Growing entrepreneurial companies often need a certain type of professional skill but aren't ready to add someone long-term to the payroll and company benefits plan. At such times it can make sense to "rent" the needed talent on a short-term basis, even at the executive level.

Ask Rick Kearney, the president of Mainline Information Systems, a marketer of computer equipment and support services in Tallahassee, Fla.

"Back in June of 1994 we were doing about $3 million in sales," he recalls, "and aimed to compete with larger companies as they downsized and cut back on support services. However, although our business plan was good and the quality of our technical staffing was very high, we lacked serious financial expertise." Mainline's only financial staffer was Kearney's wife, the company's bookkeeper.

Then a big business break forced a change. "We won a contract to provide Florida school systems with personal computers. It was going to double our sales overnight, but I had to get a line of credit that would pay for the equipment, shipping, and support-staff upgrades."

Kearney thought his company still wasn't ready to commit to hiring a full-time chief financial officer, since CFOs in his region commanded about $120,000 a year plus benefits at that time. Some business owners might have turned to an accounting firm, but Kearney believed Mainline needed expertise beyond the capabilities of certified public accountants. "We needed someone with specialized knowledge about raising capital, as well as about my industry."

After asking for names in his industry, Kearney turned to an Atlanta-based consulting firm that allowed him to "basically, rent a CFO with expertise in both my industry and the capital markets." Kearney contracted for the CFO to visit Mainline for two weeks each month. His mission was to help the company assess its financing needs, prepare financial statements along with a business plan to support the financing pitch, and ultimately, to win financing.

"It was a complete success," says Kearney. "He helped us figure out that we needed $4 million, gathered all the financial information we needed, helped us identify possible financiers, and then prepared us for their questions. With his help we landed a $4-million line of credit, with a 15- to 45-day interest-free grace period, from IBM Credit Corp." The cushion helped Mainline at a time when its receivables took as long as 90 days to collect.

Sixteen months of the rent-a-CFO's half-time assistance cost Mainline about $135,000, less than the cost of a full-time CFO for that period. Plus, Kearney had the advantage of the trial period without committing to a full-time employee. Kearney has no regrets, "because he achieved all his goals and then he left, without causing any drag on our payroll." Kearney subsequently hired a full-time CFO, and Mainline continued to grow. "We now have our own CFO and a chief of operations and comptroller and a CPA in-house," says Kearney, whose Inc. 500 company had revenues of $70.7 million in 1997. "Our financial division has certainly grown quite a bit."