What do the finance bosses of the Word Bank and healthcare companies Merck and Sanofi-Aventis have in common? They’re all French and all working outside their own country. Along with wine, cheese and tax exiles like actor Gérard Depardieu, the French are increasingly exporting their finance managers.
Bertrand Badre is one of the chief financial officers who is part of this foreign legion. He left his position as CFO at Société Générale in Paris to become CFO for the World Bank in New York, starting this month. Badre said he and his fellow French professionals were strengthening their presence on the world stage.
French finance managers often have a broader range of skills than their counterparts elsewhere in Western Europe, said Johann Van Nieuwenhuyse, a senior director at recruitment firm Michael Page in Paris. While professionals from other countries focused mainly on financial control, the French were generally more able to analyse risk, tax and legal issues. Compared with finance managers from the US and UK, they are also “better equipped technically” in fields like M&A and corporate finance, Van Nieuwenhuyse said.
“French finance managers are also known for their skills in financial processes,” said Armand Angeli, chairman of the International Association of CFOs and Management Accountants (DFCG). “That’s why they are found in many projects for outsourcing, or re-engineering of shared-service centres,” he added.
Frenchwoman Carolina Castandet-Philippe, who came to the US four years ago to run the financial shared-services centre at healthcare company Merck, is a case in point. “The French are generally very competent at the analysis of data, in terms of International Financial Reporting Standards and enterprise-resource planning,” she said. “However, I learned a lot from the Americans in terms of internal control and management.”
The increasingly internationalised French education system also helps to explain why the French are in demand. Most French business schools, for example, support fluency in English, a must for working at a multinational company, via an English-language curriculum. And they offer the option to learn an additional language like Mandarin, Russian or Portuguese. “French graduates are often more sensitive to international business and culture than their foreign counterparts who have done courses that are purely in accountancy, like the CPA,” Van Nieuwenhuyse from Michael Page said.
Nearly one in three finance-manager roles handled by the Paris office of recruiters Robert Walters was now based outside of France, said Coralie Rachet, the firm’s associate director of recruitment. And in 2012, 20 percent more French finance managers (commonly referred to by the French acronym “DAF”) accepted positions abroad than in 2011, according to a Robert Walters salary survey published last month.
Rachet said there were a lot of French finance managers in China, Russia and Eastern Europe. Other recruiters said they were also popular in Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, Chile and Colombia. “In such countries we are seeing a shortage of local experts. Corporates are often disappointed by local candidates,” he said. While Anglo Saxons were often limited to working in other developed, English-speaking countries, the French were better able to meet demand in emerging markets, Van Nieuwenhuyse from Michael Page said.
Lionel Guérin tapped into a nascent demand for French skills in the late 1990s after graduating from French business school EDHEC. Because he had learned the Polish language and studied Polish culture, Sanofi-Aventis, the French pharmaceutical company, gave him a job in its Warsaw office, where he’s now CFO and leads a team of 70 people. “The market is favourable for French CFOs in emerging markets,” he said.
Reasons for relocating
If French CFOs didn’t venture overseas, their careers could be “seriously hampered,” Armand from DFCG said. Depressed economic conditions in France, limited local job opportunities and high French tax rates are among their motivations to leave, he added.
Almost half of French finance managers (46%) were now considering relocating internationally, according to survey figures from Michael Page International published in November. French CFOs are comparatively mobile partly because they are younger than the international average. In France, 70 percent of survey respondents became a CFO between the ages of 30 and 40, while in North America, half of them had to wait until they were aged 50 or older. Moreover, compared with their counterparts in Germany, more of whom worked for small and medium-sized businesses, finance managers in France tended to be employed by international companies who could offer global opportunities, Van Nieuwenhuyse said.
Once the French have had a taste of working overseas, it can be hard to go home. “I now belong to several countries, and I’m not sure I want to return to France,” Castandet-Philippe from Merck said. “I’m tempted by a longer stay in the US, or perhaps another European country, for example the UK. Being an expat is addictive.”