Many chief financial officers (CFOs) are excited by the opportunity to lead a private equity portfolio company’s financials. The position looks good on a resume, often comes with a certain prestige and monetary bump; however, many CFOs do not realize what it takes to be successful at a private equity backed company. According to a 2019 survey, the turnover rate for private equity (PE) CFOs is greater than 80 percent. A majority of these exits take place within the first two years of a PE firm acquiring a company. CFOs are not meeting expectations or understanding their role in driving value. When this happens, PE firms don’t see the results they expected and contact me, an executive recruiter, to find a new CFO candidate.
Private equity environments are very demanding, and it can be difficult for the CFO to know which skills need to be honed and which pitfalls to avoid. To make the transition to a PE backed company a little easier, below are four pieces of advice private equity operating partners and executives want CFOs to know.
Communicate openly with your Operating Partner or PE executives
The role of a private equity operating partner (OP) can vary greatly between PE firms and their portfolio companies. In many cases, CFOs don’t fully understand what the OP has to offer, and that is why it is important for the CFO to have open communications with their operating partner. Ask your OP what resources are available so that you can have a full understanding of the tools at your disposal.
CFOs should also not be afraid to occasionally push back when OPs or other PE executives make a request. For example, if a requested financial report is going to take an inordinate amount of time and resources to compile, it is OK to ask why the numbers are needed and find out what the PE firm is trying to accomplish. Explain to the executives what it will take to provide what they requested so everyone is on the same page about the resources being dedicated to the task. Time and energy may be better spent completing other work, especially when what they want can be included in a regular report.
Keep your messaging consistent
As the CFO of a private equity backed company, you should be working closely with the company CEO to deliver consistent financial reporting and data analytics to the PE firm. It is surprisingly common for CFOs and CEOs to miscommunicate or to carelessly deliver divergent information to their private equity investors. Inconsistent information and communication do not inspire confidence. A successful CFO is able to work with the CEO to produce clear, consistent information that accurately reflects the state of the business sometimes on a weekly basis.
Strategically invest in technology
Due to the stringent financial reporting requirements of PE firms, staying up to date on the latest technology trends is important for increasing efficiency and staying relevant in a rapidly advancing industry. According to a 2019 survey by Deloitte, 82 percent of PE investors believe automation and technology are going to have a major impact on finance functions over the next 10 years. A successful PE CFO will make strategic investments in technology to enhance processes. Ideally, these investments will eventually cut labor costs and create a more efficient workflow within the PE portfolio company.
As a private equity CFO, you must start embracing technology. Old school financial reporting methods are being replaced by automation and as the CFO, you must be the one leading those changes. If technological advancements are not part of your strategic plan for the portfolio company, you need to pivot to start including them.
Private equity CFOs wear a lot of hats
As a private equity CFO, you must be flexible and wear many different hats. Before a business is acquired by a PE firm, a CFO might be perfectly fine filling the role of accountant. After a business is acquired, however, this is no longer the case. A PE CFO has to know how to strategically scale the business. Oftentimes, the duties the CFO previously held are increased exponentially to accommodate the rapid growth a PE firm demands.
Succeeding as a PE CFO
A typical PE experienced CFO will naturally oversee finances, but also may play a role in human resources, operations, supply chain management and negotiations, legal, information technology, and in some cases, real estate. A lot of CFOs inherited through an acquisition do not know how to adapt to these new duties required by the PE firm. That is part of the reason why CFO turnover is so high. You must realize a PE CFO role has higher expectations and you must quickly grow accordingly to match your new duties.
Ultimately, a strategic CFO is forward-thinking and has a personal and professional growth mindset. Your role as a PE backed CFO might be evolving into a more complex and challenging position, but it can also be the most fulfilling job opportunity of your career. If you remember the four messages above and work hard to bridge the skills gap, you will be more likely to succeed in your new role as a PE CFO.
