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Sunday, May 1, 2011

CFO SPOTLIGHT – Aidan Cullen, Gigamon

Founded in 2004, the data-access solutions company Gigamon has had 50 percent year-over-year growth for the past four years. Such rapid growth, said CFO Aidan Cullen, is a healthy problem to have in this economy.

Irish-born Cullen has more than two decades of top-tier financial experience working all over the world, including for Digital Equipment Corp., JTS Corp. and Mentor Graphics. More recently he has served as CFO for Sylantro Systems where he oversaw its merger with Broadsoft, Tasman Networks where he oversaw its merger with Nortel Networks, and Monterey Design Systems. He earned his MBA from Northeastern University in Boston.

Q. Much of your career has been spent working for public companies. Did that help you prepare to be CFO at a privately held company?

A. When I was at a public company I was very fortunate to be able to progressively develop my career. I went from subsidiary finance into internal audit and learned what is underneath the hood of the engine. I then moved from there into a finance business partner to engineering, for example, and then later to sales. So what can happen at a public company is that you have a better opportunity to progressively develop a varied skillset and the technical depth to be successful. Then, later on, when you get into a senior role in finance as a corporate controller or CFO in a private company, wearing multiple hats, you have had exposure to all of the areas to become a generalist, but with the needed technical depth in each specialty.

If you started off your career in a private company, especially here in the Valley, you wouldn’t have received that exposure.

Q. Why is that?

A. When I grew up in the finance world there was a lot of focus within public companies to develop personnel. Today there is more of a focus on cost constraints and always looking at the bottom line. It’s even tougher on the private side, where investment comes from the VCs, to justify additional resources on personnel development or growth.

As an employee, it’s hard when you are in a small start-up, but when you are in a bigger company you should be thinking about your own career aspirations and development. Try to rotate your own functional responsibility so you start to get exposure doing something different: manufacturing experience and costing, finance support to engineering, sales, and build your skills as a generalist. Set a goal of having more accomplishments on your resume at the end of each year. If you have been a controller for a while, talk with your CFO about getting experience in strategic projects, FP&A or as a business partner to sales, for example, – some lateral move that can help expand your experience. You could also build controller networking groups and see if there are creative ways to be more effective in doing your job. Otherwise, you get complacent. 

Q. How about an MBA? Is that important to preparing you to be a CFO?

A. Companies are conserving cash. Are we putting dollars into ensuring our accountants have MBAs? No, we’re still trying to grow. But if you can do one thing for your career, go back and get an MBA. I think the MBA opens your mind about what you can do or what you would like to do. It’s such a catalyst for change.

Q. And if that is not possible, what else would you advise?

A. Look two years ahead and figure out the best way to get more exposure on your resume. An MBA would open doors and give you better credentials. Diversity in skills would also open the door. Be able to master it. When you start to master three or four different areas, you start to become more exposed to managerial roles in finance. You start to see where the bottlenecks are so you can see that this is not a finance issue, this is a sales or other business issue. You start to get engaged more, and you really begin to add value to your company.

Q. Any other benefits?

A. It makes the job interesting. I try to be cognizant of helping people advance in their careers, but we move very fast here. In my last company, the controller wanted to get some exposure to leadership and so she participated in some events. It worked. Once you can participate and get exposed to it, you get a taste for it. You find you like it and realize, 'I can do this.'


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