Can A Part-Time CFO Upgrade Your Firm’s Finances?

Seasoned liaisons available. For any startup board seeking money, expertise, and a firm hand at the helm, a new idea has appealing momentum: Enlist the services of one of a growing corps of part-time CFO consultants. Most offer at least 20 years of financial and accounting experience. They have worked their way up the ladder, rising through the ranks, experiencing mergers and IPOs, losing jobs, and watching industries rise and fall. They are the seasoned professionals who allow the bright-eyed innovators to run a company while they act as a liaison between their entrepreneurial boss and additional funding. Business has never been better for part-time CFO consultants, thanks to the tidal wave of venture capital ($35.6 billion in 1999), pouring into startup firms.

An important reality check. The part-time CFO provides much needed financial skills such as drafting and implementing business models and cash flow forecasts, creating budgets, analyzing contracts, and installing accounting systems. One consultant helped a 40-person company switch from QuickBooks to a global payment network. Occasionally they get involved in the minutia of financial management, such as A/P processing. They provide links to bankers, insurance companies, lawyers, benefit consultants, and—most importantly—sources of additional funding. One consultant states that his most important function is to act as a reality check in what is often a very heady environment. Another realizes that he brings poise and confidence to meetings with prospective investors. A third feels that his most important contribution is pinpointing soft spots in a business model, critically assessing the financial plan, and challenging assumptions that do not make sense.

Ratcheting up for an IPO. A closely held business can operate on a simple business model, which may include the occasional services of a CPA to handle the financial matters. Adding venture money to the capital mix requires a more sophisticated level of financial controls. CFO consultants have built up a thick file of contacts over the years, including venture capital firms looking for their next score. Part-time CFOs know what the venture community wants to hear and can pitch the company accordingly. For the next big step, the IPO, the availability of a seasoned veteran is critical. Many new companies are getting ready for IPOs without a CFO on their payroll, and many entrepreneurs have no experience with the financial community. Frequently the part-time CFO will be the only manager onboard with IPO experience.

Part-timers build their own portfolios. Many of the part-time CFOs operate independently, working with a portfolio of six to eight companies, much the way a venture capitalist does. They may spend a day or two at each company. One popular part-time CFO receives 10 to 20 new consulting opportunities each week. Some have formed companies, employing as many as 100 consultants and staff to meet clients’ needs. Consultants earn between $125 and $275 per hour. Increasingly, however, they are beginning to offset 10% to 20% of their fees with stock options. To date, no one has become a millionaire, but it is possible to accumulate several thousand shares while working a year with a company.

Start Me Up, by George Donnelly. CFO, June 2000. Pgs. 77-84. CFO Publishing, 253 Summer Street, Boston, MA 02210.