Had you asked Fred Sutherland a couple of decades ago–when he was toiling away in treasury–what he wanted to be when he grew up, he probably would have said CFO. And he was well on his way, moving up steadily at $11.6 billion Aramark–first as assistant treasurer, then treasurer, then vice president of corporate finance and development and, finally, senior vice president of finance.

Along the way, he had picked up responsibility for the tax, planning, risk management and controller function. But 14 years ago, he took what many in finance would consider a sidestep–a move that was clearly a promotion, but one that could easily take him out of finance forever. Sutherland took over as the president of Aramark's $1 billion uniform and career apparel group. "It certainly was a challenge," he reflects. "I had to interact with managers at all levels–sales managers, HR managers, IT managers, procurement managers. I had to set an overall strategy and see that others understood and executed it, so that our group performed and achieved results. You have to learn what makes each business line tick, what its market strengths and weaknesses are, how to make that business evolve so that it stays a winner in a changing, competitive marketplace. That takes business judgment beyond anything required in finance."

In other words, he reveled in his new position, reorganizing the entire sales force of the unit early on in his new posting. At fortysomething, he could have spent the rest of his career in operations, running divisions and maybe eventually working his way to CEO. But four years after taking the plunge, he returned to his original vision and became Aramark's CFO. Even though he might have made that jump without the detour–maybe even on a faster timetable–Sutherland contends today he wouldn't have wanted to. "If the CFO is to be the keeper of the integrity of financial statements, someone who raises capital when it is needed and looks out for the interests of shareholders, someone who keeps the company out of financial and accounting trouble, then direct operations experience is nice, but not essential. You need a shortstop, so you hire a shortstop," he observes. "But if the CFO's role is to help the CEO run the company, it really helps a lot if he or she has had experience running business operations. It just depends on which kind of CFO you want to be."Although it still remains relatively uncommon, a growing number of companies are beginning to see the value of immersing their finance stars in the trials and tribulations of running a business.

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