Even CFOs Get the Retirement Blues

Many finance execs plan to work longer than previously expected, but still envision a high-quality post-employment lifestyle.
David McCannApril 24, 2009

The stock-price plunge has spared few individual investors and, as a group, finance executives are certainly no exception. In fact, because they have more money than most people, their losses are greater, in raw-dollar terms.

Many American workers, especially those age 50 or older, cannot fathom now how they will ever be able to retire without facing an old age of modest means and ceaseless worry. But for top finance professionals, any fallout on their retirement, absent poor planning or unusually bad luck, will more likely amount to a mere inconvenience — even for those not making millions working for Fortune 500 companies.

The main trade-off may be a few more years of working in order to secure the retirement lifestyle envisioned before the economy tanked. To be sure, a large number of CFOs see themselves in that position. In a recent survey of 1,400 finance chiefs by Robert Half Management Resources, 27% said they plan to work longer than previously expected, and an additional 25% said they cannot now predict when they will retire.

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Until last year, Gary Correia, vice president of finance for Taylor Guitars, a $67 million private company, had anticipated retiring no later than age 62 and possibly as early as 59. Now Correia, 52, says he will “easily add three or four years” of work. Asked how that makes him feel, he pauses before offering, “It’s a sigh, and not a sigh of relief. I wish I could do it a lot sooner. I’m trying to evaluate what can be done. Fortunately I enjoy my work — I know a lot of CFOs who don’t. That makes a big difference.”

Correia’s largest chunk of retirement funds, his 401(k) account, is down 37%, and he made a commercial real estate investment that he says “may go to zero.” But he also made good real estate investments and kept quite a bit of his liquid savings in cash, and so the delay does not accompany expectations that his retirement, when it does arrive, will be any less enjoyable. Rather, working the extra years “puts me back in a situation where I feel comfortable,” he says.

Moreover, the money to be earned during that time will not be for the purpose of padding savings for the requirements of daily life. Instead, it will allow Correia and his wife to honor their commitment to their two children that they can go to any college they like and graduate debt-free, and to satisfy the couple’s own wanderlust.

Correia says that in 30 years of working he’s never taken more than two weeks of vacation in a year. One time he took a two-week trip to Europe, which he found very difficult in light of all the things he wanted to do during the excursion. He looks forward in retirement to taking a road trip across the United States lasting at least two months, and to traveling extensively in Europe, Asia, and South America.

A delayed retirement is also in store for Charles Dunlap, another 52-year-old, who has been a CFO at several small companies, most recently Professional Alternatives of Houston, a staffing firm. When he left that job voluntarily two years ago — something he says he’s done regularly through his career in search of fresh challenges — he tried his hand at consulting, working on start-ups, shutdowns, and turnarounds. His biggest project was a shutdown for a Houston company, and he had lined up several smaller gigs to turn to when that one ended.

However, all the smaller projects “went away because of the economy,” says Dunlap. “It was like a door slamming shut. People became uncertain of their cash flows and put the projects on hold or canceled them altogether.”

Until that point, he says, he had been doing so well financially that he was looking at retiring by age 55. Now he doesn’t know how long he’ll be working. He still hopes to kick back before turning 60, but that probably depends on how well the economy performs in the next few years.

Regardless, Dunlap expects to eventually retire comfortably. Currently engaged in a consulting project for Robert Half, he doesn’t anticipate having much trouble finding work, as commerce in the Houston area, where he lives, is relatively stable. “I’ve started some heavy networking, and may even look at things outside the finance area,” he says. “I took a hit last fall. But I brushed myself off, looked in the mirror, and said, ‘Let’s go after it.’ “

Like almost everyone, Dunlap saw his investments fall hard — about 25%. In response, he has made some more conservative choices in his portfolio, which he says he probably would have done anyway because of his age. “I’ve gotten into stocks related to things like water and energy that are going to be around for a long time but won’t necessarily produce a large return,” he says.

But age is not necessarily the deciding factor when it comes to investing for retirement. Although Dale Wallis, CFO of The Aerospace Corp. — a nonprofit federally funded entity that provides engineering services for the Air Force — is seven years older than Dunlap, he still views his retirement funds as long-term investments.

While Wallis says those investments are down by almost half over the past two years — and he earns far less than CFOs at comparably sized defense contractors — he’s buoyed by a nonqualified deferred-compensation program that Aerospace provides for its corporate officers. When he reaches the organization’s mandatory retirement age for officers of 62, the amount will come to less than half of his salary — “nothing that will make you rich,” he says, but something that provides a degree of comfort for retirement prospects.

The best thing going for Wallis is that he has choices: he could choose to take a nonofficer position with Aerospace, or work there part-time while continuing to teach accounting at the University of Southern California, which he currently does two afternoons per week. He says the accounting department dean has told him he can also teach full-time when he retires. Possibly the most likely scenario, Wallis says, is teaching part-time, either at USC or in a more rural area, and playing a lot of golf.

But whatever he decides to do, he adds, “is not going to be driven by where the Dow Jones closes on December 31, 2011,” his retirement date. “I believe you should manage a retirement plan, whether it’s your own or your company’s, with a long-term view.” Overreacting to market fluctuations causes needless stress, he says. If you have a good plan and stay in the market — and he expects it will have fully rebounded within two or three years — then all you’ll lose is time, not money, Wallis thinks.