Erika Taurel, 39, started her career as an engineer working on offshore oil rigs in both the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico for Shell International, before switching to finance. "I got really specialized," says Taurel, adding that at the age of 29, she realized she was one of 10 people in the world who did a particular kind of work.
"I'd boxed myself in," she says. "So I went back to business school. Coming from an engineering background, operational finance was a very natural progression because it combines two skills: a facility with numbers and a curiosity at how things work."
Taurel joined Pfizer in 2002 and her tasks at the $50 billion drug company have included restructuring the worldwide biopharmaceutical unit; financial reporting and oversight of the Wyeth integration for the $23 billion primary care business; and risk management, budgeting and forecasting for Europe, Canada, Latin American and Middle East regions.
"My engineering background made things relatively easy for me in the beginning," she says. "But the real key was finding a strong mentor."
Tell us about this mentor and why he was so important.
This person became my boss three or four years ago. It was at a time when I was making a very important transition into a leadership role. And he stretched me. I used to joke that he'd set the bar for me, and then just when I had almost reached that level, he'd raise it another notch.
What's been your biggest challenge or learning experience?
I think the greatest challenge has been dealing with many, many different cultures. My personal challenge has been to understand that there are many different ways of approaching a conversation. So working on my soft skills has been my biggest personal challenge, but also my biggest success.
What do you like best about your job?
The freedom to do the things that are right and right for the business. While there are obviously very strict rules in which we play, there are also opportunities to say, this would be better this or have we thought about it that way.
What advice would you give newbies starting out in treasury and finance now?
First, always look for opportunities that grow you and that open doors for you. The second would be: Find the stuff that you love to do. And thirdly, believe in yourself and find a mentor who does, too.
What finance area now offers the most opportunity?
That's hard for me to answer. But I would say in general that businesses are so much harder to operate that management needs much more insight to make good decisions. Numbers can provide the insights they need.
If you look at any business in the world, there are more opportunities for finance to take the lead and provide insight--not just provide financial sheets, but the perspective or story on what those sheets are saying. I often tell my team that it's not about showing volumes of numbers; rather, it's how would you communicate this question or decision to your mother?
What skills are the most sought after now?
Synthesis. Business savvy. Leadership skills are essential, even though that's not something you would think about in a finance professional. The more a person is able to think about the business and not just the finances, the stronger they are. I think that is true of any CFO.
What are your goals in the coming years?
I am in a new role as the lead finance person for our U.S. consumer health business, which is a brand new business for me. It's a $1.2 billion business. My goals are to continue to have a positive impact at Pfizer, and to help my colleagues realize their full potential.