“How long would it take me to become the CFO?” is a question that many analysts, controllers and accountants are bound to ask.
There’s obviously no easy way to answer this question. Typically, older managers would trot out the old cliche: “Look beyond the spreadsheet, become more strategic. Be patient, pay your dues for 15 – 20 years, and then, hopefully, your turn will come.”
The notion that it takes decades to become a CFO is likely to be taken at face value. And with good reason — senior management will always try to insist that this is how things have always been done and there are enough CFOs who got there by “paying their dues” and following a consistent and linear career graph.
There are, however, those who refuse to buy into the folklore. They are outliers who bucked the trend and created their own set of rules and values to clinch the coveted title.
Here is a list of three financial professionals who took matters in their own hands, built a proactive Spend Culture, made a direct impact on their companies’ bottom lines, and ultimately became CFOs.
#1: How Volunteer Work and Night School made this Accountant a CFO at 28
Name: Benjamin R. Mulling
Company: TENTE Casters Inc.
If there’s one thing to note in Ben Mulling’s journey, it is speed with a capital S. And his career trajectory — right from his university years to his appointment as a CFO of multinational company reflects his need for speed, as it were.
After opting out of an engineering major at the University of Cincinnati, Mulling experimented with several majors, including business, ultimately choosing to do an AAS in accounting.
While still in the first year of his undergraduate studies, Mulling found a job as an inventory specialist with a machine tool manufacturer. “I never had the luxury of being able to go to school full-time,” he said in an interview. “I married young and had a family to support, so I went to school four nights a week and worked during the days.”
Over the course of the next few years, he took on a number of accountancy roles, including that of an accounting manager at one of the largest churches in Alaska. At one point in these early years, he was managing three accounting departments and seven other areas — including the church, school, two radio stations, two cable television stations, and an advertising agency.
Throughout these years, Mulling was also actively studying — first completing a bachelor’s degree in accounting, and then acquiring an MBA. According to Ben, for the budding CFO aspirant who is just starting out, experience takes time to acquire. Given this constraint, Mulling threw himself into doing whatever he could to accelerate his career — this meant becoming a chartered accountant quickly, and earning broader skills at management schools and professional organizations that offered programs to speed up the process.
In the absence of long years of work experience, the need to understand the “climate” is crucial. Which is why “quick education”, including often overlooked things like “webinars, lunch-and-learns, and even hour-long seminars” should never be discounted, Mulling says.
What distinguished Mulling from others in his field was his rare combination of work experience and academic excellence. Accountants, typically, are valued for their critical eye and surgical precision — a lucrative skill that is continuously honed at University, and in the course of preparing for certifications like the CPA, CMA etc.
But, Ben’s academic credentials were complemented by his deep engagement with the real world outside the ivory tower of academia. For example, in his first job as an inventory specialist (while he was still attending night school at the University of Cincinnati), Ben volunteered to oversee an ERP implementation in his company — a job that no one wanted to touch.
This unique combination was easily noticed by TENTE Casters Inc., a multinational manufacturer of medical mobility solutions, which hired him as their controller in 2006. Within two years, Mulling became the company’s CFO at the age of 28.
Mulling has been the company’s CFO since 2008. And in the last 9 years, he has become one of the most visible faces in the global finance community.
#2: A Business Undergrad who Became a CFO at 27
Name: Grayson T. Lisenby
Company: Rice Energy
This CFO’s story is perhaps the most curious in our list. In stark contrast to Ben Mulling, Lisenby did not posses a pedigree of academic accomplishments. Lisenby is not an MBA; neither does he hold any degrees in finance or accounting.
Shortly after acquiring a BBA from the University of Texas, Lisenby joined Barclays’s energy trading group in Houston. He spent two years with the bank, observing the heavy-hitters of the Oil and Gas industry, and identifying patterns and nuances within the energy market.
This early introduction to the energy industry proved to be pivotal; it gave Lisenby a solid footing in the energy industry and allowed him to take on a bigger role at Natural Gas Partners (NGP) — an energy investment group managing a total investment of $17 Billion.
At NGP, Lisenby was involved in transaction analysis, execution as well as the monitoring of companies in the fund’s portfolio of investments. It was here that Lisenby embarked on a project that would become a turning point in his emerging career.
Still in his mid-twenties, Lisenby became the architect of NGP’s $100 Million investment in Rice Energy, a new — if unconventional and progressive — oil and gas producer with investments in the Appalachia. During this time, Lisenby worked closely with the leadership at Rice Energy, becoming one of the company’s most trusted advisors.
Lisenby’s efforts did not go unnoticed. In 2013, the 27-year-old was appointed as Rice Energy’s CFO, becoming the youngest member of the company’s C-Suite. During his time here, his pay package was twice as much as the company’s CEO.
Two years later, Lisenby became the company’s Vice President. More recently, he was at the forefront of Rice Energy’s $2.7 Billion acquisition of Vantage Energy.
#4: How a 26-year-old Became The Youngest CFO in the New York Stock Exchange
Name: Nolan Watson
Company: Silver Wheaton (Now Precious Metals Wheaton)
Canadian Nolan Watson went to the prestigious University of British Columbia, earning an undergraduate degree in Commerce. After graduating, he enrolled at the Institute of Chartered Accountants, and began articling for Deloitte, where he focussed on the mining and metals industry. Later, he would go on to acquire a CFA.
British Columbia hosts one of the world’s largest mining industries in the world. And Watson’s rising reputation as an innovative and risk-taking analyst caught the attention of Ian Telfer, a legend in the mining industry, who offered to hire him as a controller at Silver Wheaton, his bold new mining venture.
By this time, Watson had already cemented his place at Deloitte. To be all of 23 years of age, and a rising analyst in the largest accounting firm in the world guaranteed the beginning of a very stable and lucrative career.
But to the outgoing and strong-willed Watson, Telfer’s new venture held great promise. And here’s why — with Silver Wheaton, Telfer wanted to introduce Volumetric Production Payment (VPPs) to the mining industry.
At the time, VPPs were common practice in the oil and gas industry; essentially, VPPs were used to buy a quota of production from oil and gas companies at fixed, pre-production prices. In effect, VPPs allow the purchasing company to buy oil & gas at cheap prices. The purchasing company, acting as an intermediary, would then sell its quota to other companies at a marked up price, and turn a profit.
Telfer’s plan was both bold and pioneering because the mining industry was still bogged down by conventions and practices of a bygone era. Silver Wheaton became the first company to use VPPs in the mining sector — a practice which has now become an industry standard.
Steering the course of this transformation was none other than the young Watson, who quickly became a go-to person at the company. Only three years after Watson joined Silver Wheaton, the company went public. At the age of 26, Watson became the youngest ever CFO of a NYSE-listed company.
As a CFO, Watson says, it helps to be impatient. “If something needs to get done, I make sure it gets done, period—no excuses. A lot of people think patience is a good quality, but I would describe myself as a relatively impatient person. I think that helps in making sure mistakes don’t happen.”
A common thread in all three of these stories is the deep desire to keep learning; each of the would-be CFOs were in constant search for the most effective way to make an impact on the bottom line.
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