The chief financial officer is crucial role. But not all businesses can afford – or are ready – for one.
One alternative to committing to a full-time (and expensive) C-suite financial executive is a fractional CFO.
“The biggest role of a fractional CFO is going to be high-level overview. The business is typically not going to be big enough to really justify a full-time CFO,” BluWave Head of Finance Justin Scott says. “But you do need somebody to validate the financial statements and make sure that your cash flow’s in line. Things that the controller or even a super-controller may miss.”
Let’s look at this part-time position in more detail, and explore whether a full-time temporary CFO – an interim – makes more sense.
A fractional CFO provides high-level financial oversight for businesses that might not be able to justify a full-time CFO.
“The biggest role of a fractional CFO is going to be a high-level overview. You just need that extra set of eyes,” Scott says. “It’s more of a validation role.”
The “fractional” part of the title indicates that the person in this role is working a “fraction” of what would normally be a full work week. In fact, it’s not unusual for someone to serve as a fractional CFO for three or more businesses simultaneously.
A fractional CFO is a great option to help secure funding, and then establish the ongoing reporting process and line of communication with the funding source.
“If you use a fractional CFO because you want to establish a line of credit, that line of credit is going to have regular monthly reporting that has to be provided and you may not want your controller working on it,” Scott says.
While there are other use cases, these are among the more common ones.
How Many Hours Does a Fractional CFO Work?
This will vary, but again, by definition the role is a fraction of full-time.
That could mean as little as 5 hours per month, or as much 10-plus hours per week, which is why people in this role often support multiple businesses at once.
There are, of course, both positives and negatives to having someone work for such a limited amount of time.
Benefits and Drawbacks
Hiring a fractional CFO is more budget-friendly than bringing on a full-time executive.
Instead of paying a salary plus benefits, you can budget for a set amount of hours each week or month.
Even someone who charges $250 per hour, for example, would only cost $2,500 in a 10-hour month – far below the cost of a full-time chief financial officer.
“I think the larger use case is they just don’t have a need for a full-time one,” Scott says. “They probably have a controller or a super-controller in place that gets them almost everything that they need, and they just want an extra set of eyes for peace of mind. The expense is definitely going to be your primary driver.”
A fractional CFO is usually brought in as a specialist in one particular area of the finance function. In fact, CEOs could leverage multiple fractional CFOs at the same time, each focusing on different areas.
Since a part-time hire works so few hours per company, they typically have more flexibility, too.
3. Expertise on Demand
For specific tasks in advanced functionalities, a fractional CFO can be invaluable.
One person can be brought in, laser-focused on a project, and only cost the company the amount of time needed to complete it.
4. Mentoring and Coaching
Whether the person running a company’s finances full-time is an ambitious controller or a green CFO, bringing in a fractional CFO to cover their weaknesses can benefit both the company as well as the permanent hire.
The fractional CFO can not only ensure that the full-time person’s blind spots aren’t a liability, but they can train them along the way so that they’re able to do it on their own in the future.
1. Limited Business Insight
Since a fractional CFO is not fully engaged, they might lack a deep understanding of the company’s needs.
“I use myself as the example here. There’s a lot of things that I catch or help plan for because I’m intimately involved in every step of the business,” Scott says. “If I didn’t understand the complexities of what BluWave does, it would be very easy to give a vanilla, out-of-the-box opinion on something and then it blow up in our face.”
2. Less Commitment
Fractional CFOs might not feel as invested in the team and organization they’re supporting if they’re only involved a few hours a week.
“There’s no long-term commitment,” Scott says.
This means that if things start to go south, they’re not going to feel the pain as much and therefore might not be as motivated as someone whose career is on the line.
3. Lack of Focus
As mentioned, fractional CFOs are likely to be working for multiple companies at the same time.
Depending on the urgency of projects from one situation to the next, the fractional CFO may not be as locked in on your company’s needs as they would be otherwise, despite their best efforts.
4. Risk of Losing Them
Some finance experts are content to keep their hands in multiple pots. Others, however, would be happy to jump to a full-time position if the right opportunity presented itself.
Instead of receiving notice about their departure weeks in advance, they may leave you high and dry for a business that’s willing to pay them more.
“That can almost be even bigger risk because fractional CFO by nature already has less understanding of your business, and now they also have less commitment,” Scott says.
