Up at 5 a.m.: What It's Really Like to Be a CFO

CFO at a desk piled with files

What does a day in the life of a CFO look like at a midsize company? We followed one who was placed two years ago by Robert Half Finance & Accounting at a midsize distributor-manufacturer in Raleigh, N.C.

We got the inside scoop on what his job as a top executive is like and how he keeps the financial wheels turning.

Early ‘rise and shine’    

For this CFO, morning starts early, sometime between 5 and 5:30 a.m., depending on whether he’s able to squeeze in a workout. Then comes a quick shave, shower and breakfast.

“By the time I’m dressed, I’ve already checked and replied to a handful of emails,” the financial executive says. “Before I go into the office, I like to clean up my email as well as I can. If you’re actively managing emails or calls throughout the day, it’s easy to get caught up in that and not get all that you wanted to get done.”

8:30 a.m.: Less-than-a-mile commute  

Before relocating to North Carolina in 2014, he had an hour-and-a-half commute by bus to New York City. The hustle and bustle of the city meant being at the bus stop by 7 a.m. It was crowded, loud and bumpy, but he did it for more than four years.

Now his commute is less than a mile, which helps with work-life balance. “I still wake up around the same time, but it’s much more relaxing now.”  

I can always count on the controller or CEO coming to see me in the first half hour I’m in the office — sometimes in the first 10 minutes.

Raleigh CFO


The CFO parks in his company’s attached parking garage and takes the elevator up three floors.

“I can always count on the controller or CEO coming to see me in the first half hour I’m in the office — sometimes in the first 10 minutes,” he said. “They see it all, and it helps me to do my job, so touching base first thing is good for all of us.”

Projects leading up to lunchtime

Because the company is owned by a private equity firm, he spends a dedicated amount of time each week preparing financials for a meeting every Friday. He’s also in charge of the month-end close, so depending on which calendar day it is, he’s busy preparing monthly financials and doing bank reconciliations.

The executive is also responsible for audits, finance contracts and running point on all activity involving human resources and information technology.   

But he does take time for lunch, choosing from a handful of lunch spots within a two-mile radius of his office. On most days, you can find one or multiple team members at the same restaurant, sometimes together for business meetings and sometimes separate. 

Afternoon: 2016 key initiatives    

Back in the office, new cubicles line the walls in preparation for anticipated new hires and growth. Last year, the company reached $58 million in revenue, and this year it is projected to earn $70 million.

“I remember when I first started, we were working out of a table at Panera Bread, and it was just us (he and the CEO),” he said. “We just hired a quality manager, so there are now 13 of us. We’ve come a long way.”

Another major focus for the business is building its own packaging facility — the first in the company’s history. Right now, the officers rely on outsourced production centers, which is a costly model that can often lead to delayed shipments or a compromise in process and procedure. Just last month, they had a machine breakdown at one of the centers they use, and last year they had another center lose its organic classification, which meant the loss and rerouting of their products.

“This is the business we bought, and our job is to transform it into a better model,” the CFO said. “So a big focus of mine is our new location. On my desk right now is a financing contract that’s been red-lined by our lawyers. My job is to go back through and respond to the advice we’re being given.”

After 5: The last one to leave 

Though the New York City skyline is in the rearview of this financial executive's career, he still likes the late nights at his North Carolina office. The work carries him into the early evening. 

Managing cash — that’s what’s keeping the wheels going here. ... It's a balancing act with our cash flow.

Raleigh CFO


“Managing cash – that’s what’s keeping the wheels going here,” he said. “There’s a lot on the borrowing and spending and managing receipts and disbursements. It’s a balancing act with our cash flow.”

He catches up on the emails and voicemails he tries not to get tied up in during the day. Then it’s a two-minute drive up the road and around the corner to his home.

He usually gets home around 7 p.m. —in time for dinner with his wife. After that, you can find him watching the latest Netflix series; he just finished his favorite show, “Mad Men.” He plays some golf, although by his own admission not very well. And on the weekends he and his wife enjoy going out and exploring their new hometown.

This CFO has done a lot since he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1986, followed by his masters of business administration. His CFO career path includes more than 20 years as a controller, finance manager and financial planning/reporting manager. The experience that fills his toolbox ranges from general accounting and cost accounting to budgeting and planning, management reporting, and IT application management.

What’s one thing he misses about his big city job in New York? Well, it’s not much, but there is one thing: Giants season tickets and tailgating before the games.

And his role as CFO? What does he like most about accounting and, more specifically, this job?  

“I like the diversity of the functions and tasks and the responsibilities,” he says. “You get to get your hands in a lot of different things, from the tax perspective to financial analysis, ledger review and analysis — a lot of different aspects.”


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Brittney MurrayBrittney Murray is a recruiting manager for Robert Half Finance & Accounting in Raleigh, NC. She also consults, instructs and speaks on marketing topics, including social media management, digital marketing and branding. Her Twitter handle [email protected]