Shawn Cole is President and Executive Recruiter at Cowen Partners Executive Search, a leading private equity CFO search firm.
CEO turnover within private equity firms is shockingly high. According to a 2017 survey by AlixPartners, as many as 58 percent of private equity CEOs are replaced within the first two years of acquisition. Switching CEOs after two years can be detrimental to a PE firm’s return on investment given that most PE acquisitions are only held for five to seven years. Attempting to introduce new leadership in the middle of a PE investment life cycle can be damaging to the company’s success and ultimately the profitability of the company.
PE firms often experience high turnover because the CEOs hired or brought on during an acquisition do not meet the firm’s expectations. It is difficult to select the right CEO candidate for a private equity or venture backed company. Most candidates come from impressive backgrounds and have the first-hand experience that initially makes them seem like a good fit. However, if you really want to make sure you’re bringing on the right person to manage your investment look for a candidate who has the below qualities of a successful private equity CEO.
CEOs need to be able to create a high-performing team, and a big part of that includes being a team player. Arrogant, self-involved leaders do not fare well in PE firms because they have a hard time motivating people to strive for the company’s goals. In some cases, an overbearing leader can even drive away top talent from the company.
A private equity CEO should be able to empower direct reports and make sure everyone is on the same page when working toward company goals. This means a CEO is willing to delegate tasks to the team without micromanaging the process. A strong leader also knows how to promote talent development. Key jobs within the firm can be improved through skill development and training. A team player is more equipped to notice areas of improvement because they’ll be more familiar with the department duties and be more willing to listen to concerns from those under them.
A few warning signs that indicate a candidate might not be the best team player include arrogant behavior and using “I” too much. If a CEO candidate is talking about past accomplishments and not giving any credit to his/her previous team, it’s an early warning sign that the person isn’t a team player. The number of colleagues a candidate can pull into their current venture also speaks volumes. If people who previously worked with the CEO want to stay on his/her team, that’s always a good sign.
PE firms are bound to face a few setbacks and roadblocks when turning around a company. The CEO needs to be able to face these challenges and take them in stride. A candidate who can give examples of overcoming past errors and setbacks is able to demonstrate their resilience. A firm can have confidence in a CEO who knows how to take a negative result and work toward a solution.
You should be skeptical of candidates who have skated from success after success, or who at least try to make it seem that way. A CEO candidate who can talk about setbacks and how they overcame problems will give you a glimpse into how that CEO can adapt and work for your firm.
A CEO needs to have excellent communication skills to succeed. Open, straightforward communication can motivate team members and ensure everyone is on-target to reach company goals. It’s also imperative the CEO knows how to effectively communicate with other PE executives. Some CEOs do an excellent job managing their teams but struggle to convey information and needs to investors. In other circumstances, the opposite is true. The CEO works well with PE investors, but struggles to create a team environment within the company. A good CEO should be able to demonstrate an ability to communicate across all levels of management.
When selecting a private equity CEO, executive recruiters also really pay attention to how a candidate will fit in with the PE house culture. PE executives don’t realize how important culture fit is when hiring a CEO for one of their portfolio companies. Executives have to take the culture into consideration for a number of reasons. If the current culture has been doing well for the company then sticking with the current CEO could be beneficial, but if the culture needs to be altered to produce the desired results then looking into other candidates is best. A clear understanding of the culture shifts that need to happen for the company to reach its full potential will help you make the right choice when selecting a private equity CEO.
Choosing the right CEO for a portfolio company can make the difference between a profitable exit and stagnation. A CEO who demonstrates strong collaboration, resilience, and communication qualities will ensure your private equity investment is in good hands.
Cowen Partners is a national executive search and consulting firm. Our clients are both small and large, publicly traded, private, and non-profit organizations.
With our proven processes and guaranteed results, we have successfully placed hundreds of candidates in industries including technology, commercial real estate, healthcare, financial services, sales and finance.