Perhaps your business can’t justify a permanent CFO – or you’re going through a leadership transition or preparing for sale – but you still need the full-time commitment of a finance executive.
An interim chief financial officer, then, may be the perfect solution to strike that balance.
An interim CFO includes all the pros of a fractional CFO, but practically none of the cons.
That’s not to say that there aren’t also drawbacks of an interim vs. a permanent CFO, but they tend to be a much more impactful solution than someone who only engages with your business for a few hours per month.
An interim CFO is typically more engaged, provides a deeper understanding and is committed full-time.
This deeper involvement brings with it process improvements, better cash flow management and strategic partnership benefits to CEOs, Scott says.
“The interim CFO is going to be more of a strategic partner.”
Why You Might Hire an Interim CFO Instead
Scott says portfolio companies and private and public companies that are ready to add a full-time CFO for the first time are well-positioned to seek an interim.
“Now all of a sudden, this is their game. It’s their full-time focus, so they’re going to be digging through everything,” Scott says. “You’re going to get process improvements. You’re going to get better cash flow. You’re going to get all of the things that a full-time CFO brings to the table.”
2. Strategic Partnership
CEOs can expect more from an interim CFO than a fractional solution.
“They’re more engaged with business,” Scott says. “They have a deeper understanding of the business. They’re just going to get more out of the relationship.”
While the initial cost might be higher, the benefit an interim CFO brings in terms of expertise and commitment can significantly outweigh the expenses.
“The interim CFO is going to be more of a value-add,” Scott says.
Their billable hours can also be capped, and they typically don’t take benefits like health or 401ks.
Whether you seek a fractional, interim or full-time CFO, the Business Builders’ Network is loaded with private equity-grade options for all company types and industries.
The resources BluWave provides have been vetted by multiple PE firms before joining its invite-only network. It’s no surprise, then, that interim CFOs are consistently among the most requested connections we make.
When you’re ready to meet your next chief financial officer, our research and operations team will provide a short list of industry-specific candidates within a single business day. Set up a scoping call to get started today.
“It’s a big step to go from a fractional CFO to a full-time role,” Scott says, “but the benefits are undeniable.”
Chapter 11 bankruptcy, though, means a company is still viable but needs help relieving some of its debt.
While an interim CFO would seldom take on a chapter 7 bankruptcy, it’s common for them to step in and help a company try to avoid chapter 11 bankruptcy. If it’s not avoidable, a temporary chief financial officer can also help navigate the situation.
“A very good interim CFO can be a lot of help because they come in and they look at, ‘What are the things between gross profit and net earnings that are negatively impacting the business?’” BluWave controller Justin Scott says.
Cost-saving measures could include lowering headcount, cutting advertising costs or negotiating with creditors, which we’ll discuss more below.
While most restructuring situations are tied to bankruptcies, there are exceptions. Here are some of the more common ones.
An interim CFO who can adeptly perform carve-out tasks is key for organizations looking to sell off part of their company. That can mean getting their hands dirty setting up general ledger architecture or determining which employees to include in the sale.
“Let’s say 25 percent of the existing team is going with the carve-out, then I’ve got to decide ‘What’s the 25%? How are those processes going to work?’” Scott says. “Where you typically see the carve-out CFO come in is because they don’t want all of those activities to take away from the core business that the existing CFO is already managing.”
An acquisition, of course, is the opposite situation. The finance executive must determine how to integrate multiple teams in the same company.
“You likely have multiple sets of books. You have multiple systems. None of them talk to each other,” Scott says. “Essentially, you’re running parallel systems or parallel processes for everything. And then you have to manually consolidate everything and that’s just no fun.”
Hannah Welsh, who is often the first point of contact for interim CFOs BluWave works with, says lots of clients have been emphasizing M&A skills recently.
“All sides of it, whether it be due diligence, post-merger integration or prep for sale – having M&A experience, especially in private equity, is key,” she says.
A turnaround CFO may be sought when accounts payable get out of control.
If the internal team has become bloated, they’re likely to partner with someone in human resources to reorganize the company more efficiently.
“It’s not typically just finance here. It’s typically that a new technology has been implemented that’s changed the field and headcount needs to be reduced,” Scott says. “How do we eliminate or mitigate the overhead expense of the SG&A of what’s happening today?”
