Colleen Ostrowski, treasurer and vice president of investor relations at $2 billion ITT Corp., recently helped achieve what some in her organization, including Ostrowski herself at times, thought might be impossible—carving three investment-grade companies out of the legacy $11 billion diversified manufacturer within one year.
Over the course of 2011, ITT shunted its defense and water businesses into separate companies, Exelis and Xylem, and emerged a trimmer company with four never-before combined business lines that manufacture products for the energy, aerospace, and transportation industries, among others. At the end of the year, each of the three companies had an investment-grade rating as a result of Ostrowski’s careful oversight of structure and balance sheet.
The successful spinoff is one of the accomplishments Ostrowski is proudest of. She also counts it among her greatest learning experiences, because it showed her the structure and strengths of each business and allowed her to communicate that to the investment community. That experience in taking a lead role in communicating with the rating agencies and investors led to Ostrowski’s taking on an additional role in investor relations this year.
“It helps me be a better treasurer, because it helps me get closer to the businesses,” she says. “Because I understand the businesses so well, I am able to help promote the right treasury policies and practices. And then also being close to the feedback from the investor community helps me with the capital allocation process. It’s a win-win.”
Ostrowski, 39, spent 10 years in finance and treasury at Pfizer prior to joining ITT in 2010.
How did you come to work in finance?
When I went into business school, I expected to go into marketing. That’s what I had done prior to business school. I really liked it, and I thought that’s where my talents were. But in my first finance class, I realized I was much more interested in finance and much stronger at it. I took the opportunity to work at Pfizer as an intern over the summer, where I ended up in treasury, and really fell in love with it.
I was able to go back after I finished business school, and I went through a finance rotational program, where you spend six months in four different areas, including treasury, in the pension area; Pfizer’s treasury center in Dublin; and manufacturing finance. I especially enjoyed the pension environment.
You had a key role in working on Pfizer's pension assets and plan. Do you do the same at ITT?
ITT prior to the spin had a very large pension plan [with $4 billion in assets]. I was the chair of our investment committee. I took some of my learnings from Pfizer and brought them to ITT. ITT had a more aggressive investment stance, which resulted in some liquidity concerns at times. So we worked on marrying assets and liabilities while still trying to get outsized returns. Then, as part of the spin-off, we decided that the large pension plan would go to Exelis, the defense business. We have a very small pension now at ITT [with $200 million in assets], so there’s not as much diversification.
It was a very complicated process, and a time-constrained one, to spin out the defense and water businesses. We entered the year hoping to complete the process in less than a year, from announcement to close, and we did so. From the beginning, we had the dictate that we were going to create three balanced, attractive companies. And one of the ways we were measuring that was the investment-grade ratings.
I was responsible for recommending how we should split the assets and liabilities for the three companies. And in determining how best to present these companies to the rating agencies, we decided that it made sense for the defense business, which deals primarily with government contracts, to take on the large pension plan, and we would close it to the commercial businesses, the water and the ITT businesses. It also made sense that given the type of business the water business was going to be, because of their good cash flow in the U.S., they took on the financial debt. And with ITT being the legacy business, even though we were the smallest, we kept the legacy liabilities, asbestos and environmental. That’s how we balanced the liabilities, and we were able to achieve investment-grade ratings for all three. That was a real achievement, and that got us off to a good start.
After we got the investment-grade ratings, one of the next steps was setting up credit lines and new debt structures. For example, we paid off ITT’s existing debt and issued new debt in the name of Xylem. Then we set up commercial paper programs and credit revolvers. We were making sure they were preparing for success as stand-alone entities.
What was the greatest challenge or learning experience from the spinoffs?
The learning experience was in helping people, in the investment community and all the stakeholders, understand the new ITT. These four business segments that make up ITT today were not operating together as a stand-alone business before, and so it’s really helping people understand what the new company is and all the growth opportunity in it.
Why did you recently take on investor relations?
It allows me to help promote the ITT story, and explain what this business was to the investing public. During the spin, I got to understand these businesses very well. As well, there are many synergies between treasury and investor relations. And you see them managed together in smaller companies.
Thinking back on your career so far, what is the most important lesson you have learned?
That the management team is very important. One of the reasons I stayed with ITT with the spin is because this management team has the highest integrity of any management team I’ve ever seen. I’ve found throughout my career that the tone set at the top really does trickle through the entire organization. It’s really important that you work for an organization you have a lot of faith in.
Have you had mentors along the way?
[CEO] Denise Ramos has been a wonderful mentor to me. She’s a great role model professionally, and also as a woman. Having a mentor is very important. Across my entire career I’ve had mentors, and I’ve sought them out even if there wasn’t a formal program.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out in finance?
Always look for your manager. You want someone you can learn from and who’s not necessarily only trying to make a name for themselves, but who can help develop you. Also, take the position that may not be the sexiest job, but where you’re really going to learn.
Anything you would want to share with readers on achieving (or striving for) work/life balance?
I have to give a call out to my spouse. Your partner makes it possible. My husband is extremely supportive. When you have a supportive spouse or partner, it makes it much more enjoyable, and you can achieve that balance, I think.