Profiles: Elisha Finney

Elisha Finney

Elisha Finney

MBA Finance 92

EVP, CFO at Varian Medical Systems & Board Member, ICU Medical (NASDAQ: ICUI)

Opportunity Chaser


Varian Medical Systems is a $3 billion corporation that leads the world's market in integrated cancer-therapy systems. Elisha Finney is only one of a handful of female CFOs of Fortune 500 companies.

It's a select group, women in the boardrooms and executive offices of the world's largest companies. Even today, just 45 (9%) of the Fortune 500 companies have women CFOs. In 2009, Deloitte's CFO program in collaboration with the Women's Initiative set out to find commonalities between the women who hold the top financial positions in the largest corporations. The resulting white paper, The Journey to CFO: Perspectives from Women Leaders recognized Finney's courage in taking the leap that ultimately started her on a trajectory to the top.

Elisha had landed at Varian Associates Inc. in 1988 as a risk manager with a business degree from the University of Georgia and a resume that included a couple of years as a risk manager for the Fox Group, a Bay Area property management company; and her first real job in risk management, for Beatrice Foods in Chicago.

Before taking the job at Beatrice in Chicago, Elisha had not been north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but she is a woman who has the optimistic heart of an explorer and the courage of a gambler. One of her life's axioms is: Be willing to go where the opportunities are.

"When I graduated from high school, I could type 120 words per minute. My mother always advised me to be able to support myself and in those days typing and shorthand were what we thought of, and I was offered a job to be the secretary to a state judge. Way back then that was a big deal. But even at that relatively young age I realized that education was the key and so I headed for the University of Georgia that fall instead."

She knew she wanted a career in business. She'd listen to her father talk about the car business every night over dinner, and had grown up against a backdrop of business cycles and economic trends -- but other than that, she hadn't decided on a major. She eventually decided on risk management and insurance and landed at Varian Associates in 1988 as a risk manager.

She pursued an MBA because she wanted to become more involved in the other departments. She chose the GGU campus in Los Altos because it was convenient to her home and office, and for the practical knowledge the professors brought to the classroom.

"I loved the fact that the professors were working in the field they taught. Most of them had careers during the day and so when they came to class, they brought that relevant experience with them. Looking back, it was the best two years I've ever spent. The other people in the classes in the MBA program made me want to be part of the program. We'd all chosen to be there and we shared so many experiences because we were all working. We had a lot in common. And it seemed like every day I could take what I'd learned in class and apply it back at the office."

When she graduated with an MBA in finance in 1992, Elisha was named the outstanding Finance Graduate of the year. Eager to put her newfound skills from the MBA program to work in a field outside of risk management, she approached her boss with a bold idea. She and the treasury manager would swap jobs for one year, an almost unheard of notion at the time. She'd only been back at her earlier post as risk manager for a few months when the treasury manager, with whom she'd swapped jobs, announced he was leaving for a better position; his new experience in risk management had also expanded his resume. Elisha's bold job-swap move had prepared her well. She would become the assistant treasurer, putting Varian's insurance and treasury functions into her portfolio. It was her first major promotion. She was promoted to Treasurer two years later. After only six months, she learned that Varian Associates was going to be split into three separately traded companies. Elisha Finney was going to be the CFO of Varian Medical Systems. She had about a year to prepare, and it was a year wrought with challenges, pressure and looming deadlines.

Varian Medical Systems would ultimately become not only the market leader but also the technology leader in its field. Finney was named Senior Vice President in 2005, and became Executive Vice President in 2012. Today her responsibilities include overseeing corporate accounting, corporate communications and investor relations, internal audit, risk management, tax and treasury, and corporate information systems.

With more than 50% of the global market, including 60% in North American and 50% in international markets, Varian Medical Systems is the world's leading manufacturer of medical devices and software for treating cancer and other medical conditions with radiotherapy, radiosurgery, proton therapy and brachytherapy. The company supplies informatics software for managing comprehensive cancer clinics, radiotherapy centers and medical oncology practices. She was instrumental in helping Varian grow from the $500 million corporation it was when she assumed the CFO roles in 1999 to the nearly $3 billion company that dominates its corner of the healthcare industry.

Elisha Finney's career trajectory has not gone unnoticed by others outside Varian. She served on the Laserscope Board of Directors for 2005 to 2006, when Laserscope was sold to American Medical Systems. She also has served on the board of Thoratec since 2007. Most recently she was elected to the board of Altera Corporation in 2011. She has been widely recognized, as well. Institutional Investor named her America's best CFO for medical devices this year, and an online survey ranked her as one of the top five best CFOs in America for her industry. A finalist in the 2008 Bay Area CFO of the Year award, she also was featured in a 2004 cover story in CFO Magazine. In 2005 the University of Georgia named her the Risk Management and Insurance Alumni of the Year and she became a member of the university's Terry College of Business Dean's Advisory Committee in 2010. She also received the YWCA Tribute to Women and Industry in 2004 and was a member of the El Camino Women's Hospital Community Advisory Board from 2009 to 2011, and co-chair of the Children's Brain Tumor Foundation in 2010.