Ruth Porat has been on a tear since joining Google in May as its chief financial officer. The former Morgan Stanley CFO was cheered by investors following the company's second quarter earnings report, when her remarks — which included hints about more fiscal restraint — helped send the company's stock soaring 16 percent the next day, reaching record heights.
Then, when the company surprised many last week with the news that it was restructuring itself in a way that could give investors more insight into its businesses, some speculated that Porat may have influenced the company's move. Whatever role she played, Porat will now be CFO of the new holding company, Alphabet, as well as remain CFO of its core Google business — a huge job by any definition.
Porat's prominence is just one example of the ascension of the CFO position in recent years. More and more chief executives have CFO experience on their resume — United Technologies CEO Gregory Hayes and Oracle CEO Safra Catz are two named last year.
Chief financial officers have increasingly seen their job description expand far beyond number-crunching to include everything from supply chain logistics to data security. Twitter CFO Anthony Noto, also thought to be a candidate in the company's CEO search, was recently given responsibility for marketing, an atypical job for any finance chief.
Meanwhile, the demand for good CFOs to fill these broader roles has gotten intense enough that it appears to be thickening their wallets. New data reported by the Wall Street Journal find that raises for CFOs outpaced those for their bosses, growing 13.9 percent last year, compared with 6.9 percent for chief executives.
"In the past, everybody said 'bean counter' when referring to a CFO," says Peter Crist, the chairman of executive search firm CristKolder Associates. Now, he says, a common refrain is to "find a leader in finance who can do a lot more than finance."
Recruiters say there are a number of reasons for the growing prominence of the finance chief. It started with the introduction of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002, which required both CEOs and CFOs to sign off on financial statements, raising the profile of financial chiefs with their companies' boards and putting more pressure on directors to get involved with their selection.
Over the same period, the prevalence of chief operating officers has dwindled quickly, driven in part by board pressure on CEOs to get involved with operational details and by declining interest in publicly broadcasting the company's heir apparent. That's led to the ascension of the CFO at many companies, Crist says, as the chief executive's right-hand man or woman. "Nature abhors a vacuum," he says.
Likely even more influential is the growing involvement by activist investors and private equity players in corporate finances, as well as the growing demand on companies to manage risk and data security.
"We're seeing a lot of issues surrounding the protection of consumer data," says Jeremy Hanson, who leads the global financial officers practice at the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles. "It’s not uncommon for the IT function itself and data security to fall under the CFO’s domain."
In addition to the security of customers' data, increased focus on using data analytics to make business decisions is putting CFOs in the sweet spot when it comes to corporate intelligence. Sergio Monsalve, a partner with Norwest Venture Partners, says he's seeing his portfolio companies give more power and responsibilities to the CFO.
"The world is moving to caring a lot about two things: Money and data," Monsalve says. "There's only one person in the company who touches both in an intimate way, and that happens to be the CFO."
One result of the CFO's growing power, Hanson says, is that companies now want CFOs to have diverse backgrounds. For the first time since his firm began tracking such data, in 2008, Heidrick & Struggles found that those in non-finance roles — jobs like operations, strategy or general management — are more likely to be tapped as the next CFO then the company's top accountant or controller.
Then there are the CFOs who get tapped to become operational chiefs or company presidents, which have traditionally been stepping stones to the CEO job, after their time at the top of finance. For instance, on Monday Target named its CFO, John Mulligan, to be the retailer's chief operations officer. This is part of an effort by Brian Cornell, the company's CEO since last year, to flesh out his design for the retailer's corporate suite.
Crist warns that it's too early to start thinking about Cornell's successor at Target. But he says that Mulligan, who was also interim CEO briefly last year, is yet another example of the new prominence of CFOs, and of boards' burgeoning interest in expanding their role. "Historically," he says, "you would have never seen a non-merchant put into a retail operating job like that."