It was roughly 10 years ago when Brian Wenzel realized that his coveted and time-tested career path inside GE Capital had become somewhat fogged over.
He was not alone. Somewhere between the economic downturn and GE’s headline-grabbing restructuring, Wenzel and his career-building colleagues had seen their traditional corporate career ladder begin to disappear in a haze of uncertainty.Read More
“I learned a lot through this time that helped me to develop as a leader. I’m not sure that I enjoyed things quite as much in ’09 or ’10, but this really was a situation that honed my skills to perform in a difficult and adverse situation,” says Wenzel, who at the time was CFO of the retail card unit—a position that he would keep after GE Capital split off its retail lending arm to form Synchrony Financial in 2014.
At the time, Wenzel recalls, he shared his future CFO aspirations in a meeting with Synchrony CEO Margaret Keane and then-CFO Brian Doubles.
“Hey, listen, my goal is to be the CFO of this company—I love this company” are the words that Wenzel remembers using to demonstrate his commitment to Synchrony and in part to restore the career path that had for a short but trying time seemed to disappear.
“This journey took me a long time, but along the way, I had this North Star that I was following for my career. I was creating different experiences that built out my capabilities and skills in order to be ready for the CFO moment when it came,” he explains, adding that he had been given the “Deputy CFO” moniker in 2018.
Then, in May of 2019—when Doubles vacated the CFO office after having been named company president—Wenzel’s moment arrived. His appointment as CFO of Synchrony, coming nearly 20 years after he joined GE Capital, might appear on paper as a straight line, but like the paths of so many other CFOs whose careers cut through the economic disruption and massive corporate restructurings of the early 2000s, Wenzel’s route did include some drama.
“In any crisis, whether an economic one or just a crisis within your company, rallying around it and not being afraid and instead saying, ‘Listen, I want to lead through it,’ is tremendous,” says Wenzel, reflecting on the mind-set that he adopted during the financial crisis and has assumed at other times during his career.
He adds: “I think that when you’re inside large companies like GE or others, there’s this whole thing about how to climb the stairs to get to the top. You want to be able to get up those stairs as quickly as possible and not fall.”
Asked what lessons he may have already learned as a CFO, Wenzel responds that while he originally thought that he might find questions from sell-side analysts “nerve-wracking,” he has since found thorough preparation to be an easy remedy. Still, when it comes to his new, outward-facing responsibilities, Wenzel says that one nagging thought is always top-of-mind: “I represent 17,000 employees, and you want to perform at your best when you represent them in public.”
Looking back, Wenzel says the CFO office first became a career goal “about 19 years ago, when I said that I wanted to be the CFO of a public company or a large division inside GE.”
As CFO of what was formerly a large GE unit that was split off and taken public, Synchrony’s CFO has arguably achieved both of his destination goals.
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(The following transcription has been edited for clarity)
CFOTL: Having splitout from GE- we would imagine there were certain business processes already in place, while others had to be reestablished or developed.
Wenzel: The processes that have been developed are probably the core part of our business. We had to build everything from scratch. Even the processes for things like very mundane benefits in HR, and paying people, and for some of the regulatory reporting–we had to build all that up. But we did take a process from GE that was a very good process in the credit risk world, a very traditional process. You go out and get underwriting scores from credit bureaus, you look at your data, you kind of put a score together, and you say yes or no.Read More
We have developed this process more and invested so much in it. Now we’re taking multiple data elements into consideration, including what we get from our partners. We have a thing called “engagements” through which we know how “Jack” is engaged with our retail partners before he engages with us, so we have an idea of who you are. We look at our 80 million active cardholders. You’re probably one of our active cardholders. We look at the information there. We have a much better picture. Then we take these other sources of data from different sources so that we can get more information on you. We use technology now to authenticate you. If you’re using your cell phone, we can prepopulate applications down to two different sources.
We’ve allowed these things to come in so that we know the customer better. We use the combination of data and technology and are then really able to put it into our credit operating model. This was very good under GE, but we have brought it really to a much higher-class standard.
For us, the next 12 months are really about creating the 2025 vision. What are the tools and technologies that we have to begin building now to be adaptable to the business and how the business is changing? The second thing that we’re trying to do is, again, to have this maniacal focus around customers and in getting value-added jobs out. We’re moving faster when it comes to the artificial intelligence and the robotic process automation that happens more in the controllership or accounting world and driving meaningful projects that will deliver results this year.