“It’s amazing how your perception changes of what ‘far’ is when you’re in a job like this” says Shane Fitzsimons who estimates that he flies 100,000 miles every quarter; “that’s like travelling from London to New York ten times a month.”
In his role for Global Growth one of the largest organisations in the world, GE, merits his busy travel schedule. Shane leads a team of 4,000 in 75 countries in total, ranging from Africa and Latin America to Asia and the Middle East.
A million miles from training in his father’s practice as a Chartered Accountant in Cork, Ireland in the late 1980s, Shane comments “as the eldest child I kind of expected I’d end up managing the practice and staying there – so, yes, things have ended up slightly differently. But there again, anything I’ve thought would happen in my career generally hasn’t – which is why I rarely worry about what happens next.”
Supported by his father who identified the continued demand for practice accountants with industry experience, Shane got his first opportunity to work abroad. Shane took a spot on a European exchange programme for accountancy students, a programme that was yielding it difficult to fill spaces. It was this programme that brought Shane to Cooper & Lybrand in the Netherlands where he trained for six months.
The initial six months evolved into four years for Shane. He was then offered the chance to interview for another role in GE following an invite from an acquaintance who was returning to Canada. Shane accredits his broad range of experience to him securing the role, which began a rich career in GE Plastics for him. Shane initially began in general accountancy, he them moved to financial planning and analysis and finally into commercial finance.
It was at this point Shane identified his need to spend more time in the US if he was to further his career at GE. Shane took the step up to company executive when he secured a business analyst role in Fairfield, Connecticut, GE’s corporate headquarters. Following a spell in the firm’s aviation division in Cincinnati, Shane became Vice President for Corporate Financial Planning & Analysis in 2004 back in Fairfield.
A way of thinking
GE’s wide range of activities is significant, spanning transportation, energy, technology, finance, and healthcare, something which has never fazed Shane. “The biggest difference is short-cycle or flow businesses versus long-cycle big equipment businesses, plus also equipment versus service businesses. So you do end up with different financial models in terms of how each business operates. But otherwise finance is pretty fungible – certainly in terms of skillset because it’s a way of thinking as much as anything else.”
Shane firmly believes Chartered Accountancy has played a significant role in his ability to manage this variety of operations. “My Chartered Accountancy training ensured I am very strong technically, plus it provides a pretty good understanding of tax, treasury, financial systems and so on. As a Chartered Accountant, I’ve always been able to rely on my technical accounting skills and then combine that with my operational and commercial instincts.”
Shane secured the role of CFO for the company’s new Global Growth and Operations Group in 2011 which gave him the role of overseeing financial activities throughout the company’s non-US markets. For Shane this meant relocating to Hong Kong which would place him at the heart of the organisations fasted growing markets. “Fifty percent of the world’s population live within a six-hour flight of Hong Kong so it makes complete sense to be there. Effectively we had to create our team from scratch, which was a fantastic challenge.”
Shane’s new role maintained two aspects: ‘growth’ and ‘simplification’. In respect of growth, Shane along with financing teams across the world work in conjunction with GE’s commercial team to support the sales and project financing efforts. This in turn enables customer’s find competitive financing for large-scale projects, including anything from building airplanes to turbines.
“The simplification journey has been a huge part of the role,” says Shane. “Given that we had conducted over 400 M&A transactions and entered new markets and territories, there was a huge opportunity to take a fresh look at our processes and see if we could do more to make our approach effective and efficient. So we’ve worked with teams in corporate in the US, and across the different businesses, to redesign enterprise standards and to develop an implementation plan which we are in the process of executing right now.” This refers to GE’s shared service model which aspires to decrease the cost of execution and increase operational efficiency.
Keeping on top of such a vast remit spread across multiple markets is a skill in itself, Shane learned as non-US markets account for 60% of GE’s industrial revenues. “You recognise pretty early on that transactions happen at a country level not a regional level and so you need to be very good on the ground in each country in which you operate, which means hiring good senior people to be there. Also, as a leader, you have to recognise that you can’t be everywhere but you do need to be very visible. You have to be able to manage your team from the road and you almost have to over-communicate. People have to know what you’re doing – because if they don’t, they’ll make their own assumptions.”
Shane’s team maintained their own blog to manage communication, a blog which has 3,000 followers across GE: “It means everyone in the team gets to hear everything at the same time – plus teams back in the US can see what’s happening in our growth markets.”
Shane left Ireland over 20 years ago but living internationally hasn’t been a challenge for him. “The hardest thing to deal with is the disruption to your children’s education – everything else is very manageable. But if you asked me where’s home, it’s hard to say: Deirdre and I would both say Ireland, our kids would probably say the US.”
Small and connected
Nineteen years working for GE, the company continues to inspire Shane. “The things I really like about GE are the people, the way it operates and all the great support you get from senior management. It’s a huge company with over 300,000 employees worldwide, but it feels small and connected. Plus the company keeps investing in you, no matter how senior you are. So for example, in each of the last two years I’ve been able to take a week out for training and development in areas like leadership explorations, and that continues to improve how I approach things.”
GE accommodates training-in-industry programmes in markets such as Canada and India for employees, their way of strongly supporting Chartered Accountants. “We once counted how many Chartered Accountants there are at GE and it was a big number,” says Shane. “The combination of the qualification and the experience that goes with it makes Chartered Accountants very attractive to us.”
Shane, like his Father before him, strongly believes that it is experience that will give a Chartered Accountant the edge. He adds, “the theoretical side of things is great but it’s balancing that with practical work experience while you are studying that makes Chartered Accountancy training relevant.”
GE’s biggest strengths are in its ability to advance operational finance leaders according to Shane. “Here talent will start on the financial management programme, join the corporate audit staff, spend some time in finance and then move onto something more operational. Our finance people aren’t in a backroom – they are out there, understanding different markets and getting transactions done. That’s the secret of success.”
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