Many entrepreneurs don't know how or when to hire financial advisers. Rick Kearney, the president of six-year-old Mainline Information Systems, a marketer of computer equipment and support services in Tallahassee, Fla., had the decision forced upon him. "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."

The problem: "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 couldn't handle the $120,000 salary typical for a full-time chief financial officer in his region. Some business owners might have turned to an outside accounting firm, but Kearney believed Mainline needed expertise beyond its certified public accountant's capabilities. "We needed someone with specialized knowledge about raising capital, as well as about my industry."

His solution? 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: to help the company assess financing needs; prepare financial statements and a business plan to support the financing pitch; and, ultimately, 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 at a time when collection took as long as 90 days.

Sixteen months of the rent-a-CFO's half-time assistance cost Mainline about $135,000. Kearney has no regrets, "because he achieved all his goals and then he left, without causing any drag on our payroll." Now, with sales of $16 million projected for 1995, Mainline has finally hired a full-time CFO. "Our new staffer doesn't have the same capital-markets expertise that our rent-a-CFO did, but we don't need that anymore."