Being a chief financial officer means having more than just an advanced knowledge of accounting and financial concepts. It means understanding how an entire company and its industry work so you can help that company to be profitable and competitive. To give you an idea of what your life might look like if you were to become a CFO, we've interviewed three professionals in the field to see what their workdays look like. One is a self-employed consultant who serves as a part-time CFO to numerous companies. Another helps manage an online company. The third works for a small business where he not only serves as CFO but also heads several other divisions.

John Lafferty, Self-Employed Interim and Virtual CFO of CFO-Pro
Being a CFO doesn't have to mean being one company's full-time employee. John Lafferty of Naperville, Ill., has been a full-time interim CFO since 1996. Before starting his own firm, he gained more than 30 years of experience as an auditor, controller, treasurer, CFO and COO for companies in a wide range of industries. Now, he divides his time among multiple clients, typically small and mid-sized businesses with $3 million to $30 million in annual revenues.

On a part-time, as-needed basis, he fulfills the needs of companies that can't afford or don't need a full-time CFO but that sometimes need executive-level financial expertise. He helps both emerging and mature companies manage issues such as ensuring sufficient cash flow to sustain growth, enhancing working capital, freeing up money tied up in inventory, determining where to concentrate sales efforts, deciding whether to sell the business and more. Working remotely, he builds financial models, analyzes key metrics, prepares financial statements and develops financial strategies. For some clients, he offers a one-and-done solution, while for others, the client will stay in touch with questions.

In a typical day, Lafferty spends the first hour and a half overseeing accounting staff. He'll then spend an hour on emails and phone calls to follow up on various company matters. He dedicates the next hour to cash flow planning and cash management, then another hour to account analysis and reconciliations. He then spends half an hour recommending and documenting changes in procedures and processes, and another half hour in strategy and planning sessions with his client's CEO or COO.

He spends another hour on accounts receivable management and collection calls, and an hour more pitching in to help his staff when someone is ill or has too much on their plate. During the last half hour of the day, he resolves accounting and reporting questions and disputes. Other key activities that he performs less frequently include monthly closings, monthly, quarterly and annual regulatory responses, filings and taxes, and annual budgets.

Those are just the tasks he performs directly for his clients. He must also manage his own business, which takes about two additional hours a day and includes reading, networking, attending seminars, developing his business and grabbing early morning coffees with his key influencers. All told, he works about 50 to 55 hours a week. He is able to choose when he goes on vacation, but he works remotely, which covers his vacation costs. In his spare time, he works out at the gym, sings barbershop harmony, is a cantor at church and races go-carts.

Mark Karsch, CFO of Beyond.com
Mark Karsch is the CFO of Beyond.com, an online career network. He served as the company's vice president of finance before becoming CFO and had prior experience as CFO of several companies.

Karsch arrives at the office around 8:15 a.m. and spends the first hour of his workday reviewing key operating metrics such as revenue numbers, email performance, new member acquisitions and member engagement data from the prior day and for the month-to-date. If those metrics aren't where they need to be, he develops a plan to help the operations team improve them.

For the next hour, he'll meet with one of the three groups that report to him - finance, customer service and client relations - to review their progress on current projects. Karsch then spends 30 minutes to two hours reviewing and approving commissions and payables, lining up financing for future capital purchases, reviewing the status of collections and delinquent receivables, and reviewing the adequacy of accruals and reserves. He also works with both internal resources and outside professionals to get tax payments and filings made on a timely basis.

In the afternoon, Karsch spends a little over an hour meeting with other departments to discuss optimization of return on investment, additional revenue opportunities, new project strategies and strategic goals. He devotes the last two and a half hours of his workday to following up on tasks related to his earlier meetings, reviewing his and his teams' goals and accomplishments and ensuring that outstanding projects are on track.

Karsch also has a number of non-daily activities. Once a week, his finance team provides to the senior team (the CEO, COO and various vice presidents from throughout the company) a comprehensive financial report with detailed operating metrics to show where the company stands in relation to its goals and why. Monthly, he prepares a detailed budget for senior management and the board of directors comparing current period and year-to-date results with the company's goals and prior year results and explaining any variations. Quarterly, he may participate in board meetings. He also prepares an annual budget in conjunction with the senior team and coordinates budget updates throughout the year.

Karsch works 50 hours a week, on average. There are nights when he's the last one in the office, but it's not a daily occurrence. He checks his email on weeknights and weekends, but only responds to the most important ones. On Sunday nights after dinner, he spends some time planning what he wants to accomplish with his team in the coming week. He makes time to go on a couple of vacations a year with his family.

Ron Martin, CFO of AAIM Employers Association
Ron Martin is CFO for AAIM Employers Association in St. Louis. The association offers peer networking opportunities, business research information, human resources and management consulting, performance and process improvement, outsourcing and recruitment, and professional training and development for more than 1,600 St. Louis and Illinois employers of all sizes and industries. Because he works for a small company, he not only acts as CFO but also as information technology director, human resources director and president of AAIM's training and consulting companies.

Martin begins each morning by spending 10 minutes setting his priorities for the day. Throughout the day, he spends one to two hours managing staff and solving problems. For example, he might need to interpret an accounting rule related to a financial transaction. Also, since he fills several roles, he might need to resolve a non-financial problem.

He spends another one to two hours reviewing and responding to emails, and another one to four hours in meetings that require financial input, typically with the CEO, the marketing director and the rest of the management team. He presents the sales forecast for the next two months, including the forecast of revenues, expenses and net profits based on these sales.

Weekly, Martin prepares a revenue forecast, which takes two to three hours. Every other week, he takes an hour or two to review and approve invoices and payroll. Monthly, he spends eight to 10 hours preparing sales reports, commission calculations for the sales team, financial forecasts and budgets, so he can present the previous month's financial results to management. He also spends one to two hours a month reviewing and approving financial statements and another four to six hours preparing monthly forecasts.

Over the course of the quarter, he'll dedicate 14 to 20 hours to preparing and presenting financial statements for the company's board to help them make decisions about the company's direction. He also spends about eight hours with the board annually to engage in long-range planning. Another 20 to 30 hours a year goes toward preparing and reviewing the organization's budget.

Martin usually works 60 hours per week, but he's able to spend most weekends at home and has time for family, social activities and vacation. In his free time, he and his wife attend their children's sporting events and after-school activities. He exercises, keeps up with family members that live out of town and helps his mother around her house. He even has time to relax in the pool during the summer.

The Bottom Line
A career as a CFO offers a wide range of possibilities for the types of industries and companies you can work for. It also offers opportunities to not only manage a company's finances at the highest level, but to contribute to other areas as well. Finally, it offers much more flexibility than you might expect if you decide to run your own business as a consulting CFO.

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