A Light Bulb Moment! Interview with Shane Fizsimons, GE
“It was a toss up between going back to Ireland or moving into Industry. I stumbled on a role in GE, as Manager of European Reporting in GE’s Advanced Materials division.” Thirteen years later Shane Fitzsimons is still with GE. He talks to Shane McGinley about life as an Irish CA in one of the world’s most respected multinationals.
Shane Fitzsimons’ father Garry has a practice in Kinsale in Cork. Fitzsimons himself admits that, like many children in the 1960s whose fathers had prominent careers it was “a logical step” that he would also become a Chartered Accountant. However when he entered CIT to do his commencement course nobody could have predicted that he would become Vice President of Financial Planning for the General Electric Company, one of the world’s oldest and most prominent companies, which generated $152.4 billion of revenue in 2004, operates in more than 100 countries and employs more than 300,000 people worldwide including some 2,200 in Ireland! GE is the world's most valuable company in terms of market cap.
The story behind the General Electric Company (GE) itself is also quite fascinating to begin with. The company traces its beginnings back to Thomas A. Edison, who established Edison Electric Light Company in 1878. GE is the only company listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Index today that was also included in the original index in 1896.
“We were probably the least well known global company in Europe,” admits Fitzsimons and this can be explained by the fact that they had previously not heavily branded the GE name. However if you went to see King Kong or Brokeback Mountain or Steven Spielberg’s Munich GE are behind them. If you fly in a plane GE may have built the engine, if you have personal loan or credit card, e it could be GE Money, if you go for a CAT Scan or MRI it could be GE Healthcare equipment, if you were scared by the Jaws ride in Universal Pictures theme park or watch Will & Grace, Scrubs, Law & Order, ER or Friends it was all GE! The company also has it fingers in a lot of other worldwide pies from plastics to security, from water desalination to healthcare and from commercial finance to environmentally sensitive power.
In the hundred years and a bit that GE has been in operation it has developed a reputation as a good company to work for. “There is strong foundation and we have renewed ourselves more than a couple of times,” adds Fitzsimons. The company was ranked first in the Financial Times’ 2004 “World’s Most Respected Companies Survey” for the seventh consecutive year and in Fortune Magazine’s 2005 “Global Most Admired Companies” list, GE ranked first overall.
In the inaugural “Barron’s Investor Survey” of the most-and least-respected global companies GE took top position with the highest average score and also, by a wide margin, the largest proportion of investors saying that they “highly respect” the company, at 63%. The survey awarded GE for “their commitment to employee development and promotion from within and lauded GE’s consistent ability to convert its vast cash flow into net income by savvy capital allocation.”
“It is very important,” says Fitzsimons, “we have focused a lot on governance.” In light of recent global company scandals corporate governance and compliance is not just a way of doing business but a reality. “We have made ourselves more transparent, especially when you look at how our annual report disclosures have increased over the last few years. They are probably more than double what they were.”
“We have our basis or core philosophy a code of conduct which every employee has to sign and an updated acknowledgement of that every year. In respect to compliance it is one strike and you’re out for everyone.”
However Fitzsimons believes that the key to GE’s success has been its top to bottom approach and every employee from the CEO down buys into the compliance culture. At the end of the day it only takes one mistake to tarnish a good reputation.
Fitzsimons’ current role has two primary dimensions. Firstly, at a total company level, he supports the CEO and CFO through the key planning sessions, strategic and tactical and secondly, closing the books, running the worldwide consolidation, establishing operating plans, measuring the businesses, and understanding performance.
“Each day brings a new set of challenges,” he states, “and you never know quite what to expect. On any given day I can go from working on overall strategy, to capital allocation, to assessing the financial impacts of new legislation, to reviewing an acquisition target, or assessing the current performance of a specific business unit.”
The breadth and depth of GE businesses means that the job is very diverse however Fitzsimons believes being a Chartered Accountant is a good background to have if you want to move between different market types.
