Forget the CEO? Why CFOs May Be More Important

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If you want to know how important the role chief financial officer will be playing in the corporate and investing worlds, look no further than Apple.

Peter Oppenheimer, the CFO of the world's largest company by market capitalization, has been directly in the cross hairs as some investors demand Apple does something with its swollen cash reserves.

While CEO Tim Cook is generally seen as the company's face, it is Oppenheimer whom the market has sought out to discern the company's financial plans.

"While trying to extract information from (Apple) management is like squeezing 'water from a rock,' we did speak with AAPL CFO (Peter Oppenheimer) ...and found the conversation helpful," ISI analyst Brian Marshall in a note to clients a few weeks ago.

(Read More: Apple Sends Another Signal Bigger Capital Distribution Is Coming)

Not helpful enough, though.

Apple's stock slipped another 6 percent after the Oppenheimer provided little comfort to the market that the company would seek to up shareholder value by releasing some of its $137 billion cash stockpile.

The stock only started to find footing Feb. 22, after another analyst, Morgan Stanley's Katy Huberman, reported that she, too, had been conversing with Oppenheimer and found him willing to meet investor concern through a potential doubling of the stock's meager 2.3 percent dividend.

Such is the life these days of a corporate CFO, a profession that will have to find ways to protect the bottom line while also instilling marketplace confidence that his or her respective company's stock is worth holding.

(Read More: Why Pressure's Building for Firms to Part With Cash)

When once that role, at least in the public sense, fell to the chief executive officer, or CEO, the paradigm is shifting.

"The CFO role is more important and the position definitely needs an advanced investment background and not just an accounting MBA education," said Keith Springer, president of Springer Financial Advisors in Sacramento, Calif.

The challenges facing CFOs are multitude as the market structure changes beneath their feet.

Corporate America has operated in crisis mode since the 2008 financial panic, accumulating cash as a brace against further turmoil similar to the credit implosion.

With the help of government bailouts and Federal Reserve liquidity efforts, nonfinancial companies have amassed $1.8 trillion in cash that at some point will need to be spent.

"All companies and all CFOs should be concerned about shareholder value. That's why you're a public company," said Nadav Baum, executive vice president at BPU Investment Management in Pittsburgh, Pa. "If you can't as a CFO wake up every morning and try to create value for your shareholders, then you shouldn't be a public company."

Indeed, investors have been clamoring that companies start putting that cash to work.

Hedge fund manager David Einhorn at Greenlight Capital has made plenty of headlines in demanding that Oppenheimer open up the spigots and issue preferred shares that Einhorn believes would increase Apple's stock by one-third.

(Read More: Einhorn: My Plan Could Boost Apple Stock by $150)

"Let's take care of shareholders," Baum said. "Being the CFO or the board of directors, if you feel like buybacks are the way that over time you're going to take care of shareholders, great. If it's an increased dividend, if it's a strategic buy, if it's an alliance with another company - I'm not going to be the one who's going to tell you how to run your business.

"But you've got to wake up every morning and do whatever's fiduciarily responsible to take care of shareholder value."

All of that will have to take place under a different matrix than the norm for the profession as the investing world itself faces new challenges.

"Never before have derivatives, alternative investments and hedging been so important," Springer said. "Currency transactions such as futures and dollar hedging is critical because many of the big companies with lots of cash are international and have much of it hoarded overseas."

The CFO profession has acknowledged its rising importance in the business world and is taking steps to address demands of the marketplace - as well as recruit new members to the ranks.

"The changing structure of global finance operations and the changing demands placed on the role will simply necessitate different types of experiences and skills," said a joint report from the Institute of Management Accountants and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants.

"This future environment presents enormous challenges for CFOs," the report added, "but it also provides a great opportunity for ambitious finance professionals seeking a rewarding and enriching career."