Jennifer Biry has been at the right place for a long time. The 36-year-old joined SBC in 1999 after graduating from Texas Lutheran University and jumped to some big jobs before and since the telecommunications company merged with AT&T. As executive director for executive operations at SBC, she was responsible for the planning and integration of its 2005 acquisition of AT&T, and she took on the same responsibility when SBC, by then renamed AT&T, acquired BellSouth in 2006. She was also involved in the company's initial implementation of Sarbanes-Oxley.
Biry is now responsible for financial management, planning and reporting for the $21 billion consumer wireline business of $123 billion AT&T.
How did you come to working in finance?
I've always had a knack for numbers. I was going for a bachelor's degree in business administration and a professor of mine suggested I sit for the CPA exam. Understanding the financials, he felt, was a great way to get your foot in the door of any company and build a career. So I took his advice. I came to AT&T and started off in the accounting department and didn't stay there for very long.
What's been your biggest challenge or learning experience?
The biggest challenge was implementing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. It was so different from anything that we'd done and there were no real defined guidelines. But at the same time, it was a great learning opportunity. I learned a lot about the company and the processes that impact the financials.
What's been your most rewarding project so far?
I really found the merger integration work to be very rewarding for me personally because we spent time looking not just at the integration of the financials but at the impact of our decisions on the customers and the employees.
What surprised you about the merger integration?
I was surprised at how complex a process it is. There were so many different places that we had to touch and so many different things to consider. So I guess I was surprised by the enormity of it. And I probably would've been a lot more scared going into it had I realized that!
Those were some of the largest mergers in corporate history.
In the AT&T-SBC merger, I was planning the integration of all the finance function. Then after the deal closed, I was responsible for ensuring we acted on those pre-merger plans. And because I was sitting in that chair a year later when we acquired BellSouth, I was put in charge of the project management for all the pre-merger planning.
That must have offered a good learning curve. What did you learn between the first merger and the second?
That it's always easier the second time around. The first one, we had a few more pickups, because obviously you can't think of everything. With the second merger, we were able to apply the lessons of that first experience.
What do you like best about your job?
Being at AT&T, there are always a variety of projects to work on. In my current role, I'm the CFO for the consumer wireline unit. What I like about this role is that I'm able to use my financial skills to partner with other business units to drive change.
Is this your first operating experience?
I've been a CFO for smaller business units, but never for anything this large. This is a $21 billion revenue unit. It's a big leap, but a lot of fun.
Did you have a mentor? If so, how important was that?
I've had mentors. AT&T supports mentorship. And it encourages mentor and mentee, because at different times in your career, you are in different places. It's critical to have someone to go to who can offer some guidance and be a sounding board.
What advice would you give newbies starting out in treasury and finance now?
Two things: First, find the opportunities that are right for you as an individual. It's great for people lay out different paths and to have guidance, but you really have to find something that fits your needs and matches your strengths. I haven't followed the traditional accounting career path, but it's paid off for me.
Second: Focus on being the very best that you can be in your current assignment. When you do that, people will seek you out for promotion because they want you to be part of their organization.
What finance area now offers the most opportunity?
I think there's a lot of opportunity in the business units or corporate finance.
What skills at the most sought after now?
Good financial and analytical skills are foundational. But to be truly successful in corporate finance, the skills that are really needed are good communications, leadership qualities, and an understanding of operations.
What skills of your own would you like to improve?
Communications. As finance people, the way to impact business is by improving our communications skills. So that rather than just reporting the numbers, we apply them to communicate solutions.