Strategic Insights for Hiring a Private Equity CFO

A survey on which attributes truly matter in the CFO chair.

The signature of the private equity business model has always been a relentless focus on building value and wasting neither time nor resources on things that won’t add meaningful return on investment. In short, as a client said, “We buy chaos at a discount and sell clarity at a premium.”

execunetselect-private-equity-cfoWe recently conducted a survey on the CFO role to fine-tune our understanding of the skills and experiences that truly define success today for a CFO of a PE-backed portfolio company and, equally importantly, which attributes may sound appealing, but are not essential. 323 private equity CFOs shared candid responses on their backgrounds, their compensation packages, and how they landed in their current role. The results are both interesting and informative, but most importantly, they present a clear picture of who currently sits in the CFO chair at many PE-backed portfolio companies, and the skills and credentials that are truly impactful in their leadership role.

The CFO Candidate Profile Revisited

There’s no doubt that building a candidate profile for an executive search is a balancing act. Asking for everything—the candidate who possesses every possible credential—may seem like a rational request that’s meant to ensure the placement of a great leader. The trouble is, each additional profile mandate further narrows the pool of potential candidates and tends to lengthen the search timeline. Yet, time is so often a critical factor in PE searches, so why eliminate powerful potential candidates, if the added search requirements have not proven their value in delivering CFO leadership success? Achieving both speed and success in a search depends upon including only those profile mandates that have been proven critical to identifying an executive who will succeed in the role. The responses to the survey offer current insights for forming meaningful future profile mandates for the PE CFO.

The results present a clear picture of who currently sits in the CFO chair at many pe-backed portfolio companies, and the skills and credentials that are truly impactful in their leadership role.

A Look at Prior Experience

We asked 33 questions that cover a wide range of topics and offer a relatively rare glimpse inside these private organizations. For instance, when asked about the intended exit for the current investor, only 26 of the question’s 315 respondents indicated a public offering was intended, while 99 expected an exit via another PE investor, and 190 selected the response, “trade/sale/strategic buyer.”

Considering our goal of building a better mousetrap—in this case, the CFO candidate profile that secures the best talent and an effective and efficient search for our PE clients—we were intrigued by the responses in a few areas, of course including previous experience. When asked, “What best describes your previous experience?” 10% of the participants responded, “I was a divisional CFO or number two finance executive in a PE-backed company,” while 20% had the same status at a public company. Another 35% had been a CFO of a public or private company, and only 34% had been CFO of a PE-backed company. So just a third of the CFOs in our survey had previously held a PE CFO role.

Diving a bit deeper, we tallied those responses according to the portfolio company’s revenue size. In total, the survey includes 60 companies with less than $25 million revenue, 57 companies with $25-$50 million revenue, 77 companies with $51-$100 million revenue, 104 companies with $101-$500 million revenue, and 25 companies with greater than $500 million revenue.

Not surprisingly, we learned that size matters. Among companies with less than $25 million revenue, only 15% of the CFOs had prior experience as CFO of a PE-backed company, while 56% 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% 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.

The skeptic would then ask, “Do all of these CFOs succeed in the role?” While the survey includes CFOs that were not
placed in the role by Caldwell, we do track our firm’s placements and outcomes. Looking at our PE CFO placements from 2011 onward, we find that we were asked to replace the executive in only 6% of those placements—so the answer would seem to be a resounding yes, the CFOs do succeed in the role.

Prior experience as a stand-alone CFO is often considered the gold standard for a candidate profile, but that  experience was noted by the CFO less than half of the time. A search profile overloaded with must-have mandates may slow the search process without adding value.

The Path to CFO Chair

We also asked the CFOs, “What were the key factors in your hiring?” and we asked them to check all relevant factors. Among the total population of participants, the No. 1 factor was industry experience, and the No. 2 factor was PE experience. Tied for No. 3 were a previous successful exit and a prior role as a stand-alone PE CFO.

Again, looking at the responses by company revenue size, private equity experience was the No. 1 or No. 2 response
in all revenue categories. Likewise, industry experience was No. 1 or No. 2 in the four lower revenue categories. However, among companies with greater than $500 million revenue, private equity experience was the No. 1 response, selected by 64% of the respondents, while a previous successful exit and experience as a stand-alone PE CFO were each selected by 48% of respondents. Only in this largest revenue category did industry experience drop to the No. 4 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 revenue, public reporting experience was cited as a
hiring factor only 8% of the time, while a previous successful exit was cited by 17% of respondents. Across all revenue categories, the CFO had Big 4 experience a quarter of the time, or less.

