Articles

EMBA Distinguished Speaker Series

By Keith Morelli

TAMPA (Nov. 4, 2016) -- If you think a degree in accounting means long days hunkered down in front of a computer gazing over eye-numbing spreadsheets or punching an endless litany of numbers on a calculator, you haven't heard Kimberly Ross' story.

The '92 University of South Florida business college graduate had an exciting finance career that has included jobs in Europe, New York and now Houston, crunching numbers of monster companies in good times and bad and negotiating mergers both friendly and hostile.

Ross returned to USF to speak at the monthly Distinguished Speaker Series at the Muma College of Business. In attendance: a crowd of about 50 people, mostly Executive MBA students along with a sprinkling of alumni, faculty and USF Foundation board members.

To be sure, her exciting career as CFO for a handful of rather large companies may be the exception to the rule, but maybe not.
She started out locally with Anchor Glass Container Corporation, where she had to deal with and straighten out fraud in a plant in Pennsylvania.

A few years later, she found herself in NYC with Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, the spirit maker that had several other business holdings in markets that stretched around the globe.

Ross, who received the USF Distinguished Alumni Award in 2014, said she was managing Seagram's treasury operations in Latin America and Asia Pacific when the owner of the company decided to get into the entertainment industry. And soon, Ross, who had risen through a series of audit, treasure and corporate finance positions, was dealing with musicians and actors.

One musician in South America used a can of spray paint to sign a contract, then finished the can by spray painting the walls of Ross' office and hallway.

"That was my world working in entertainment," she said, adding that she had to keep two sets of clothes; one business attire her accounting work and the other, "a pair of jeans with holes in them," to mix with the artists.

"That was a very fascinating and interesting business," she told the audience.

Then Joseph Seagram wanted to get into the music delivery business, to research ways people could listen to music on their phones (this was back in the 90s when there were no iPods or iTunes or smart phones) and he decided to sell the company to Vivendi and sell off the spirits portion of the company. That was difficult to do, Ross said.

"The company had to be split up and that was really tough, to break up this company," she said. "That was the foundation of the family business."

Within a few years, she was approached by a recruiter who had an offer of a job in Europe for Royal Ahold N.V., a Netherlands-based international group of supermarkets, one the largest food retailers on the planet with annual revenues of $70 billion. At the time, Europe was converting to the Euro, and Ross seized on the opportunity.

"I was thinking this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Ross said. "Who gets that opportunity, right?"

Then as things were settling in, and Ross was negotiating with bankers for a routine $3 billion loan to refinance some debt, fraud surfaced in the company's U.S. branch. Initially, it was believed to be $250 million, but eventually it rose to $1 billion.

Bankers helped to finance the company as it began to spiral. Adding to that, she said, a criminal bribery case cropped up.

"It was all hands on deck to save the company," she said. "And we did. We had to sell off a lot of it, but we kept it out of bankruptcy," And eventually, the company began making a profit again, all with Ross behind the numbers.

"One thing I learned from that," she said, "is that a strategy of being the biggest is not always the best strategy."

Her expected two-year job in Europe turned into 10 years, she said and she began itching to get back to the States.

"It was time to do something else," she said. That's when Avon came knocking.

Avon CEO Andrea Jung wanted Ross to handle the finances and to clear up some minor shortfall issues in Brazil and Ross was impressed with Jung, as a person, so much, she took the job.

A week after Ross started, Jung resigned. And the company suddenly was facing a possible takeover bid by the cosmetics giant Coty, a threat that eventually died. And Ross settled into finance as usual.

And within a few years, Ross was approached by Baker Hughes the energy giant in Texas.

"I knew nothing about oil and gas," she said. That was fine, the CEO told her. The company was looking for an outsider with fresh ideas. Ross took the job.

She took a much-needed two weeks off between jobs and as she dug her toes into the sand at Clearwater Beach and sipped on a cold beer, she got a call four days before her start date.

"They said Halliburton wanted to take over the company," Ross said, and she was asked to get to Houston as quickly as possible to start her job early.

That began an 18-month process of managing through a merger process wish which Halliburton which eventually failed due to lack of antitrust approval.

Now Baker Hughes is merging with GE and she's been mired in that process, which is going much smoother, she said.
"
We're merging and we're pretty excited about it," she said, "and that's what I've been doing this week."

She concluded with some words of advice for the MBA class:

"Have confidence in your abilities. People put us in these positions because they believe in us."