Eager to learn about business? Be careful what you wish for. Matthew White, 38, the treasurer at $9 billion Praxair, says his biggest learning experience was working at GenTek as the company went through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
"During that process, you learn what really makes a business tick, and not tick," White says. "You really strip it down to the basic business.
"Normally, you have a lot of SEC and accounting requirements that can complicate things, but in a bankruptcy, you just have monthly operating reports, which are essentially cash flow reports from the trustee," he says. "So the business is run for cash, and you learn a lot about a business that way."
White was appointed treasurer of Praxair, an industrial gases company in Danbury, Conn., in August after serving as controller since 2008. He joined Praxair in 2004 as finance director of its largest business unit, North American Industrial Gases. Earlier, White served as vice president of finance at Fisher Scientific and worked in finance positions, including group controller, at GenTek.
White says that although he earned a degree in industrial engineering from Penn State, he had always planned to get an M.B.A., which he did from the University of Delaware. "I was always attracted to finance," he says. "It touches every aspect of the business."
What has been your most rewarding project so far?
The most rewarding thing for me has been getting to work in a diversity of roles. Even though I wanted to be in finance, I never had a specific role in mind as a goal, so I ended up doing a lot of things--accounting, controller, treasurer, and also some non-finance things. Early on, as an engineer, for instance, I was sent overseas to Shanghai and to a greenfield operation in Costa Rica, where I had to handle everything from infrastructure planning, legal agreements, shipping routes, and so on.
How has being a controller helped you in your new role as treasurer?
It's not that common to see people be both a controller and a treasurer. Both share the basic functions of accounting and finance, so you're seeing the same issues, but from different sides. With treasury, it's more capital and banking, while as controller, you're dealing with SEC reporting and accounting requests.
What do you like best about your job?
I'm still new in the position of treasurer, but I'm really interested in getting more deeply involved in the capital markets aspect of the job.
How did you get on the career fast track?
From my perspective, I think I grew up fast from being in a lot of challenging situations and the bankruptcy. I had a lot of adversity to deal with early on, and was given a lot of responsibility early. That, I think, helped to fast track my career.
Did you have a mentor? If so, how important was that?
In every role I've been in, there was always someone in operations or finance I could consider a mentor. The biggest help you get is with learning the politics and culture of a company. My favorite quote is one I heard that says, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." People would help me understand other people in an organization, and that's really important, especially if you move from one company to another.
Now I find myself also in the role of mentor. That is a kind of evolution. Developing people in their careers is an important aspect of the job.
What advice would you give newbies starting out in treasury and finance now?
Learn your business and how it makes money. Too often, people learn the technical skills and think that's enough, but you need to know how your company works, and then apply your technical skills to it. Also, you need to be a partner in the business, not just someone operating in one function. People try to be step-by-step with a career plan. But I find jobs you take that you never expected to have can be really important to your career development.
What finance area now offers the most opportunity?
With all the changes in accounting, whether or not we adopt IFRS in the U.S., that's an area that will generate a lot of opportunities. Also treasury. Given the crisis, people have woken up and are realizing, "Hey, we've got to know where our money is at all times!" So even though this crisis has caused some job losses, it also creates new job opportunities.
What skills are the most sought after now?
I think technical skills are sort of table stakes--they open the door, but what gets you inside is broad experience. Being business-savvy separates the top candidate from the average candidate. So if you've got breadth of knowledge and experience, you'll do better.
What skills of your own would you like to improve?
One thing I've been working on and continue to work on is tax. I've been doing a lot with international tax. That's an area where there's a lot of opportunity--and a lot of risk. Every time you get pushed out of your comfort zone, you learn.