From Retrenchment to Enchantment

Former United Airlines CFO Kathryn Mikells is thrilled to finally be in a growth business.

With United Airlines and Continental Airlines now owned by a single holding company and expected to complete their merger next year, plenty of executive positions have become redundant. But the CFO who departed last October, United’s Kathryn Mikells, didn’t shed many tears.

Upon her exit from the friendly skies, Mikells took over the top finance job at a far less visible public company, Nalco, a $4 billion player in the commercial water and energy sustainability industry. Although at United she piled up enough experience for a lifetime in finance — serving stints as head of corporate real estate, treasury, financial planning and analysis, and finally investor relations before being named CFO in 2008, when the company was on the precipice of disaster — she’s quite happy to be in a growth industry.

“Not well known by the public, but an incredibly strong business with great growth prospects and very good profitability and cash flow? I’ll take that any day of the week,” she says.

Not that moving to an entirely different type of business, after being at United for 16 years, doesn’t present its challenges, which Mikells discussed in a recent interview with CFO. An edited version of that interview follows.

What was your job-hunting strategy?

Having worked in a consumer service–oriented industry for a long time, I was really interested in doing something different. I was specifically looking to get into a commercial industry that was very well positioned globally. United provides global service, but it doesn’t have the complexity of a global industrial company. It operates under bilateral agreements between countries that give it a much-simplified tax structure. I wanted that greater complexity.

Kathryn Mikells

I was also looking for a company that had very good growth prospects. The airline industry had been retrenching almost the entire time I was in it; a lot of the activity was about shrinking rather than growing. I wanted to use my portable finance skills in a different context where I could both add value and further broaden my experience. Nalco was a very good fit for that.

Still, the transition must have been something of a culture shock after so many years at United.

There are some things about Nalco that made the transition easier than you might think. In addition to its strong business model and being a very healthy company, the management team has a good mixture of people who have been with Nalco for a long time and bring a lot of credibility, and people newer to the company or its industry that are bringing new thinking to the table. That is a powerful combination.

There seems to be a long-running debate over how portable finance skills really are. Certainly in some industry sectors, like technology, manufacturing, health care, and retail, finance executives almost always stick around. What’s your view?

I think that skills are portable overall. Certainly longevity in an industry can be helpful in knowing how to get things done, and when moving to a new one you’ve got to work hard to overcome that. But many folks are capable of doing it.

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