They may also cut marketing costs or improve operations to find savings. This can be done by spending less on advertising, implementing automation tools or canceling automated subscriptions, for example.
Although unusual, there are times when a temporary finance executive is brought in for a hostile takeover.
“It is possible to go to an interim CFO as a stopgap,” Scott says. “But it’s not a likely scenario.”
More often, the company executing the takeover will already have a CFO in place.
What skills does an interim CFO need in a time of crisis? Accounting and finance, of course, are fundamental.
“You have to know the full revenue cycle cradle to grave,” Scott says, adding that strong management is also a key trait.
There are other things, though, that are particularly important for a chief financial officer in financially distressed situations.
When managing a company’s finance team, the interim CFO must be able to communicate their plan of action. Since they’re typically in the role for around six months, they don’t have as much time to win trust and build unity.
Focusing the early days on getting to know the team helps with buy-in for the duration of the project. One component of this is alleviating fears of the unknown.
“The first day, I think, is talking to as many people as possible in the company, on the finance team, and reassuring them that things are going to get better,” says one long-time interim CFO from our network of experts.
A temporary finance executive must also be able to communicate with his or her peers and superiors. Not only do they sit in the C-suite, but they may be a direct line to a private equity firm that has a lot at stake.
“They have to be able to build credibility going both directions quickly if they’re going to get anything done,” Scott says.
Beyond providing clarity for coworkers, a chief financial officer must also be skilled at working with clients, creditors, vendors and other outside entities.
If a company is in danger of filing for bankruptcy, the interim CFO will likely negotiate with creditors to lower their debts.
They may also ask clients to move up their timeline for accounts receivable so the organization can have more cash sooner.
In either case, being able to work well with others is paramount.
“The situations where financial executives most often fail to reach an agreement are when they don’t have any people skills, or they don’t truly want a result,” Scott says. “You have to be able to bend and give a little bit on some of these things just like in any negotiation.”
Before taking a company’s financial reins in the midst of a crisis, an interim CFO should understand if the firm is planning an exit, and if so, what the strategy is. That allows the company to get the maximum benefit out of its new executive resource.
Here are some differences between prepping to sell the entire company vs. just a few assets.
Sell the Entity
If someone is brought on to prep for the sale of an entire company, their job is to get it in the best shape possible for the buyer.
Not only will this make it a more attractive purchase, but the seller will extract more value, too. This process should be planned for months, if not years in advance, when possible.
The interim chief finance officer brought on in this situation should have experience improving operations, cutting costs, increasing accountability and more. They should also be well-versed in evaluating and working with potential buyers and closing the transaction.
Identifying an interim chief financial officer can be tedious, if not expensive. Companies that don’t know what they’re looking for when they begin their search could spend large sums of money on headhunters and recruiting firms.
They can also lose valuable time interviewing unqualified candidates.
When hiring an interim CFO instead of a permanent replacement, key considerations include timeline, need-specific criteria and keeping an eye out for red flags.
As a trusted resource for hundreds of private equity firms and thousands of portfolio and independent companies, BluWave has exclusive insight into what makes a home-run selection vs. someone who will send you back to the drawing board.
When to Think of an Interim CFO
There are several benefits to hiring a CFO temporarily while searching for someone to fill the role permanently.
“What we’ve heard is, you’re either finding a full-time person in less than 30 days in the first slate of candidates or it’s going to take five or six months,” BluWave managing director Houston Slatton says.
Identifying a candidate experienced with the right industry, company size and revenue models, for example, takes time.
“You may get lucky, but you’re probably not going to. And so you need to plan to not have a full-time person in that seat for five or six months,” Slatton adds. “You don’t want a B-minus player because they’re going to be a key member of the executive team.”
One benefit of a short-term hire is that you can “try before you buy.” This makes it easier to transition a strong candidate to full-time if they prove to be a good fit. It also means giving someone an opportunity without immediately making a long-term commitment.
“It is very easy to interview very well and then the person who shows up is not who you interviewed,” BluWave controller Justin Scott says. “That’s very critical in the CFO role because if you get a bad CFO or somebody that can talk the lingo but not deliver the activity, you can get yourself in a lot of trouble real fast.”