And while prior experience as a standalone CFO is often considered the gold standard for a candidate profile, that
experience was noted by the CFO less than half of the time in all revenue categories. Among companies with less
than $25 million revenue, stand-alone PE CFO experience was selected as a hiring factor just 12% of the time. While those responses tended to grow with company revenue size, even among companies with $101—$500 million revenue, stand-alone PE CFO experience was noted by only 32% of the respondents.

Compensation Calculus

Turning to compensation, increasing company revenue size seems to dictate all benefits when it comes to cash
compensation. However, in the area of equity, revenue size seems to have less impact on compensation structure.

When asked about bonus expectations for 2019, CFO expectations increased along with company revenue, and those bonuses also became more foreseeable. The lowest category bonus of “Up to 20%” was expected by 41% of CFOs at companies with less than $25 million revenue, only 5% of those CFOs expected a bonus above 70%, and 9% of those CFOs responded, “I don’t know…it’s discretionary.” At the other end of the spectrum, among companies with greater than $500 million revenue, only 4% of CFOs expected a bonus under 20%, half of them expected a bonus of more than 70%, and none responded, “I don’t know.”

The survey indicates that CFO base salary tends to run to $300,000 or less at companies with revenue of $100 million or less. The vast majority of CFOs at companies under $25 million in revenue have a base of $300,000 or less, with half of those executives earning a base of $200,000 or less. CFOs earn a base of $300,000 or less at the majority of companies with $25-$50 million revenue, and at companies with revenue of $51-$100 million. Stepping up the ladder, at companies with $101-$500 million revenue, three quarters of CFOs earn a base between $251,000 and $400,000. Among the largest companies in the survey, with greater than $500 million revenue, more than half of CFOs earn between $301,000 and $500,000.

Comparing the cash compensation package (base + target bonus) to that of the CFO’s prior role, the majority indicated they were earning the same as or more than in the prior role, across all revenue categories. However, the percentage of CFOs responding that the package was “Higher by 20% or more”—the highest level—increased with the revenue size, from nearly a quarter at companies with less than $25 million revenue to half at companies above $500 million revenue.

Yes, larger companies can and do pay more cash compensation. And our survey findings validate the notion that larger companies would be more likely to have both the need and the resources to compensate a CFO whose specific credentials are targeted to fulfilling the company’s strategic plans and shouldering the responsibilities of a larger organization.

The Equity Side is More Equitable

On the equity side of compensation, there is…well…more equity. We asked, “What percentage of the equity in your
portfolio company have you been granted (vested and unvested)?” Those responses clustered around zero to one or two percent, across all revenue categories. The outlier was that 15% of the CFOs at the companies with less than $25 million revenue have been granted more than 3.5% in equity (the highest category), perhaps as a counterbalance to lower salaries. Notably, that 15% represents more than twice the rate of top-level equity grants offered in any other revenue category. Also worth noting, in four of the five revenue categories, more than half of the CFOs did not invest their own capital in the company.

When asked, “How do you perceive your remuneration package compared to the market?” more than half of the CFOs in the four larger revenue categories selected, “I believe I am at market.” Only among companies with less than $25 million revenue was “I believe I am below market” the highest response, at 50%. Few of the CFOs believe they are being richly paid. In all revenue categories, fewer than 10% of responses indicate, “I believe I am above market.”

Caldwell’s survey offers a great amount of material that is worthy of careful inspection. And while the survey may be less than scientific, the responses—directly from those sitting CFOs—offer some instructive indications. For one, larger companies do have their weight to throw around in the market for talent. And a search profile overloaded with must-have mandates may slow the search process, without adding value by securing a superior executive for the leadership role. PE investors will want to take note.









Caldwell is a leading international provider of talent across major industries. At Caldwell we believe Talent Transforms. As a leading provider of executive talent, we enable our clients to thrive and succeed by helping them identify, recruit and retain the best people. Our reputation – nearly 50 years in the making – has been built on transformative searches across functions and geographies at the very highest levels of management and operations. We leverage our skills and networks to also provide agile talent in the form of flexible and on-demand advisory solutions for companies looking for support in strategy and operations. With offices and partners across North America, Europe and Asia Pacific, we take pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to our clients.

Understanding that transformative talent is not limited to executive levels, our Caldwell Advance solution focuses on emerging leaders and advancing professionals who can also have a profound impact on a company’s ability to turn potential into success. We also leverage our skills and networks to provide agile talent solutions in the form of flexible and on-demand advisory solutions for companies looking for support in strategy and operations. Also, we are a leading licensed certified partner of The Predictive Index (PI), an award-winning talent optimization platform with a suite of talent strategy and assessment tools that, when integrated with our search process, helps clients hire the right people, then manage and inspire them to achieve maximum business results as fast as possible. To learn more:

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