For some finance executives, sticking with a company over the years can bring an unexpected variety of experiences and exposures, and that’s particularly true if it’s a company like Lear Corp., the $12 billion global manufacturer of automotive seating and electrical power management systems.
“Finance is especially important in the automotive sector,” says Shari Burgess, Lear’s treasurer and vice president. “It requires a broad business perspective, including understanding the company’s products and cost structures, and the perspective of lenders and customers. Finance needs to be the voice of reason, providing unbiased opinions based on data that consider the views of all constituents—external investors and customers as well as internal operations. You get a great, mature business judgment as a result.”
Burgess joined Lear’s finance department in 1992, after working as an audit manager at Ernst & Young. At the time, Southfield, Mich.-based Lear was a privately held automotive seat assembly supplier with $1.4 billion in revenue.
Over the next six years, Burgess worked on valuations for 16 separate acquisitions. “I got to see almost every functional team through the treasury department,” she says. “My boss, Lear’s treasurer, raised his hand to get involved with all acquisitions. I didn’t see traditional treasury activities for a few years.”
Burgess was named Lear’s treasurer in 2002, during a decade of unique challenges and opportunities for the company. In 2007, a private-equity-led $5.3 billion buyout offer for Lear saw Burgess deeply involved with a group of highly influential Wall Street investors, Lear’s management team and its board of directors on matters of strategic options and financing.
In the end, Lear’s shareholders rejected the buyout offer. “We had a great opportunity to learn with one of the best teams on Wall Street,” says Burgess. “We were very pleased that they had not proposed a material change in the strategic direction of the company. We were addressing the right issues.”
Shortly thereafter, Lear encountered unprecedented challenges with the collapse of the financial markets, global recession and the wave of automotive sector bankruptcies. Even before these events, Burgess says Lear had begun to react to changes in industry dynamics. As early as 2005, the company started to proactively restructure its operations, with a new focus on reducing costs, including moving component manufacturing overseas.
By mid-2009, however, the turmoil in the financial markets and the automotive sector forced Lear into a pre-negotiated bankruptcy. The challenge for management was maintaining control over the bankruptcy process while continuing to compete for new business and convincing existing and new customers that the company would emerge intact, Burgess says.
Lear, which had more than $3 billion in debt before the bankruptcy, emerged from the four-month process with less than $1 billion in debt. “We came out of the bankruptcy with one of the strongest balance sheets in the industry,” Burgess says.
The restructuring helped pave the way for the company’s current rebound. “Since the bankruptcy, we have had six consecutive quarters of year-over-year financial performance improvement,” she says. “Going forward, we are well-positioned to benefit from the growth in the global automotive industry.”
Burgess is optimistic about the opportunities for women in finance, compared to the situation when she began her career nearly three decades ago. “Women and men today have a multitude of choices. Women now comprise the majority of all undergraduate and graduate students in the U.S.,” she says. “I think the challenge for companies is to attract, mentor, develop and retain women if they want their companies to comprise the best and brightest.”
See the complete coverage of Treasury & Risk's 2011 Women in Finance list here.