“Finance is unique in that you can carry your skill set from one sector to another, so I have worked in plastics, aircraft engines and in my corporate role I have exposure to all the businesses.”
At the end of the day while working out numbers may be the same across businesses there are subtle differences between some markets.
For example in the plastics market it is more short term, so more susceptible to changes in the economy in general so if the price of oil changes then the price of the raw material changes so you have to react quickly. Fitzsimons contrasts this with the aircraft design market where you sow the seed 10 years before you reap the reward and as it is more engineering and technology based it has longer cycles and decisions you make made today you don’t see any outcome for nearly 10 years. Of course there are always anomalies like the September 11th attacks which mean you have to make quick and drastic decision in response to unforeseen market changes.
Across the company Fitzsimons says the “unique thing is the culture is shared and GE is very good at sharing best practices across all its businesses.” The company also has a “Corporate Executive Council” to make sure there is continuity and consistency of focus across company wide initiatives.
Born in 1967, Fitzsimons’ formative years were spent in Belfast, Manchester, and ultimately Kinsale. After finishing at Rockwell College in 1986, he was fortunate to do his articles through the 2 year commencement course at CIT and at Fitzsimons Flynn and Company, where his father Garry was a partner. “With a family history in the profession, my first steps into accounting made sense. Most of what transpired since has been accidental,” he recalls.
A student conference in Amsterdam, through his involvement with ACASSI, resulted in a 6 month, busy season assignment with Coopers & Lybrand in Rotterdam. The Netherlands is the European headquarters of a large number of multinational corporations, so Fitzsimons’ work proved to be varied and interesting, but after 4 years with Coopers and Lybrand, he was ready to do something different.
“It was a toss up between going back to Ireland or moving into Industry. I stumbled on a role in GE, as Manager of European Reporting in GE’s Advanced Materials division. I thought maybe I would work for GE for 2 or 3 years, before heading back, and that my latest experiment would be just another diversion on the road back home.” This diversion lasted a little longer as in March he will be with GE for 13 years.
Fitzsimons technical background was a great entry point into GE but it was clear that he needed to broaden his core financial skills into areas such as financial planning and analysis, manufacturing finance, commercial finance, and treasury.
“My managers at GE were very supportive, and over the next 6 years, I took a number of roles, mostly promotional, but some lateral to build out my experience. In addition to incredible mentoring support, GE also invested heavily in my training and put me onto the Experienced Financial Leadership Program (EFLP), which was a 16- week training commitment over 2 years.” This echoes back to the sentiments currently highlighted by the Barron’s Investor Survey.
At the start of 2000, he took the opportunity to move from the Netherlands to the US for a short-term assignment at GE’s corporate headquarters, in Fairfield, Connecticut, as a business analyst in Financial Planning and Analysis.
The move to corporate headquarters is a strategy used a lot by GE to help the employee learning about the total company, and get assessed for his/her future potential. After a year he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to head up Financial Planning for GE Aircraft Engines. Here he eventually became the global CFO for Engine Services a $5B division of Aircraft Engines but in February 2004 he moved back to corporate.
“The unique blend of technical and practical training through the Institute’s curriculum has really stood to me. Whether it is consolidation principles, foreign currency translation, financial management, legal principles or taxes I lean into my training everyday.” However in hindsight if he could recommend one bit of advice he would say that the curriculum could have more exposure to US accounting standards. He believes this would help not only to the 400 or so members in the US, but also the many members who work with US companies either domestically or internationally, in both industry or in practice.
Fitzsimons is married to Deirdre, also from Cork, who has a PhD in cardiology. They have 3 children, Keelin (7), Eoin (5) and Conor (1). Outside of family time he has a passion for golf, Manchester United and rugby. “We are fortunate to spend quite a bit of time in Ireland each year.” Having also travelled to over 60 countries plus he has come along way from Cork, but then so has General Electric since Edison lit the first lightbulb and it seems to have been mutually beneficial for both!
Shane McGinley is a freelance journalist.