There's nothing like an anniversary to bring home how hard it is to predict the future. Today, CFO Publishing (an Economist Group business) encompasses CFO,CFO Europe,CFO Asia,CFO China,CFO IT,CFO Human Capital, and CFO.com. In 1985, CFO magazine was little more than a concept predicated on the radical notion that finance executives did more than balance the books. The company employed four people, one of whom was me. Founder Neil Goldhirsh, a CPA himself, recognized early on that the electronic spreadsheet would make CFOs influential purchasers of the new PCs while giving them a tool to better analyze operations. But no one imagined a 10-year boom or 24/7 global operations sustained by Internet, laptop, and cell phone. Who could have foreseen the great wave of mergers, acquisitions, and restructurings that would place finance at the heart of most corporate decision-making, and transform the CFO from bean counter to strategic partner?
Today's CFOs have experienced the perils of that transition as well as the privileges. They no longer labor in obscurity, but the notoriety of the few has increased the pressure on the rest. In another unexpected twist, the new century has opened with a renewed focus on counting beans.
The demands of regulatory compliance and stricter controls make these days of discontent for finance executives. One recent survey suggests 4 out of 10 are contemplating job changes; in CFO's own survey, 63 percent think job pressures are hurting their health.
Despite the cloudiness of my crystal ball, I predict these discontents will prove transitory. Why? First, the new, tough compliance initiatives will eventually become routine. Second, developments in Europe and Asia, as outlined by my colleagues in the following essays, offer new opportunities to U.S. businesses. Third, and perhaps most important, 20 years of responding to the unexpected have taught finance executives a great deal that they can bring to bear on the next challenge, whatever it may be.