by Lisa Yoon

The Small-Firm Path to CFO

Nov 22, 20115 mins
CareersIT Leadership

Working at a little company can be a great way to advance to the large-company finance chief slot you want -- unless it isn't.

For senior finance executives hungry for that first big-time CFO opportunity, is a finance stint at a small company a good shortcut? It depends on who you ask.

Indeed, recruitment experts — along with CFOs who’ve chosen that path — have mixed opinions about whether to recommend it wholeheartedly.

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“I’ve definitely noticed people that way,” says Eric Rehmann, CFO practice leader for the Americas at Russell Reynolds. “It’s a great opportunity to show you can handle the responsibilities of the role.” He also notes that, as a recruiter, he’s always interested in good candidates to add to his database and to mention to his colleagues. “We’re always looking for people who take a bit of a chance and shine,” he says. And succeeding at a small business is one arena where rising finance stars certainly can do so.e.”

The rise of the small company itself — into a better birthplace of finance talent — is one reason for that, as they increasingly recognize the need for more formal finance expertise to run their own business. More of them certainly seem to be appreciating the distinction between what a CFO offers, and what a mere accountant doesn’t.

In October the New York Times and Huffington Post both ran articles about the decision of more small companies to hire finance chiefs. Small-business CEOs that the stories quoted showed a keen understanding of a CFO’s role, as well as a clear expectation that their CFOs are more than just number crunchers.

“The complexity of small businesses has changed, it’s ramped up,” says Rehmann. “They now have to understand issues globally, such as repatriation, capital, and foreign-exchange issues.”

Some Exceptions

For his part, though, CFO recruiter and consultant Samuel Dergel has a more qualified view. Certainly, more smaller firms “are getting more sophisticated” in assessing their need for a CFO, he agrees. “But not all.” Says Dergel, “It depends on the ownership structure.” He notes that manufacturing companies with sales of $50 million or more, for example, may well need for finance chiefs. But at private companies where much of the decision-making is done by the founder, there’s often a tendency to resist turning over the reins to someone else.

From the rising finance star’s perspective, many times “a small-company CFO position will not be helpful” on the bath to a big-company top job, he adds. And in general, a better tack might be to go first to the finance organizations of large companies, and use that experience to move forward toward CFO skills.

Meanwhile, he notes, if there is going to be a jump from a small-company CFO slote to a large-company one, it is best to stay within the same industry, he says. In general, when small businesses hire CFOs, “they usually take the path of least resistance,” he notes. “It’s hard for a small- or midsize company to give you a chance to grow as a finance leader if you don’t have same-industry experience.”

Seeing the Small-Firm Value

John Daly, now president of Executive Education Inc., a developer of continuing-education seminars for finance executives, held several CFO positions earlier in his career — his first at Edgewood Tool and Manufacturing, a service-provider to the automotive industry that was later acquired by Tower Automotive. Though he had no previous experience closing a company’s books, say, Edgewood saw value in his combined background in public accounting and IT.

Initially, as the company’s only finance officer, Daly learned the responsibilities of the corporate-finance function; later, he tapped his IT skills and his experience from accounting firms Arthur Andersen and BDO Seidman to offer strategic advice as Edgewood — and his finance team along with it — grew.

While he says that the small-company path to a CFO career “worked for me,” he echoes Dergel’s caution that “it’s probably not for everyone.”

For Julie Bradley, now CFO of online travel-review site TripAdvisor, landing her first CFO role at e-commerce services provider Art Technology Group was less a matter of company size and more about working for a public company. She had served for five years as finance vice president at Akamai when she began targeting her first CFO role. “Going from VP of finance to CFO is a difficult move,” she says, “because everyone wants prior CFO experience, and more specifically, they want public company CFO experience.”

After considering CFO opportunities at both public and private companies, Bradley eventually “decided on ATG because they were the leader in e-commerce — something I could personally talk about — had a strong management team, and were a public company.” Though ATG was relatively small in revenues, with $25.7 million when Bradley joined in 2005, the growth-oriented ATG offered a dynamic opportunity for a first-time CFO. Bradley presided over double-digit revenue growth from increasing partnerships and new products. Toward the end of her tenure she oversaw ATG’s acquisition by Oracle, which was just completed.

Bradley’s public-company experience is especially relevant in her current role as the first finance chief of TripAdvisor, which just separated from Expedia and is expected to issue a spin-off IPO. Overseeing finance and a future IPO at the travel-media company, which had revenues of $485 million in 2010, is a major step after the much-smaller ATG.

But it gave credence to advice she received from a mentor earlier in her career: “CFO roles at private companies were like the local bus — they come around often, but don’t always get you very far. CFO roles at public companies are like the express bus — they don’t come around very often, but often get you far.”