June 19, 2020 – Executive search firm Caldwell recently conducted a survey on the CFO role to fine-tune its understanding of the skills and experiences that define success today for a CFO of a PE-backed portfolio company and, equally importantly, which attributes may sound appealing but are not essential. More than 300 private equity CFOs shared candid responses on their backgrounds and how they landed in their current role. The results provided a clearer picture of who sits in the CFO chair at many PE-backed portfolio companies, and the skills and credentials that are truly impactful in their leadership role.
When asked to describe their previous experience, 10 percent of the participants said, “I was a divisional CFO or No. 2 finance executive in a PE-backed company,” while 20 percent had the same status at a public company. Another 35 percent had been a CFO of a public or private company. And only 34 percent had been CFO of a PEbacked company. So just a third of the CFOs in the Caldwell survey had previously held a PE CFO role.
Among companies with less than $25 million in revenue, only 15 percent of the CFOs had prior experience as CFO of a PE-backed company, while 56 percent of the companies with greater than $500 million revenue hired a CFO with prior experience in a PE CFO role. In the three other revenue categories, the companies hired a CFO with prior PE CFO experience 40 percent of the time, or less. These findings would seem to indicate that hiring a CFO with prior PE CFO experience is a “nice to have,” but not a must-have credential for all companies, said the firm.
Caldwell also asked the CFOs: “What were the key factors in your hiring?” and asked them to check all relevant factors. Among the total population of participants, the No. 1 factor was industry experience, and the second factor was PE experience. Tied for third were a previous successful exit and a prior role as a stand-alone PE CFO.
Looking at the responses by company revenue size, private equity experience was the first or second response in all revenue categories. Likewise, industry experience was first or second in the four lower revenue categories. Among companies with greater than $500 million revenue, however, private equity experience was the top response, selected by 64 percent of the respondents, while a previous successful exit and experience as a stand-alone PE CFO were each chosen by 48 percent of respondents. Only in this largest revenue category did industry experience drop to the fourth answer, tied with public reporting experience. These responses would seem to reflect that among the largest companies, investors are more likely to be anticipating and hiring for an exit via a public offering.
By comparison, among companies with less than $25 million in revenue, public reporting experience was cited as a hiring factor only eight percent of the time, while a previous successful exit was cited by 17 percent of respondents. Across all revenue categories, the CFO had Big Four experience a quarter of the time, or less.