As resolutely as executives might strive to take control of their careers, circumstances and unforeseen opportunity often have their say.
Back in 2019, Eric Bouchard had been running finance for Atrium Innovations, a Canadian maker of science-based food and beverage products, for five years. But that year, after Atrium was acquired by a much larger player in the field, Nestlé Health Science (NHS), he suddenly found himself CFO of both companies.
“I was supposed to be one of the first ‘synergies,’ as any good CFO of an acquired PE-backed company might be, but they ended up liking me and so I took the job as CFO of the acquiring company too,” Bouchard tells CFO. “It came as a complete surprise to me. I wasn’t planning that at all in my career, but it ended up being a fantastic opportunity.”
Leading finance at a big Nestlé company put Bouchard in position to be considered for other top finance jobs. Sure enough, last year private equity firm Permira contacted him about a job in an entirely different field: outsourced legal services, with Axiom, a Montreal-based company that has a big U.S. clientele.
“I was very happy with NHS and not looking for a new role,” he says. “But I had worked with Permira before, and the more I learned about Axiom’s business model and my new colleagues, the more I realized I’d found my new home.” He started the job in December 2023.
Axiom’s thousands of attorneys-for-hire serve more than 1,500 clients in North America, Europe, and Asia, including 60% of the Fortune 100 companies. The bulk of the business is temporary as-needed support for corporate legal staff, although Bouchard hopes a new offering unveiled in late January will create more full-service work.
- First CFO position: 2015
- Notable previous companies:
- Nestlé Health Science
- Atrium Innovations
- Bombardier Transportation
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
DAVID McCANN: Did you have any particular wherewithal in legal matters before taking this job?
BOUCHARD: Some might not think of finance and legal as a natural fit, but after you start working [in finance] you see that there’s a strong fit. Everywhere I’ve been in my career, we’ve needed to work hand in hand on so many things — risk management, M&A, or just the normal regulatory piece.
But even though you work together a lot, legal remains somewhat enigmatic — a bit of a black box. You understand some of it, but not the whole span [of legal implications]. You realize that you haven't got the depth of knowledge to be able to challenge that.
After I was approached for this opportunity, I realized I was super interested in this blind spot and curious to know more about the intersection of finance and law.
What is the education process like?
BOUCHARD: You [quickly] learn a lot about the industry. I was in the food and beverage industry for the past nine years, and in engineering before that. The way this business is conducted is very different. We’re offering a service. There is no engineering, no inventory, or bad goods. It changes how you look at numbers and what triggers performance. There are different pain points.
Manufacturing by itself is a very different world, with variance analysis and production issues. Service businesses must analyze utilization rates, billable hours, and customer acquisition costs. This shift in perspective requires a deeper understanding of capacity planning, resource allocation, and client retention.
What do you think are the most valuable experiences or expertise from your past employment that will serve you here?
BOUCHARD: I’d say managing complexity and thinking outside the box. Things like that are consistent themes. As you go from one industry to another, you want to challenge yourself to attack things a little differently. Every business model has its own level of complexity, and you have to be able to handle it.
What are some examples of “thinking outside the box”?
BOUCHARD: It can apply to structuring M&A transactions, structured finance solutions for commercial deals, creating significant synergies by combining operations or sale offerings, and more.
One example from my prior experience involved reimagining our approach to cost management. Rather than following conventional cost-cutting measures, we explored creative ways to optimize internal processes, streamline workflows, and identify new revenue streams.
This is similar to the kind of work I am excited about doing with Axiom’s clients — how can in-house legal teams best optimize their internal processes and streamline workflows to realize cost savings?
Since CFOs generally sign off on significant legal expenses, will you, as an experienced CFO, have a sales role at Axiom?
BOUCHARD: Sales operations and our deal desk report to my function. It’s one of the reasons I was interested in this role. The sales team doesn’t report to me, but all the data the sales team uses for their pitches, and everything relating to quotas and territories, is within my function. So far that’s taking up probably 10% of my time, for deal approvals and such.
Will you be doing outreach to clients’ CFOs — for example, if the sales team asks for your help, or there’s a particularly large potential client?
BOUCHARD: Absolutely, and as much as possible because it's very relevant. But just how much is yet to be seen. My main role is to be a finance person, so it’s not something we'll do on a daily basis. It will [partly] depend on what role that CFO [plays in that organization].
For a CFO, what is most important to know or realize about working with legal counsel, whether in-house or outsourced?
BOUCHARD: You know, the CFO is allowed to drill down. Legal is complex, and there is usually a strong relationship between the general counsel and outside law firms, and there’s a reason for that. But feel free to ask questions.
As CFOs, we’ll drill down on everyone’s budget and challenge every FTE and every item of spend and tell procurement to get three bids for things. And yet when it comes to legal, it’s “no, we understand we need to deal with that third-party law firm, and don't ask questions.” No. All the budget is open to you.
Coming into this job as a CFO, what is your dispassionate view of the business? It’s been around for 20 years, so it would seem to be a mature one.
BOUCHARD: I think it’s ready for a breakthrough. It does seem like a mature business. If you look at alternate legal services providers, it’s very mature and the biggest player, and doing quite well.
The breakthrough is in providing services at a law firm level. We just announced Axiom Advice & Counsel, [which debuted a year ago]. It’s set up exactly like a modern law firm, with partners that supervise the talent and write legal opinions, but without the overhead, those firms carry for their offices and other provisions. It could be a game-changer.