Changing Jobs: The CFO Headhunter's View

Time flies fast when listening to Brian Moore’s war stories. He has spent the last 17 years headhunting and finding dream jobs for senior finance leaders in Hong Kong, Singapore and other places in Asia, first as head of financial services and accounting recruitment at TMP Worldwide and, in 1999, as managing director of his own CFO executive search firm, Brian Moore International.

Moore spoke to CFO Innovation’s Cesar Bacani about career challenges facing CFOs, the importance of mobility and mentors, and the perennial issue of being an accountant versus having an MBA as the best preparation for becoming a finance chief. Excerpts:
 
Tell us what the landscape for CFOs is looking like.
They come in all shapes and sizes. I’ve got four CFOs [as clients] right now. All different. One has a lot of experience in working with Asian companies, Asian CEOs, Asian chairmen, Asian owners. He’s an expat and has been here for 20 years. He doesn’t want multinationals. He loves those kind of family-owned local companies.
 
He knows how to do road shows and he’s done IPOs. He’s done a lot of M&As, a lot of financial restructuring. You talk to him about doing the accounts, he’d say, Oh, I did that when I was 25. Now I’ve got a really good team, I’ve mentored them and they get those things done while I’m out on a road show with the chairman raising funds for our next project. But I sign off on [the accounts].
 
I’ve got another client who’s from the logistics industry. He’s a CFO, but he hasn’t done IPOs, never worked in public companies. You don’t deal with the investment community, you don’t deal with the banks.
 
It’s a multinational, so he reports into a global CFO in the US. So he doesn’t have ultimate responsibility to raise funds, going to road shows, do IPOs because he’s part of a bigger picture.
 
He’s more concerned with economies of scale, strategic cost management, revenue enhancement opportunities, managing cash, just running the business in a more efficient way.
 
And the third CFO?
She is an MBA from India, living in Singapore. Not a CPA. She’s the CFO for ASEAN and South Asia for a multinational, so she goes out to Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India. She has only worked in commerce and came [to the CFO post] through the financial analyst route.
 
The [first] company that she joined out of MBA school in India was this massive multinational giant. They looked at her CV and it didn’t matter that there was no accounting qualification on there. They just saw the business smarts, the analytical skills, the financial acumen. All the roles she’s had since then have all been about analysis and joint ventures.
 
She did a JV in China and was director of the board when she was 32. She now wants to move back to India. I’m helping her do that and getting a lot of attention. She can be a country CFO for India who has worked 12 years in India, then got shipped over to do this Southeast Asia role in Singapore, been there for about five years and now happy to go back to India.
 
She seems like CEO material.
That’s her goal.
 
There are so many different directions to take based on where they have come from. They’re stopping at the CFO post and defining the role based on what they’re bringing into it and what’s necessary, and then from there, you go to CEO. 
 
So many different ways to go. For example, the person that used to play the role of head of finance at Credit Suisse here [in Asia] is now a partner in a Big Four firm in the UK. 
 
And the fourth CFO that you’re working with? How different is he from the others?
He has spent 30 years in one organisation but has been posted all around the world. He said to me that he might as well have been with eight different organisations during his time because they’ve all been different businesses.
 
Basically he just put his hands up and gone adventuring all around the world. He’s had amazing roles as CFO, as treasurer, in very different businesses [within the same organisation], so he has the ability to go in there and just run with it. But he just doesn’t fly in and fly out. Every role is at least three or four years.
 
He’s a CPA who’s joined the organisation from university and just grew there. He’s taken a [retirement] package and is now looking at doing something new, either in Asia Pacific, Middle East or any kind of emerging market. He doesn’t want to go to a corporate HQ in New York or London.
 
MOBILITY
Is that a good thing or a bad thing, staying in one organisation for 30 years?
I’ve made some inquiries [on behalf of] this person with other companies. There’s a baseless assumption they’re making – 30 years, tarnished with that culture, being inflexible, won’t be able to adapt.
 
My comeback is, let’s look at the spread of countries and spread of business under this big umbrella, all of these big individual organisations. The fact that it’s under one massive company brand is irrelevant.
 
But if he did not have that background, if he stayed put in Singapore for 30 years, for example?
Well, I wouldn’t have taken his money because it would be difficult to place him. I probably wouldn’t even put him on a short list for a search.
 
In my Australia days I did a lot of work with BHP before it became BHP. They had a diversity of businesses globally, so you can start in finance in Melbourne, and then you could be working a couple of mines in Chile and then you could be in New Guinea. It was amazing.
 
But you had to be mobile. It’s the same with Philip Morris, it’s the same with General Electric, Amex – they’ve got cultures where they move their finance people into unbelievable and diverse experiences.
 
As soon as you say I want to stay home, that’s fine, but ultimately you run out of room. People will pass you by because they are geographically mobile and more flexible. So you kind of get stagnant and then it will probably come to a point where you’d end up leaving.
 
But isn’t the person who stays in headquarters the longest the one who has the inside track for promotion because the decision-makers know him?
It’s kind of six on one hand and a half dozen on the other. I get people who resist the request to go back to HQ. They can ultimately miss out. The ones who just swallow that bitter pill because they know they have to get back in front and have that visibility may get the opportunity.
 
They might not become the global CFO, but they might become CFO of international as the next step to that [top finance] job.
 
So if I’m starting out on my financial career, it’s actually good for me to stand up and say, I want to go to Peru, I want to go to Chengdu?
I say to everybody, you have to be opportunistic, be open to ideas and be proactive. You might suddenly get a call from your boss saying: How would you like to go to Moscow? We need you to go over there and get that experience.
 
