The role of the chief financial officer has been transformed.

The green eyeshades and backs hunched over columns of numbers are long gone. At many financial services companies, the CFO is among the very top executives, often a quasi chief operating or administrative officer second-in-command to the CEO.

So why are so many leaving?

Since Jan. 1 at least a dozen chief financial officers have left their jobs at high-profile banks, insurance companies, and investment houses, many saying they were interested in running their own show or getting involved in a technology venture.

The increasingly complex nature of most financial services organizations has enhanced the role over the past decade. “The demand for top CFOs is insatiable right now,” says Gordon Grand, the managing director in charge of the financial officers practice at the New York executive recruiter Russell Reynolds Associates. “If a top financial officer left his job, within 10 hours he would have six offer letters faxed to him. That’s how crazy the market is.”

Citigroup Inc. lost its CFO, Heidi Miller, to Priceline.com. In March, John Gibbons announced his departure from Freddie Mac and said he wanted to explore opportunities in technology.

In the spring John Cecil left the CFO job at Lehman Brothers, and a few weeks later Susan Lester said she would leave Minneapolis’ U.S. Bancorp. Just this month, days before his company announced its agreement to be acquired by Chase Manhattan Corp., Peter Hancock said he would leave J.P. Morgan & Co.

These people “are very, very marketable right now,” Mr. Grand says. “They have made a lot of money, and they can afford to take a risk. Someone like Sue Lester can sit back, play golf, and get her handicap down to three. She’s getting five phone calls a week.”

As hot as financial services CFOs have become, one thing hasn’t changed: They don’t usually ascend to the top spot. This has frustrated many career CFOs.

“CFOs don’t generally get to be CEOs,” says Emanuel Monogenis, a managing partner in New York with the executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles. “Normally, CFOs are great advisers to CEOs. Because they are in charge of financial information and deal with so many different people, many think it translates into running the whole organization. But CEOs need them as financial advisers” and gatherers of financial information, Mr. Monogenis says.

Gordon Gunnlaugsson of Marshall & Ilsley Corp. in Milwaukee is a case in point. After more than 30 years with the $25.2 billion-asset company — the last 15 as CFO — he announced Sept. 20 that he would leave by yearend.

Though he looks forward to spending more time with his family, playing golf, and sailing, he says that he is “not going to curl up with a book by the fireplace.”

Mr. Gunnlaugsson admits to having been bit by the Internet bug; he says he is thinking about starting up a technology venture.

“Flexibility is more important after this many years of working for somebody else,” he says. “I would not expect that I would come back to the banking industry as a CFO.”

Certainly, financial security has provided the executives with more mobility. In CFO magazine’s latest highest-paid list for old economy companies, financial services executives dominated the top ranks, according to Lori Calabro, deputy editor.

Total compensation for CFOs at the largest banks and investment banks — including salaries, stock options, restricted stock, and bonuses — ranged from $6.57 million to $51.56 million in 1999, she says.

James Hance of Bank of America Corp. topped the list. John Cecil of Lehman Brothers came in second, with $19.05 million. He was followed by David Viniar at Goldman Sachs Group ($11.49 million) and Peter Hancock of J.P. Morgan ($10.14 million). Chase’s Marc Shapiro came in 12th, with $7.35 million. All told, nine of the top 25 were with financial services companies.

“If a CFO wants to run something,” says Ms. Calabro, now is the time to do it. “We’ve seen a lot of brick-and-mortar CFOs go to start-ups and the Internet. They have made enough money to take a risk.”

The pace of consolidation in recent years has also helped CFOs reconsider their career paths. As a firm’s top financial officer, they are typically in on merger negotiations and know from the outset whether there will be a place for them at the combined company.

“Consolidations are having a big impact on the movement of CFOs in financial services,” says E. Peter McLean, vice chairman and co-leader of the financial officers practice at the Spencer Stuart recruiting firm.

But the dot-com space, as recruiters call it, is quickly lapping up those who become disaffected or superfluous.

“Internet companies, particularly those that are pre-IPO, need a CFO who can accommodate rapid growth and take them to market. The experience that these people gain creating operational efficiencies across an organization makes them very desirable.”

Of course, the new economy has showed signs of slowing recently and may even have peaked. Headhunters say that they have heard from several CFOs at Internet start-ups clamoring to get back to traditional companies.

“The dot-com CFOs really want to return to more mainstream ventures,” says Mr. McLean. “There’s very little capital now to build out what everybody thought would be a significant play.”

If those CFOs originally came from a big bank or financial services firm, chances are a tour at a start-up won’t damage their resume, even if the venture failed, headhunters say. “They’ll get snapped up,” says Mr. Grand. “Now is the right time to jump."

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