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The new generation of CFOs, shaping financialization – and shaped by it

Accounting and financial professionals drove the financialization of French organizations. But in the process, these professions were themselves deeply changed by the financialization process. A study of Chief Financial Officer (CFO) career paths spanning three decades, the first of its kind, shows not only how their profile has evolved but also how strategic their role has become.

Based on an interview with Marie REDON and her article “The evolution of CFO career paths in light of the financialization of organizations,” Accounting Auditing Control, volume 27, issue 2, May 2021.

The so-called French exception is not just about red wine, movies or seemingly endless summer vacations. The French economy entered the financialization process its own way, and later than others – later than the US economy, at any rate, which saw a financial market boom in the 1980s.

In France, a typical example of financialization – defined as the growing importance of financial activities and their extension to new sectors – would be the diversification of the post office, now La Banque Postale. As a result of financialization, financial logic gradually permeated the entire economy, down to corporate governance and individual lives; financial indicators (the best-known being ROI, return on investment) are now used at all levels, even at the operational level.

A true financial culture has emerged, not just in large publicly traded groups, but in all companies,” observes IÉSEG professor Marie Redon. She points out that financialization is not necessarily good or bad per se. “Financial tools reflect operational performance and help allocate resources for a certain goal. The problem is when reaching numerical targets becomes a goal in itself,” she says.

Who is behind the financialization process?

So why was France a latecomer to financialization? After all, the government set up banking and monetary policies to encourage stock exchange listing as early as 1986. But as Marie REDON writes in her article on the subject, a system of “cross-shareholding” (large companies owned chunks of each other) prevented the dilution of their shareholder base until the mid-1990s.

For some authors, French financialization truly began in 1996, when the CEO of AXA insurance broke free from the predominant system – which was coming to a close anyway – to buy UAP. In other words, external pressure (from the government, shareholders, financial markets) brought on the financialization process in the US, whereas the decisive factor in France was the influence of executives from large companies.

Beyond macro-economic factors, the role of individual actors was crucial,” says Marie Redon.

But the process differed on either side of the Atlantic. In the US, market pressure gradually modified the profile of chief executives, with financial profiles replacing technical ones (marketing or engineering specialists). On the contrary, in France, chief executives in the 2000s still had the same profile as their predecessors, having been trained in the same elite engineering schools (Grandes Écoles), though some had experience working in financial departments or institutions. So, the French senior executives were rather converted to financial logic during their years in financial divisions.

The spectacular change in CFO careers

To better understand how the evolution of these key actors went hand in hand with financialization, Marie Redon carried out a study of career changes among French accounting and finance professionals over more than 30 years. She analyzed the resumes of close to 1,000 chief financial officers (CFOs) and found a major difference between two generations: those who had started their careers before 1996 and those who came after.

In the first generation, three main career profiles appear: careers in accounting (12% of the sample), auditing (33%) and management control (41%). The proportions are quite different among the second generation, with a number of individuals having worked in external auditing (30%) and management control (35%) but very few accountants, their place having been taken by those with careers in financial services (16%) after graduating from elite schools.

A new class of CFOs therefore appears between the two generations, with Grandes Écoles de commerce graduates starting their careers with financial services roles, and the ʽaccountantsʼ disappearing,” writes the professor in her research article.

Two main CFO profiles exist today: those who are essentially oriented towards “working capital” management and specialized in the management of internal flows; and CFOs with a predominantly “equity” focus, in charge of external relations with shareholders and financial markets. This evolution in careers makes sense in a financialization context.

The interviews that Marie Redon conducted revealed that “equity” questions have intensified, and so those in charge take on a more strategic, even aggressive, role, whereas they used to deal with purely technical matters.

CFOs who manage long-term resources, the shareholder base and debt, have indeed gained a strategic dimension,” concludes the researcher.

Practical applications

Students or practitioners will find the study helpful in choosing their initial or continued training when aiming for finance departments. Specifically, the study reveals what a career boost experience in external auditing or financial services can be.

The research highlights the key role of financialization for corporate survival, but Marie REDON also warns against obsessing over numbers: “CFOs must not think only in terms of financial logic, because if they set targets in terms of numbers only and don’t meet them, they’re putting themselves in jeopardy. Finance must serve business, not the other way around.”

Method

The researcher initially conducted 10 face-to-face interviews with CFOs to design and analyze her database of 1,040 CVs collected on LinkedIn. She coded their training and professional experience from 1973 to 2015, then complemented the work with an additional 47 interviews with other financial executives.

Biography

Marie REDON is an assistant professor of accounting at IÉSEG. She obtained her PhD in management sciences, audit and control from the University of Paris-Dauphine in 2018.