But at the same time, finance people tend to be a little more reserved, a bit conservative, they don’t self-promote that well. Just stick your hand out, get yourself out there in the traffic and be noticed. Be flexible. Be open.
 
You might say, well, actually, I don’t want to go to Moscow. However, I’d love to go to Venezuela.
 
At the same time don’t get lost [from headquarter’s radar]. This person I was talking to yesterday, he’s got two champions at head office who’s helped pave his path. He’s close to them and they track his progress.
 
He’s fortunate that they have been there from the beginning and still there ten years later. That can be quite rare. It doesn’t matter whether you are in rural Africa. Make sure you’re still on the radar [at the head office].
 
Is this true of large Asian companies?
Not to the same extent [as the Western MNCs], no, it’s quite different. I think a lot of Asian companies are still too young to have that kind of spread . . . Culturally, I wouldn’t say it’s on the same level as, say, P&G, just because they have such a history of doing that [sending people abroad].
 
I think it’s early days for that [among Asian companies]. They’re not growing organically, they grew by quick acquisitions. Suddenly they get this finance person in sub-Saharan Africa so there’s little need to send someone else from here.
 
But if you’re willing to get out of your cushy life in Hong Kong and go and live in Africa for a while, I think that would definitely be appreciated, especially if they just made an acquisition and you go there to integrate that company properly. Whether it’s cultural, systems or financials, I think to get selected by a Chinese CEO to go and do that job, is a massive compliment.
 
MENTORS
It’s frequently said that mentors are important for career advancement. How do you find the right mentor?
Some companies have [a mentorship program] in place, from induction all the way through promotion. But you can’t just sit there and expect it to happen. If you go into an organisation where it doesn’t exist and it’s a foreign concept, then you probably want to push hard to find a mentor. It can be driven by corporate culture or it can be individually driven.
 
I know one CFO in Hong Kong, a Hong Kong guy with good multinational background. It’s incredible the volume of CVs he has sent over to me over the last ten years of the people who have worked for him over the last 20 years. They still go to him for guidance.
 
You keep this link with your people who joined you as graduates and now they are heads of companies, but they still seek your counsel. This isn’t company culture. This is him projecting that’s how he likes to do things, that’s how he develops his people.
 
But what do mentors like this Hong Kong CFO get out of this?
Human nature at its core, we love helping others and we love nurturing. So I think that that’s the satisfaction of seeing someone succeed.
 
It’s like planting a seed and watching it turn into a beautiful flower and strong tree. Whether you’re a parent or whether you’re a good boss, seeing that talent, you nurture that talent, you’re responsible for them.
 
Unless this senior person sees you as competition.
But a lot of people say you would have done the ultimate job by working yourself out of a job. You have developed a CFO. You have tracked, developed and retained quality staff.
 
This has nothing much to do with the books or running the business. It’s about people leadership. The war for talent is such an ongoing challenge.
 
So how would a would-be CFO attract the eye of a good mentor and keep the relationship going?
You have to [demonstrate] that you want to learn, that you want to grow. You have to show sincerity and integrity.
 
The one thing is integrity. So many people I interviewed [for placement in other companies] just decided to bite the bullet because they see that line blurring.
 
The CFO is the spine of the organisation. If that spine is broken or damaged, then the whole company just can’t keep moving. Do not compromise on everything that you’ve stood for from your studies until now.
 
Most people I’ve seen come out with their private companies, working for an owner, I want to do this and I want to do that, and they think it’s allowable . . .
 
The CFO ends up saying, I’ve got to get out of here. I’m in a very compromised position, and I’m confused. They can’t divulge too much, but they say, I’ve really got to get out of here.
 
CPA VERSUS MBA
There’s always been debate as to whether a CFO should be a chartered accountant or have an MBA or both.
An MBA is generally a plus. But not always a must, no.
 
You might see a banker with an MBA – it all depends on what the job is. If it’s an externally focused CFO role where you’re fund-raising or doing an M&A or you’re about to list, that’s the kind of person you want.
 
I’ve seen an energy banker coming into an energy company that’s doing an IPO. But they’re going to need a really strong controller under them who’s probably going to come from the Big Four [accounting firms].
 
You see people getting to CFO level who have come through more the financial planning and analysis and the management accounting group. A lot of those guys that have CIMA or CFA [qualifications], they basically came out of university and joined a multinational as an analyst or in financial planning. . . 
 
You talk to them about what they want to do, they want to be involved in the business. They love taking the results the financial reporting team has given them and actually making something out of it.
 
By the time they might have made it as CFO, they might have a controller under them who’s come through the professional services route. Those controllers would be the CPA or the ACCA. They’re the ones who’s doing the regular reporting or statutory stuff and gets the CFO to sign off.
 
So a CIMA or CFA qualification carries more weight in a CFO role, and a CPA or ACCA qualification is preferred for a controlling role?
You know what, in the CFO role, it doesn’t really matter. Companies just want to see a professional qualification to show that [the CFO has] made some commitment to further study, that they have got their rubber stamp, and the rest comes down to experience.
 
I remember a few years ago China.com called in someone as CFO who was the head of regional equity research at Bear Stearns. I think he was covering China.com. What they needed from the CFO there was communicating with the investment community.
 
He wasn’t sitting there doing the financial reporting. There was a team that probably came from the profession who did all that, so his job is more externally focused than internal. He had teams to do [accounting and controlling] but he ultimately signs off on them.
 
It really depends on the size of the organisation. If you got enough scale, then you probably have a head of financial accounting and a head of management accounting. Maybe you’ll have financial planning analysis underneath you. 
 

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