resident, he is open to relocating on the East Coast.

Along with his job search, Macaluso has been consulting for a small accounting firm and may take on a big project from EasyLink. He also has investigated joining one of the firms, such as Tatum LLC, that provide finance executives on temporary assignment.

From a personal financial standpoint, Macaluso’s severance package from EasyLink has left him unaffected — so far. And despite his struggle finding work, he remains optimistic. “There are definitely jobs in the finance field for people with experience,” he says.

Slow Going

Companies are filling their open positions with extreme scrutiny, though. Marcus White, 50, says that while he is guardedly optimistic, he is frustrated at the pace of the hiring process.

“I know there is hiring going on, but it is painfully slow,” says White, who has a strong background in financial analysis. One opening for which he recently interviewed consisted of a phone-screening interview, an online skills assessment and personality assessment, an initial meeting with the hiring manager, three one-hour interviews with other people, a half-day with the main customer that the position would service, and then a final round of interviews with the hiring manager, the CFO, and the vice president of human resources.

“It was quite a gauntlet to run, which I’ve heard from my fellow job-seekers is not atypical,” he says.

White was director of operations analysis for the Life Fitness Divison of Brunswick Corp. from 2004 until July 2008, when the struggling company went through a major downsizing. In that role he was the chief finance resource for Brunswick’s chief operating officer and the vice presidents over manufacturing and supply chain operations. At Brunswick and other employers though his career, White has supplied financial analysis for business development and acquisitions, among many other activities.

Not having found a job in six months of aggressive searching, White, who initially intended to stay in Chicago, has expanded his purview. He says he won’t move “just anywhere,” but the West Coast, Northeast, or elsewhere in the Midwest are all possibilities.

He’s also open to switching industries, and believes finance skills are very transportable. His background is in manufacturing, but he thinks that not only could he add value to any kind of manufacturing business, even moving to a service industry would not be a big stretch.

For his part, White is still unsure whether his age is a factor in his job search, though he thinks the fact that few posted jobs ask for more than 10 or 12 years experience provides a clue. Regardless, like the other in-transition executives, White is networking during most of the 40 hours per week he spends on the search. This time is spread across six or even seven days of the week, and when there are evening networking events, the day can last until 10 p.m.

A break in the economic doldrums would be a godsend. “As the recession grinds on there are more and more job seekers in the market, and I don’t know how good the prognosis is for a lot of them until things turn around,” he said.