Interim-to-full-time transitions often happen after a company’s been recently acquired. What began as a one- or two-quarter stint can easily transition to a permanent role if the person has integrated well, especially with the CEO.
Sometimes, companies need more time before choosing a permanent CFO. But they don’t want to leave such a crucial role vacant for months, either.
This is another opportunity to bring in someone with interim experience to bridge the gap between the prior CFO and your long-term solution.
Some people make a career out of temporary assignments, putting them top-of-mind for recruiters in these situations. One such person in our network talked to us about the benefits of an interim CFO.
“I think the primary purpose is to just stabilize everything,” says the executive, who spent eight years in PE before focusing on temporary assignments. “But then also learn the nature of the operations and the backbone of the company, and how it operates and if changes need to be made.”
At BluWave, we have seen that the end of the year is a popular time to hire an interim CFO.
Historically, about 60 percent of the interim CFO projects we have sourced were in Q3 and Q4.
“The last thing a CEO wants to do is be approaching an end-of-fiscal-year and not have somebody that’s going to drive their financial close right for the year,” Scott says. “That could be a really scary place to be, where earlier in the year you’ve got time to bounce back.”
Interim CFOs also focus on making a company as valuable as possible once it’s been acquired. This is especially important if someone in a lower-level position, such as a controller or an accountant, previously led finances.
Slatton says companies often use large amounts of debt to finance their purchases, opening the door to new accounting situations.
“Now they need somebody to handle all the bank reporting and covenant testing for the lenders and putting in real GAAP,” Slatton says. “As soon as they have a loan like that, they suddenly have to do all this financial reporting. That will be a new process and it hits quickly after they close on the business.”
In addition to what Slatton shares, other key value-creation tasks may include:
A short-term finance executive can also be a great resource when a company is preparing to be sold. After holding a company for 3 to 5 years, PE firms typically look to sell it to a larger PE firm or public company.
When evaluating candidates, use the same measuring stick for each one. BluWave founder and CEO Sean Mooney, who has more than 20 years of PE experience, came up with the PE-grade CFO scorecard for this purpose when evaluating full-time candidates.
Many of the same principles can be applied to the interim CFO search process. Having a baseline allows everyone involved to make more objective evaluations.
“Assign different parts of your scorecard to relevant key team members so you can systematically measure candidates against each of your criteria while getting a range of inputs from across your organization,” Mooney explains on the Karma School of Business podcast.
When sourcing candidates, companies often reach out to someone like BluWave for help. We then present them two or three candidates tailored to their specific needs. One of those candidates typically emerges as the leading choice, at which point they’ll continue interviewing with other executives and, when applicable, the PE firm.
While you can put whatever criteria you like on your scorecard, we have a few recommendations for the interim CFO process.
Experience at a larger company vs. a smaller one isn’t good or bad, it’s just different.
We often see, for example, executives who traditionally spend time at larger organizations struggle to move to smaller ones.
“CFOs that come out of those portfolio companies or come up through the ranks have a very different mindset than one that comes up through the Fortune 500 world,” Scott says. “It’s a little bit more of the rolling up the sleeves type thing, right? The PE-grade CFOs, that’s just expected because you have to be engaged in everything because instead of having 500 people on your finance and accounting team, you might only have two to five.”
Mooney recalls multiple past appointments that didn’t work out for that reason.
“I’ve had so many failures trying to bring in big-name large company CFOs who just couldn’t function at a lower middle market size company,” he says. “It wasn’t that they weren’t great. It was that they just weren’t a good fit for a smaller-company environment.”
Relevant Industry Experience
This is an important factor for companies with unique or complex accounting needs or ones within highly regulated industries.
A strong candidate should be able to articulate relevant industry experience in the interview process. Whether manufacturing, software, healthcare, or another area, the interim CFO should be entering familiar territory from day one.
To evaluate this point, Scott says we ask candidates: “What did you do in that industry to make yourself stand out or to prove that you understand that industry and how it works?”
Mooney says interactions with lenders and investors go more smoothly when someone has experience operating under similar capital structures.
“This is particularly true when we think about having done the balance sheet entering a public company operating environment,” he says.
While uncommon, there are times when the ideal interim CFO is already on your team.
