The baton, please.
The Building Blocks
Being flexible, making the right choices and providing value are three themes that weave through James J. Abel's conversation. Abel, wearing his twin professional hats as the new chairman of the board of Financial Executives Institute for 1998-99 and executive vice president and CFO of The Lamson & Sessions Co., an electrical products manufacturer based in Cleveland, says, "I enjoy being a generalist much more than a specifics expert, filling different roles in the organization and creating interdisciplinary teams. The functional disciplines are less important than making correct business decisions."
On the personal side, his favorite book and movie corroborate these points; he cites The Process Edge by Peter G.W. Keen and "The Hunt for Red October." Why? The Process Edge, he explains, "is about not only creating value but getting the process right in doing so. We've been involved with that in our company over the last several years - finding the right mix of skills and attributes you need to be successful." He's seen "The Hunt for Red October" several times and especially enjoys "observing the characters and seeing how the process evolves to make the plot work. They show flexibility and out-of-the-box thinking, demonstrating the reasons people would change their longstanding views."
Abel, who holds a B.S. in industrial management from Purdue and an M.B.A. from St. John's University, joined FEI in 1982 (he's a member of the Northeast Ohio Chapter). "I was looking for continuing professional development and networking," he explains. "FEI really improves as you become active. It's given me an opportunity to see how other financial people deal with different problems. Part of the value it provides to its members is that there's a commonality to the issues that can be brought back and applied to one's own business setting. This gives one a better sense of where the financial profession is going. It's an opportunity to work with a great, diverse group of people. And I get a sense of satisfaction out of making a contribution that adds value."
So what does Abel see as the hot issues for today's top financial executive? In the short term, he says executives must deal with FASB Statement 131 on business segment reporting and must continue to find shareholder value, which he calls "the driver in all our businesses." Now and for the long term, he thinks the intense speed of globalization - and setting standards to deal with it - are a major concern. "With the internationalization of business practices," he explains, "we have to look at how we're going to do business. We need to establish ground rules and ethical standards, and we need to make a deep commitment to seeing that the right things happen for the right reasons, to create the right kind of shareholder value. You don't necessarily need rules and regulations to spell out high ethical standards, but with information and technology driving quicker expansion, you need a sense that the people involved in the transaction have ethical standards similar to your own and see the greater good. You don't have time to check out everything, but you want confidence that you're dealing with the right kinds of people and organizations. Some people think those things just aren't important any more - politics is one example - so the public is looking more and more to business leaders to provide ethical leadership. Business executives touch lives every day."
When it comes to touching lives, his family of three adult and two younger children is important; their schedules often determine the ways in which Abel and his wife, Sharon, spend their free time. "I enjoy having dinner with my kids. They're all different, and I like hearing what they're doing and what they and their friends are thinking about. We all tend to make a contribution [to society] but don't often realize we're doing it. We can all play a role, even if it might not be public. The building blocks are a good society, a good family and good organizations sustained over time."
The qualities that have helped him succeed, he thinks, include perseverance, thoroughness and a willingness to change. "I'm probably more flexible in how I approach things today than I was earlier," he explains. "I try to challenge myself to achieve more, to improve. I try to avoid complacency personally and professionally."
Still, Abel adds, "Most people see me as a pretty highly motivated, driven personality, primarily work- and goal-oriented. They would be surprised to see there are times when there's another side of me that's more relaxed, with interests beyond business."
If he were to give words of advice to the M.B.A. class of 1998, they would be these: "Constantly work on your communication skills. Be willing to challenge the status quo but have a sound rationale for doing so. Be flexible. You're not going to win every battle, so accept improvement rather than an absolute win/lose outcome. See that things can be accomplished in different ways; you're not going to get everyone to think like you do. Being able to motivate and lead - setting the ultimate standard - may be more important than setting the level of the goal itself. Once you get the momentum of a talented group of people working together, you may find that you've set the goal a little shorter than you should have."
This counsel also carries over to his three goals for FEI: communication, positioning and leveraging resources to provide outstanding products and services to members. "We need to be more focused and accessible and to enhance communication among chapters and individual members who have diverse demands on their time," he says. "We're positioning FEI as a vital, growing, flexible organization and, through standard-setting for the financial profession, the premier advocate for its member companies. And we're leveraging our resources to provide outstanding products and services members can take back and use in their companies. These include strategic partnerships, conferences, the FEI/Duke University survey, our partnership with Harvard and benchmarking with The Hackett Group.
"As we enter the millenium, this organization continues to grow and get better and better," says Abel. "I encourage others to join and become active at the local or national level. The members of this organization are all leaders. They're great contacts to bounce ideas off."
Working The World
For D. Peter Donovan, ideal dinner guests would include Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas and Bernard Lonergan, a Canadian Jesuit theologian and philosopher. Lonergan, who died in 1985, grappled with melding traditional philosophy and the findings of modern science.
"My interest in these philosophers is twofold," explains Donovan, the 1998-1999 chairman of Financial Executives Institute Canada. "They represent a development in a tradition from the realism of Aristotle to a methodology of knowing that attempts to integrate modern sciences in all their diversity. All three speak of true thinking resulting in right action or ethical behavior. So I think they're relevant today in business practices as well as in our personal lives."
Thus, it's not surprising that Donovan's own business leadership philosophy is simple and ethical: "Being fair is very important," he believes, "particularly when you deal with subordinates. You also must have flexibility, a good understanding of your industry and a certain cultural sensitivity." To those just starting out, he advises, "Get as great a variety of experience as possible, in several cultural settings. Work the world."
Donovan was named comptroller of General Electric in 1987 and comptroller and treasurer in 1992; since 1994, he also has been vice president and comptroller of General Electric Capital Canada, which has assets of more than $7 billion and is the corporate vehicle through which some 15 of the GE Capital businesses carry on their Canadian activities. He has been a member of FEI's Toronto Chapter since 1985 and also belongs to the Canadian Institutes of Chartered Accountants and the National Council of Financial Executives. He holds a B.A. from the University of Toronto and an M.B.A. from the University of Western Ontario. Donovan relaxes with music, plays the piano and is active in the local Toastmasters Club. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have two sons, aged 27 and 24.
With all that on his plate, why does he choose to play a leadership role in FEI? He says, "I joined FEI for networking opportunities, so it's a question of giving back what you get: advice, association, people to talk with on particular matters and an opportunity to get to know experts in various aspects of financial management. Membership broadens your horizons."
He began his career in 1968 as a financial specialist with Alcan International. "I started out being good at math, got a job in public accounting and moved into financial management," he says. "People would be surprised to know that I've done business in French and Portuguese," adds Donovan (although he says his fluency is a thing of the past), "and worked and lived 10 years overseas: four years in Brazil and six in Ireland."
He sees Y2K preparedness as a major global issue facing all FEI members. In Canada, he thinks, revision of the retirement system and wise use of government surpluses also take center stage. "And," he adds, "with the evolving technology front, we have to ensure that members are up-to-date."
His goals during his tenure include reaching out to new members and satisfying the needs of the current membership for appropriate products and services. He also thinks more members should attend board meetings and looks forward to FEI's 68th annual conference in Vancouver from May 26-29, 1999.