This past year, Al Lovata, chief executive of Be Our Guest Inc., cut expenses for his party-equipment rental business by laying off staff and reducing workers’ salaries. He credits an “outsourced” chief financial officer with helping him prepare for the worst of the economic downturn. The Boston-based company had sales growth in the double digits for the past few years, when revenue fell flat last fall. Now, thanks to the part-time CFO’s guidance, the company is stable with revenue down 20% to 30%, but profitability higher than in the previous months, he says. If we hadn’t had this service, “we would still be struggling,” Mr. Lovata says.

Some small-business owners in need of accounting help to balance their books and guide them out of a financial black hole are renting CFOs rather than hiring them. The strategy comes at a time when the deep recession has forced small companies to look for money-saving alternatives that can yield good returns yet avoid substantial overhead costs. The average annual salary for a full-time CFO in a small- to medium-size businesses ranges from $94,250 to $175,750, according to a 2009 Salary Guide by Robert Half International Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif., staffing services firm that serves the accounting and finance fields. Renting one can be significantly cheaper.

B2B CFO Partners LLC, a Phoenix, Ariz., firm, has over 100 CFOs-for-rent and charges $300 to $400 per month for the service. The company has doubled the number of small- to mid-size business clients to 650 since 2007. Business owners often want such a service when their company’s finances are getting more complex and need someone with more financial expertise. These CFOs have a bigger role than accountants, who mainly keep track of the company’s books. They work with business owners to manage their accounting and finance departments, connect them with business sources that can help them grow and provide financial data to help make strategic long-term or day-to-day decisions. Many are certified public accountants. The payment structure varies. Some are on project-oriented deals, such as developing financial projections, assisting with raising capital or completing a business plan. Some are on-going in nature and can be based on an hourly or flat monthly fee.

Concerns regarding privacy from such consultants can easily be mitigated by nondisclosure agreements, experts say. It also would be prudent for small businesses to interview at least three CFO candidates, assess the quality of the firm they work for and avoid long-term contracts, if possible.