CFO: All pain, no gain

ByTelis Demos, Fortune reporter

(FORTUNE Magazine) -- Alvaro de Molina was doing a bang-up job as chief financial officer of Bank of America. BofA's stock rose 13% on his watch, and on Nov. 28 the company surpassed rival Citigroup in market cap. But five days later, after just 18 months in his post, he quit, calling his job "suffocating" and "less fun." And de Molina is hardly alone: He was one of at least 12 Fortune 50 CFOs to leave their jobs in 2006. What gives?

In today's Sarbanes-Oxley world, the chief financial officer post - once a finishing school for future CEOs - has become the crummiest gig in the corporate suite. Combine the workload necessary to comply with the controversial 2002 legislation and the knowledge that you're almost certainly the sacrificial lamb if the SEC comes calling, and it's a recipe for skyrocketing turnover.

Companies with a market cap of at least $1 billion changed CFOs three times more often in 2005 than in 2002, according to 10-K Wizard. And while the rate of exits slowed a bit at big companies last year, Richard Jacovitz of Liberum Research found that among public companies of all sizes, CFO exits increased from 1,867 in 2005 to 2,302 in 2006.

SarbOx has forced CFOs to spend nearly a third of their time on IT systems, paperwork, and tedious board inquiries rather than on the big picture, say headhunters and former executives. That's in addition to typical responsibilities like communicating with Wall Street and dealing with creditors. "A lot of CFOs reach their breaking point because of Sarbanes-Oxley," says Jonathan Karpoff, director of the CFO Forum at the University of Washington. And any hint of numbers-related scandal essentially makes the job untenable. After the SEC raised questions about accounting at Dell (Charts) in the fall, CFO James Schneider said he would resign effective Jan. 1.

De Molina says that his job had become all risk and no reward. "The job was fine for a year, when there was a lot to improve on at Bank of America," he tells Fortune. "Then there wasn't as much to do, but there was a lot of risk because of the regulatory burdens."

De Molina's exit after finishing his mission is typical of how the CFO job has become more project-oriented. Take Charles Noski, a veteran exec who was hired as CFO at AT&T (Charts) to help the company sort through an acquisition binge, then left in 2002 after three years. "Once we restructured," Noski says, "the role I had been hired for ceased to exist."

As a result of this short-term mentality, CFOs are no longer perceived as stars on the boardroom bench waiting to become CEO. Rather, companies want troubleshooters. "The job has been pushed back to block-and-tackle rather than dipsy-doodle," is how J. Michael Cook, former CEO of Deloitte & Touche, describes the transition from strategic thinker to high-profile bookkeeper.

Many companies even turn to temps. Tatum, an executive services firm, has grown its network of CFOs-for-hire, who work on a project basis, from 179 partners in 1999 to over 500 today. "The CFO is moving toward a lawyer model," says Tatum managing partner Cindie Jamison. "You have one for M&A, then another one for a patent case. It's not one person for everything."

Some companies are trying to reinvigorate the CFO job by creating a new position: the chief accounting officer, equipped to handle the technical aspects of finance. Microsoft (Charts) and Comcast recently hired star CFOs by pairing them with highly regarded CAOs. "People getting in now should have high ambitions," says Karpoff. "I expect to see CFOs becoming important again."  Top of page