There are few finance executives with a resume like the one Michele Burns boasts. In a matter of seven years, she has served successful tenures as CFO at $16.2 billion Delta Air Lines Inc., at $3 billion turnaround Mirant Corp. and at $11.9 billion Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc. Now, she is CEO of $3 billion Mercer Human Resource Consulting–and you might say it is a job she has been preparing for since beginning her career 26 years ago as a human resources and management consultant at Arthur Andersen LLP. "I've been talking about these things for 26 years," says Burns. And she has been asking the same questions: "How do we provide the right benefits and motivate employees to stay at companies and be productive workers? But at the same time, how do we control costs?"

As she knows after 26 years, those answers don't come easily. Burns sees the issues in human resources, however, as unexplored territories for pioneering CFOs looking to make huge contributions to bottom lines, either through more conventional cost cutting or through what she refers to as human capital management. "We talk about the costs of retirement and healthcare," says Burns, "but CFOs also should think about human capital management. This is a huge asset and needs to be viewed as such." CFOs need to see beyond cost to the motivational aspects of the retirement and benefits equation, she says. "They need to ask, 'What are we doing to attract and retain [talent] and how does the benefit program add to that?'"

Another area where she believes CFOs and finance could play a larger role is in healthcare. "When I was at Arthur Andersen, it was all about cost shifting," notes Burns. "Now, everyone is looking at the entire value chain and seeing where we can take out costs." Increasingly, Burns also finds multinationals looking to manage their retirement and benefits costs on a worldwide basis. "We tend to think of these issues as local ones," says Burns. "But [the issue of cost acceleration in] retirement and healthcare is a global issue."

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