“It’s going to be a more seamless transition with somebody that comes internally,” Slatton says. “If you have somebody really good that you like that’s internal, use them just because it’s going to be easier.”
More often, though, companies bring in someone new.
“Some of those higher-level kind of CFO skills, you’re not going to find on an internal team,” Slatton says. “Bringing in somebody from the outside allows you to have access to a broader set of skills and brings a fresh perspective.”
Welsh agrees, saying it can be easier for interim CFOs to put their emotions aside and get the job done.
“They can just pick out the issues and deal with it,” she says.
A well-vetted interim CFO search process typically takes up to 90 days from the initial call to their first day of work.
There are times, however, when you need a vacancy filled “yesterday.” At BluWave, we provide two or three best-fit candidates within a single business day. This can cut a process that normally takes three months to a few days.
“Of the several hundred PE-grade CFOs in our network, we select the top two or three choices for a company, and once the negotiation is finalized, they can get to work very fast,” Scott says.
Every candidate in the BluWave network has been pre-vetted with multiple references. And before we recommend someone to a company, they are vetted again to provide the most up-to-date evaluation possible.
As we already mentioned, many candidates can talk the talk, but not walk the walk.
Here are some signals that will help you discount the duds from the outset.
If someone is accustomed to making significantly more money than you can pay, you might want to skip them. While they may claim to be interested, they could use the interim opportunity as a stepping stone to a higher-paying role, leaving you looking for another finance executive sooner than expected.
“In my experience, rarely will the candidate take a meaningful discount and not start looking for the best next role sooner than later,” Mooney says. “You don’t want to be a bridge to somewhere else.”
Another important consideration is location. Or in some cases, relocation.
While the pandemic accustomed companies to remote workforces, there’s value in having your financial leader on-site, even for a few days a week.
In high-stress situations like turnarounds, restructurings or building a finance team from scratch, interim CFOs need to earn trust as fast as possible. This is difficult to achieve working remotely.
“Time and time again we’ve seen projects get down to the finish line and at the end of the day, they say, ‘Well I’m not really ready,’ or ‘We’re not going to move our family,’” Mooney added.
If you’re considering someone who’s out-of-market, confirm early on that they’re willing to work from your office for the majority of the assignment if this is important to you.
While less of a concern for temporary assignments, beware of candidates who routinely spent only a year or two in full-time roles.
The exception would be someone like our interim CFO veteran, who spent years in full-time roles before shifting exclusively to short-term stints. Candidates like him understand how to make the most out of a three- to six-month opportunity.
“I think it’s very valuable to have someone who knows all the things that need to get done,” he says. “Getting everything set up, and then making sure that the management team and the private equity owners have a good open line of communication, and aren’t afraid of one another. I think an interim CFO is in the perfect spot to facilitate that communication.”
Mooney says it’s normal for candidates to have “bumps in the road.” No one’s career is a downhill ride on the yellow-brick road. Hiccups should be the exception, though, and not the rule.
“Be aware of large gaps in employment. Look for track records of being recruited to bigger and better next roles versus leaving roles without a bird in hand,” he says.
If a candidate consistently left full-time jobs without having the next one lined up, dig deeper into why that is, or discount them altogether.
Talk to each man and woman you interview about difficult times in their careers.
If they’re quick to pass the blame, you can expect them to act likewise once hired. You want someone who takes responsibility, not assigns it.
“Look for candidates to own the results and ultimately share what they did to take action and improve the situation,” Mooney says. “Be aware of candidates who repeatedly blamed circumstance and fate.”
BluWave runs multiple reference calls before presenting a candidate to a potential client. Welsh says this is a great way to weed out unqualified options.
“It’s a value prop that we have for our clients,” she says. “We always ask for references, and if they’re unwilling to send them, we take that as a red flag and we are unwilling to work with them from there.”
Passive Work Habits
If a candidate doesn’t have a history of getting involved in the day-to-day details, they’re probably not going to accomplish much in a three– to six–month assignment.
“People aren’t looking for an interim executive to come in and bark orders. Anybody can do that,” Scott says. “They’re looking for somebody to come in and really get engaged, understand what’s going on in the business, figure out what’s not working in the finance and accounting department and get that aligned with the business needs as quickly as possible. And you can’t do that sitting back.”
That’s why a candidate needs to express past accomplishments with details.
