The need for a chief executive to work with boards and communicate with Wall Street has never been greater, and CFOs have experience in both those areas--making them excellent candidates for the top spot in an organization.
Companies are increasingly recognizing the value of this internal asset and promoting their CFOs to CEO, according to executive search firm Russell Reynolds' Chief Financial Officer Moves North America, Q1 2010.
Currently there are some 50 CEOs in the Fortune 500 who were previously CFOs for the same company. Their numbers recently increased, at least on an interim basis, as Marcel Smits, the CFO at Sara Lee, was promoted to the CEO slot.
CFOs have been promoted to CEO typically in organizations that are heavy on logistics or analytics, says Christopher Langhoff, who specializes in financial officer assignments for Russell Reynolds. He offers the example of Clarence Otis Jr at food services firm Darden--which owns and operates restaurants such as the Olive Garden and Red Lobster.
Otis started with the company in 1995 as vice president and treasurer and progressed to CFO. He was appointed CEO in 2004. Similarly, David West joined the Hershey Company in 2001 as vice president of business planning and development and worked his way up to CFO, where he served from 2005-2007. He was promoted to CEO in 2007.
It's rare, however, to see a move from CFO to CEO in the tech industry, says Langhoff.
The ascension of CFO to CEO is not likely to slow down any time soon. "We have more and more clients that are coming to us asking for a world class CFO that will likely be ready to be CEO in two to three years," says Langhoff. "That's a tall order. We looked back and many times prior to the appointment of a CEO, the person had served, on average 16 years at the company."
The first quarter also showed a continued, robust turnover of CFOs in the middle market. "The lifespan of a CFO can be shorter than an NFL career," says Langhoff. As for the rest of the year, Langhoff predicts more turnover. Over the past four months, Russell Reynolds reported a dramatic increase in search activity in the United States, Europe and Asia that spans industries.
The spike has been most pronounced within the financial services sector. Companies like Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Neuberger Berman, Kellogg, PepsiCo, Walt Disney, Dow Chemical and CVS/Caremark all named new CFOs.
Says Langhoff: "When Sox was in full gear there was a need for a CFO who was a CPA. Now, companies are looking for a strategic CFO, a business partner. There could be a big shift."