CFO Heads Off to Google for a Secret Mission

Marsh &spamp; McLennan finance chief Vanessa Wittman, still a wunderkind at 44, is set to take an unknown role at the Internet powerhouse.
David McCannMarch 7, 2012

Vanessa Wittman, CFO of Marsh & McLennan Cos. since 2008, is bidding for some heightened action with a move to fast-and-furious Google. But just what will she be doing there? So far, it’s a closely kept secret. She’ll be leaving Marsh & McLennan at the end of this month, but her starting date at Google hasn’t been revealed either.

There is no obvious reason to believe that Google’s present CFO, Patrick Pichette, will be leaving that post. One possibility is that the Internet giant will have Wittman do something else for a while that will put her in a position to be CFO one day. Or perhaps she will move into operations, such as integrating and running the big mobile-device division that Google recently bought from Motorola.

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“She has a background in corporate development and banking, so maybe there’s something really big Google wants her to evaluate bringing in and integrating,” speculates Larry Ormsby, who specializes in placing CFOs at technology companies for  recruiter Korn/Ferry International. He knows Wittman and has closely followed her career since the late 1990s, when she was senior director of corporate development for Microsoft. “Culturally, I can see her being a good fit with Google, because of the youthful, high-energy culture there. She has a lot of energy.”

Whatever Wittman, 44, does at Google, it’s likely to be something big, as Ormsby suggests. Her early career path went like this: corporate finance associate at Morgan Stanley; partner at venture-capital firm Sterling Payot; CFO of Metricom, a health-care software firm; and the senior director role at Microsoft. All of that happened before she was 30.

In 2002 Wittman accepted the dubious honor of being CFO of Adelphia. Her task was to clean up the accounting and financial mess left by the former (and now imprisoned) top officers of the company, once the fifth-largest cable-television operator in the country. In a 2009 videotaped interview for the University of Virginia’s “Hot Topics in Finance” series, Wittman recalled that during her four-plus years at Adelphia, she got an intense dosage of what she called “extreme finance.”

“No one walking into Adelphia could have anticipated the complexity of the capital structure, the vitriol of the fighting that went on over how dollars flowed through that structure, and how money would flow upon resolution with the bondholders,” Wittman said. “We were constantly negotiating with incredibly smart people with incredibly narrow interests.”

At the same time, she had to satisfy the Securities and Exchange Commission’s order for bankrupt Adelphia to restate five years’ worth of financials. When Wittman arrived on the scene, the company’s then-chief accounting officer was launching “Project 18,” a plan to complete the restatement work within 18 weeks. “It turned into a 22-month project, and we couldn’t even restate two of the years, because the data the old management team had kept was so skeletal,” she said.

On top of those weighty matters, Wittman had to raise an $8 billion exit facility, which was accomplished by putting the deal out to bid with banks. “It was an auction process, which was fascinating.” But she never got to use that facility, because in the end, rather than emerging from bankruptcy independently, Adelphia sold most of its assets to Time Warner and other parties. So, add M&A issues, from the perspective of a liquidator, to Wittman’s “extreme finance” experience.

She stayed on at Adelphia until 2007, after the asset sales had closed. In late 2008, she took the CFO post at Marsh & McLennan and stirred the pot right away. A 2010 article in CFO described Wittman balking at investment bankers’ pricing plans for a $400 million bond offering. With her finance staff quaking at her hard-nosed approach, Wittman suggested to the bankers that she “had made a horrific mistake in judgment in choosing them as the underwriters to pump up the pricing.”

About an hour later, she recalled, she got the pricing she wanted. Forget that this was in the midst of a fierce credit crunch and that finance officers at the company weren’t used to talking turkey that way.

Still, Ormsby suggests that Marsh & McLennan’s culture was too staid to satisfy Wittman’s desire for great professional challenges. In the 2009 interview, she said, “When you’re an investment banker and a deal fails, you feel bad for a day or two and then move on to the next client. When a deal fails at a venture firm, you have a little more skin in the game but still have other issues in your portfolio to worry about. But when you’re a CFO and a deal fails, you have a real problem and you work on it around the clock until it’s fixed. The place I want to be is where I can make the greatest impact.”

It was generally known among leading executive recruiters that Wittman was not destined to stay at Marsh much longer and was looking at multiple opportunities, Ormsby says. She’s a somewhat atypical CFO, he notes, given her banking background and the special challenges she faced at Adelphia.

Ormsby says he had a phone conversation with Whitman after she left Adelphia. She was in Paris with her kids. She told Ormsby, he says, that instead of looking for a job she decided to take the kids to France for a few months so they could learn French and see the sights. “That is really kind of cool,” Ormsby says. “And it’s not a typical CFO move. She comes across as an innovator in whatever she does.”

Meanwhile, taking over for Wittman at Marsh & McLennan, on an interim basis, will be J. Michael Bischoff, the company’s vice president of corporate finance. A CFO search process will include both internal and external candidates, the company said in a statement. Otherwise it declined to comment for this article, as did both Wittman and Google.

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