The Executive Seminars

The First Executive Seminar series to kick off the International Conference was led by a series of several of today’s insightful business leaders.  To my delight, I was assigned the task of observing the seminars and recording my experience.  My overall impression from this adventure is that these business leaders represent a tremendous variety of industries, businesses, and ideas.  While I caught a glimpse of the breadth of these speakers, the small cohorts of students got a chance to better understand a single industry or aspect of doing business in much greater depth by staying with a single speaker for nearly an hour.

My first stop was with Mehmood Khan, the Vice Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer for PepsiCo.  After introductions, Khan opened his talk, by speaking about the importance of loving one’s job.  He asserted that if one doesn’t wake up every morning, excited to go to work, then he or she needs to switch jobs.  Khan then moved on to discuss his role at PepsiCo, where he deals with research & development, sustainability, maintaining high-quality inputs, and ensuring safety.  Emphasizing the gargantuan size of the company, Khan told his avid audience that Pepsi has more delivery trucks than UPS.  The discussion around the conference table then moved toward the importance of global thinking in our modern world.  To illustrate his point, Khan drew the room’s attention to the European Union’s lofty carbon emissions goal relating to food production.  The EU announced that it will meet its food needs for the next decade while remaining carbon footprint neutral.  However, this neutrality no longer exists when the carbon emissions calculations take into account the emissions in countries from which the EU imports food.  Khan insists that entrepreneurs, governments, regulators, and large businesses need to come together to fight this small mindedness and that the world needs to come together to fight truly global problems.

In the next room I found Lavaugn M. Henry, the Vice President and Senior Regional Officer of the Federal Reserve.  As I walked in, Henry was in the middle of an animated discussion about the benefits of innovation in the financial sector.  He listed the new payment systems for the exchange of goods as one of these innovations.  He then goes on to talk about the funding of mortgages.  Prompted by Henry, a student then explains the process of creating mortgage-backed securities.  Henry emphasizes the importance of this risk sharing in allowing people to obtain mortgages.  Making sure that every student in the room understands, Henry declares that risk transfer is at the center of the financial sector, and that the goal is to separate the use of funds from the source of funds.

Following this illuminating discussion, I wandered into a conference room led by Stephen Pack, the Presendent of Armadale Capital.  I immediately found him elaborating on the concept of healthcare capital.  As Pack defined it, healthcare capital is the “aggregate human skills (physical, intellectual, cultural managerial), financial assets and physical sources that can be utilized to improve a community’s healthcare.”  Pack then went on to inform his attentive audience that hospital capital is comprised of the different aspects that affect community health, particularly relating to improvements in the quality of health, morbidity, and mortality.

Wanting to get to as many seminars as I could, I quickly ducked out of that room and entered into Mechael P. Lyon’s presentation.  Lyons, the Executive Vice President of the PNC Financial Services Group, was in midst of a discussion about the effect of technology on the banking industry.  Lyon frankly announced that the banking industry is in a dinosaur position, under major attack.  According to Lyon, startup companies are trying to kill banks and Paypal, the owner of Venmo, is “public enemy number one.”  Explaining Venmo’s business strategy, Lyon tells the room that Venmo is essentially trying to cut out banks as intermediaries.  Lyon then explains that PNC, and the banking industry in general, are then put in the difficult position of trying to fight off these dis-intermmediaries, but simultaneously trying to avoid looking like they are trying to kill the modernization of the payment sector.

Tearing myself away from this frank talk, I entered a neighboring room where Jean Lu, an executive at Vanguard, was discussing the importance of having a long focus when investing.  According to Lu, one must be careful not to lock in losses by taking money out of the markets as prices fall.  She claimed, that if one does pull out of the markets as they fall, then he or she will most likely miss the subsequent rebound in prices.  This happened to many people during the Great Recession, when many the masses, reacting to sudden drops in price, pulled their money out of the markets, only to miss the incredible recovery.  Lu then recalled that she often has to tell clients to “hold on and be patient.”

In the next room I found Jody Hall, the Director of Sourcing Food for H-E-B.  According to Hall, H-E-B is one of the largest employers in Texas, and in this position, the company’s heavy emphasis on Corporate Conscience makes a big impact throughout the state.  Hall highlighted his company’s focus on being environmentally friendly, despite having an incredible slew of trucks roaming the Texas roads.  He then went on to discuss Operation Appreciation, a project which he is clearly exceedingly proud of.  Operation Appreciation is an annual community service project in which the company comes together and prepares newly built houses to be move-in-ready and then gives the keys to local wounded warriors.  Hall explains that this project is very powerful, and that H-E-B has worked to bring other prominent executives to the event in order to spread the idea across corporate America.

My next stop was with Janet Campagna, the CEO of QS Investors.  As I entered the room, Campagna appeared to be explaining what her company does and how they are different from similar firms.  According to Campagna, QS Investors monitors different financial markers and indicators.  The company then examines these indicators and tries to pinpoint another time in history when financial indicators were similar.  Next, with human oversight, the company runs mathematical models based on the indices.  Essentially, her company examines what investors care about and tries to tell the stories of past events in finance by using a mathematical approach.

Right across the hall I found Claude Draillard, the Vice President of Finance for Dassault Falcon Jet, in his element conversing with his group about the nuances of his industry.  From variations in flight costs, to variations in engine capacities, this room was certainly a change of pace.  The discussion drifted towards military aircrafts.  Being a French company, Draillard affirmed that the firm only sells jets to allies of France.  He assumes that the French government would intervene if Dassault Falcon Jet did otherwise.  Apparently, in the past, the company sold aircraft to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Germany, and several African countries.  In fact, due to a gap in their technology, the United States navy may even be a potential customer.  Draillard then recalled a discomforting paradox in his business, in which his company sells aircraft to two opposing sides of a conflict.

I later ventured into the conference being led by Bruce Rogers, the Regional Insurance Executive for First Niagara Risk Management.  Rogers was arguing that, despite changes in technology, he believes that the fundamentals of the insurance industry will stay the same.  He also spoke about the importance of customer service, and how, recently, there has been a pivot in the company’s policy.  In the past, First Niagara Risk Management had compared the way that it provided customer service to the way the other companies within the insurance industry provided customer service.  However, now, First Niagara Risk Management attempts to compare its customer service to the last customer service a client has experienced.  In other words, Niagara Risk Management is competing to provide the best customer service across all industries.

My time wandering from conference room to conference room was truly edifying.  Unfortunately, time did not permit me to visit with every speaker.  I enjoyed getting the variety of my brief visits.  However, part of me is jealous of the students who were able to spend the entire time with a single executive.