Should a CFO switch industries? For these Fortune 500 finance chiefs, a new sector provided a career boost

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Good morning. As CFO turnover is on the rise, it’s a good time to explore the risks and opportunities that go with finding a new job in a different industry.

I had a conversation with Scott W. Simmons, co-managing partner of executive search firm Crist Kolder Associates, about this topic. His advice for CFOs: “You’ve got to get into an industry and at a company that you find exciting and fascinating.” Finance chiefs should know that the world is wider for them as they build their careers, said Simmons, who has more than 20 years of experience in his field.

The firm has been involved in many cases where they’ve moved executives from industry to industry, he said. That’s not to say companies looking for a CFO are totally throwing the idea of what industry the candidate works in out the window, Simmons added. However, what every company wants first and foremost in a finance chief is someone with financial acumen whose experience has molded them into a good, strong, proven leader, he said. 

‘Good financial leadership’

We talked about the latest example of a CFO changing industries, and Fortune 500 companies. Last week, Anat Ashkenazi, the CFO at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly (no. 127), was named the next CFO and SVP of Google and Alphabet (no. 8). Ashkenazi, who began her CFO role at Lilly in 2021, has been with the company for more than 20 years.

“I see clear analogies between what Ashkenazi experienced over 23 years at Lilly and what she will experience at Alphabet,” Simmons told me. Pharmaceutical companies are R&D driven and are required to be cutting edge, he said. She’ll also bring an understanding of how to operate in a highly regulated environment. While there could be a learning curve moving between industries, particularly after such a long tenure at one company, “good financial leadership is good financial leadership,” he said. 

Simmons also said another example is Kathy Mikells, currently SVP and CFO at Exxon Mobil (no. 7 on the Fortune 500), the largest publicly traded oil and gas company in the U.S. Mikells has been a finance chief six times in different industries. “Kathy’s world-class,” he said. “She’s a great leader and has a strong following.”

Mikells was previously CFO at United Airlines; chemical company Nalco; ADT; Xerox; and Diageo, a beverage manufacturer. Mikells, who joined Exxon in 2021, made her debut on the 2023 Fortune Most Powerful Women list. She is the first woman and external hire to join the oil major’s management committee.

John David Rainey, current CFO at Walmart no. 1 on the Fortune 500, is another example of a CFO who has moved to different industries. Rainey was previously a CFO at United Airlines and PayPal. 

But for some finance chiefs, there’s a flip side to this. Switching industries may be tricky for CFOs in banking, insurance, or defense, for example, Simmons said. 

“I’ve talked to lots of folks at banks who say, ‘It’s kind of suffocating being CFO of a publicly traded bank these days,’” he said. It’s hard for CFOs in those fields to break out of that shell, he said. “Not impossible; but more difficult,” Simmons added. 

Sheryl Estrada
[email protected]

Upcoming event: Join us for Fortune’s Emerging CFO virtual event, in partnership with Workday, taking place on June 18 from 11 a.m. to noon EST. The topic is: Mitigating Risk and Maximizing Profit in an Uncertain World. Speakers include subject matter expert Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice and co-head of managing the Future of Work Project, Harvard Business School; as well as panelists David Dowrich, CFO, TIAA; Scott Herren, EVP and CFO, Cisco; Naeem Ishaq, CFO, Checkr; and Joy Mbanugo, CFO, ServiceRocket. You can find out more information and register here.

Leaderboard

Damon Lee was named CFO at C.H. Robinson Worldwide, Inc. (“C.H. Robinson”) (Nasdaq: CHRW), a global logistics provider. Lee will begin working at C.H. Robinson on July 8, and will assume the role of CFO the day after the Form 10-Q is filed for the 2024 second quarter. Mike Zechmeister will continue to serve as C.H. Robinson’s CFO until then, and depart at that time, after which he plans to retire. Lee is currently serving as VP and CFO of GE Commercial Engines and Services. Before joining GE, he held senior operational finance roles at Aptiv, Precision Castparts, and Eaton. 

Jeff Schwaneke was named EVP and CFO at agilon health, inc. (NYSE: AGL), effective July 1. Schwaneke succeeds Timothy Bensley, who announced his retirement from agilon in early 2024. Schwaneke was most recently the EVP of health care enterprises for Centene Corporation. He has more than 27 years of finance and operational expertise, including 15 years in the managed care sector. He will step down from agilon’s board of directors, which he joined in 2022, upon starting his new role.

Big Deal

Companies are increasingly seeking tech talent, according to CompTIA, a nonprofit association for the tech workforce and industry. New job postings for tech occupations increased by 27,000 in May to 209,000, the highest total since June 2023, according to CompTIA’s latest tech jobs report released on Friday.

AI occupations, or positions requiring AI skills, accounted for 12% of all tech job openings, the highest percentage in the six-plus years CompTIA has tracked AI jobs. The organization also deciphered the data by industry. For example, the finance and insurance sector accounted for at least 17,610 tech job listings in May, compared to 15,182 in April, according to data provided by CompTIA.

Going deeper

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported on Friday that the U.S. economy added 272,000 jobs in May, exceeding economists’ consensus forecast for 190,000. Wage growth came in ahead of expectations as well. Average hourly earnings rose 0.4% month over month, and 4.1% from a year ago in May. 

“Investors have been on edge throughout 2024 waiting for Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell to cut interest rates and juice the market,” Fortune‘s Will Daniel writes in a new report. “But every time there seems to be enough evidence for the staunchly ‘data-dependent’ Fed chair to begin this long forecast rate-cutting cycle, another hot inflation or jobs report comes out and ruins the party. Friday’s nonfarm payroll data was the latest example of this frustrating trend.”

Overheard

“It’s a very unique culture. The benefit of that is transparency and speed. And I think that is one of the things that Nvidia is really, really good at. They move very, very fast, they’re very, very purposeful.”

Rene Haas, CEO of U.K. chip designer Arm, told the Financial Times in an interview. Haas worked at Nvidia in the early 2010s.

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