David McGirr, CFO of Cubist Pharmaceuticals, has a crystal ball in his office. When it turns red, staffers know not to walk in and ask for a raise.
The CFO is not practicing wizardry on company time; he owns a Stock Orb. The ostrich-egg-shaped device can be programmed to summarize real-time market activity, and it changes color depending on changes in stock prices, volume, sales, or other indicators. Think of it as a giant mood ring for finance types. But unlike the novelty mood rings popular in the 1970s, this one works. It glows green for growth (happy CFO), yellow for no change (indifferent CFO), or a fiery red for, say, a 2.5 percent fall in stock price (unhappy CFO). McGirr has his connected to the stock price at Cubist, but it can be hooked to any index or portfolio.
The sphere creates constant awareness without the distraction of stock tickers or pager beeps and alerts, says its maker, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Ambient Devices Inc. (Unless, of course, the crystal ball is constantly deep red, which could be a highly distracting reminder that bankruptcy looms.) Other orb owners follow Website hits or compare sales results from various offices, says Pritesh Gandhi, Ambient's vice president of operations. Some California utilities have provided orbs to commercial and industrial customers, alerting them to periods of high demand and "pricing events" that could lead to disruptions or help customers conserve energy at the best times. (Note to Californians: if the orb turns white the power is out.) The orbs also sell through such retail outlets as Brookstone, starting at around $100.
At Cubist, a biopharmaceutical maker of anti-infective products, "it's really more of a toy than a tool," says McGirr. "People joke about how if it's the wrong color they're not going to come talk to me." With the stock up more than 100 percent in the past 12 months, though, McGirr has plenty of visitors.
There are worse things than a crimson Stock Orb, he adds. "Usually, when my face grows red there's much more concern."
In September 2004, after 16 years at Sony North America, including several as corporate controller, Tom Brown thought he needed a change of pace, so he resigned and focused on golf. "I'm not sure if it was a midlife crisis," he says, "but I needed to take back control of my time and my life."
The move didn't suit him. He missed the thrill of business, and his golf game got worse, not better. So last year, he went back to work — this time for himself. Along with partner Judy Thompson, Brown launched an executive-recruiting firm based in San Diego. Called BrownThompson, it focuses on finance executives.
The search firm was a natural fit. At Sony, Brown had hired a large number of people and had developed a knack for spotting financial talent. As a former high-ranking finance executive, he also knows what job candidates are looking for. His timing wasn't bad either. With high turnover in top finance jobs, the firm is already thriving.
It hasn't been all rosy, though. Brown says he's not used to bankers and insurers not taking his calls. "Sometimes they don't call back at all," he says. And going from directing a large staff to a tiny office has also taken some getting used to. "When something goes wrong with a computer, there's no IT department to call," he says. The true challenge of self-employment hit him on his second day of work, when his chair arrived unassembled. Brown remembered the large support staff he'd enjoyed at Sony, then got down on the floor and went to work. — Joseph McCafferty