Bad Cultural Fit
“Every CFO that we’re going to present is qualified,” Slatton says. “It’s more about, can they fit well with the organization and are they going to partner well with the PE firm?”
Welsh agrees, saying there are many qualified finance executives for hire. The more important question, though, is how well they can adapt to a new situation.
“If they can’t earn respect and get people on board with the company mission, they’re not going to be able to move the company in a positive direction,” she says. “You can be the most experienced executive in the world. But ultimately, if you butt heads with the person you’re supposed to be working with, it’s not going to work out.”
Welsh, who onboards interim CFOs to the BluWave network, says lesser-known candidates can embellish their background to land a prized opportunity.
That’s why, she says, we ask probing questions before recommending them to a client: “Who have you worked with? When have you worked with them? And how have you worked with them? I think those are very important.”
When candidates see interim opportunities as a chance to build their skillset, it’s a recipe for disaster.
“An interim CFO job probably isn’t the way to learn new types of business models, because interim CFOs need to jump in and know what they’re doing,” Slatton says. “Don’t try to think of an interim opportunity as a stretch opportunity.”
Selecting the right interim executive can be difficult, but with the right evaluation process and support, you’re more likely to hire the best person much faster.
Mooney recently recommended in CFO Magazine eight ways to optimize the process.
Creating an interim CFO scorecard can be a great way to kick off your search process, but don’t hesitate to contact us for help.
“Don’t overly weigh your assessment on any one criteria,” Mooney adds. “When using a structured scorecard-based approach that includes a comprehensive assessment of a candidate’s competencies, skills, values, intellect, personality and real-life case-study testing, I think you’re going to find that your success rates are going to go way up.”
If you’re interested in receiving a free copy of BluWave’s PE-grade CFO scorecard, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the biggest mistakes private equity funds make when searching for an interim CFO for their portfolio company is looking for someone who can do everything a full-time CFO would. Searching for this diamond-in-the-rough candidate ends up taking just as long as it would take to find a full-time candidate, and in the meantime, the portfolio company is without a strong financial advisor.
Instead of wasting time and money looking for an interim candidate who can do everything, PE funds should concentrate on the three most important things they want their CFO to achieve in the two to six months that they’ll be at the company. Do you need to push through key changes in specific business areas? Do you need to identify internal control shortcomings and their associated risks? Choose the interim CFO candidate who can address your most pressing needs.
The Four Qualities of a Successful Interim CFO
While an interim part-time CFO may not be the agent of change that a full-time CFO will be, they should have qualities that allow them to quickly onboard and effectively solve problems in the short time they’re with the portfolio company. Characteristics to look for in an interim CFO include:
Strong Collaborative Skills—An interim chief financial officer needs to build a strong relationship with both the PE fund and the portfolio company leaders. They also need to build trust with the portco’s in-house finance team. This requires transparency and a willingness to collaborate.
Ability to Adapt Quickly—Since they’ll be with the portco for a limited time, a temporary CFO needs to hit the ground running. They should work with the PE fund to quickly define goals, requirements, and deliverables for the company’s transition period. Ideally, the interim CFO should have experience in the portco’s industry so that there isn’t a steep learning curve.
Desire to Solve Immediate Problems—An outsourced CFO should be someone who’s excited to jump in and solve the three most important, immediate challenges that the PE fund has identified. The CFO should recognize that they may not see the full results of their efforts before they leave, but that they’ll be making others on the portco’s team look good.
Excellent Communication Skills—An interim CFO should be adept at interpreting financial data and presenting it clearly to the leadership team. Strong communication skills will help the CFO quickly establish credibility with their team and smooth the transition post-acquisition.
Narrowing Down Your Interim CFO Candidates
As you narrow down your pool of interim CFOs, review each candidate’s career moves carefully. If a candidate has a new job every year but isn’t a professional temporary CFO, that could be a red flag. If they are a professional CFO consultant who has worked with many different companies, see what experience they’ve had in your portco’s industry and with similar challenges.
When interviewing your final candidates, ask for references. Tell each candidate which references you want to see rather than just taking the ones they give you. When you talk to their references, ask them how the interim CFO addressed their most pressing issues. You should look for a candidate who has completed the same types of goals that you have identified as being the most important for your portco right now.