Mary Ellen Genovese has had a simple maxim in her business life- always be willing to take on new challenges.
It has certainly paid off. In a career spanning finance roles across major US companies, including being at the heart of California’s semiconductor industry at its peak, Genovese built up a reputation for going the extra mile to deliver success.
That meant often jumping on a plane to spend time with subsidiaries- ‘kicking the tyres’- that was unusual for a finance leader at the time, and long before the concept of business partnering became standard practice.
But it was joining a small but fast-growing tech company called Savi Technology as CFO that led Genovese to her current role of MD of European operations at 8×8, a provider of cloud communications and customer engagement solutions.
When the group was sold to Lockheed Martin, Genovese carried on working with Savi’s former CEO Vik Verma who had become the defence giant’s president of Strategic Venture Development, turning military technologies and programmes into commercial ventures.
When Verma left Lockheed Martin for 8×8- which features cloud unified communications and contact centre technology, he asked Genovese to come along, first as an adviser to the group’s compensation committee.
“He then asked me if I wanted to join 8×8, so I was svp of HR for nine months, and shortly after I moved into the CFO role which I did for four years, before moving to London in November, having passed the baton on to the new CFO,” says Genovese.
Taking up various roles, and being prepared to up sticks to move to the UK from the US, has seemed pretty natural to someone who has always gone the extra mile.
The California Kid
Genovese moved a lot, even as a child. Born in the Bronx in New York, she grew up in New Jersey and Long Island before majoring in accountancy at Fairfield University in Connecticut, starting in internal audit with holding group General Signal Corporation which was headquartered at nearby Stamford.
General Signal had started acquiring companies in the semiconductor sector, and as Genovese was prepared to put in the hours at its California-based assets, she became known as the ‘California Kid’ as she didn’t mind the frequent cross-country travel required.
She started working permanently at General Standard subsidiary Ultratech Stepper, “after the CEO came into the break room when I was grabbing a cup of coffee and said he wanted me to work for him. That’s how I ended up working in Silicon Valley,” she reveals.
“It was when Silicon Valley was just starting to boom, and the technology had really got started with the semiconductor industry. Intel, National Semiconductor and Motorola were huge back then, still manufacturing in the Valley, if you can believe it,” she says.
Starting as a senior financial analyst, Genovese says she was the first person at Ultratech to get a computer, having undertaken a computer science minor when she graduated, which meant she knew how to programme.
She then became international project manager, helping set up the group’s European headquarters in the UK. “I moved into cost accounting and I realised that from there we needed a materials manager. I asked for that position and it was agreed after a month,” she says.
Back in San Jose, at the heart of Silicon Valley, Genovese became the youngest unit financial officer within the 40 companies of General Signal, one of only three women in that position. From there she became the European controller for the semiconductor equipment group of General Signal, based in Basingstoke.
“That really shaped my career- knowing the culture difference between the Americans who were my bosses and the English, French and Germans who all had very different styles. Learning as a young person how to manage those different styles for success, was very beneficial,” she says.
After 11 years at General Signal, Genovese spent the same amount of time at her next employer Trimble Navigation, having returned to California from the UK, starting as controller of manufacturing operations before becoming business unit controller at the location services provider. From corporate controller to vp of finance, Genovese became CFO- a role she held for four years.
“I never set out to be a CFO,” says Genovese. “My boss had to ask me three times before I agreed.” Being a mother with two young children, she says she was comfortable in her role as vp of finance, running a finance team including Treasury, whilst the CFO took to the road.
She eventually she agreed to take on the top finance role, but found travelling half her time a challenge. “As a mum with young kids it’s hard, so after four years I was ready to make a move,” she says. “One night I thought, what am I doing? I’d much rather be home with my husband and my boys having dinner.”
Returning from a seven-day roadshow visiting 10 countries, Genovese was approached by Savi Technology. “They were growing very quickly, wanted to go public, and so were looking for a public company CFO to help them,” she says. “I said I didn’t mind working hard, but I wanted to be home at night for dinner.”
Genovese was at Savi for three years before it was acquired by Lockheed Martin. She was asked to stay, agreed to help with the transition of the takeover, but then ended up working part-time for Lockheed Martin in what she describes as “a very interesting job.”
She says: “We would find these technologies that we thought were viable on the outside, and build the case study. We would go out to the VC (venture capital) community, to ask, if something like this with this type of technology came to market, would you be interested in investing it?”
Having moved to work with Verma, Genovese is now helping drive a business with a proposition that speaks to the needs of global companies needing effective internal communicate in order to make rapid decisions. “We help our customers with one single platform of communications that has video, voice, chat, contact centre software. You have one click to an employee anywhere in the world to get the information you need,” she says.
Although she has moved to become MD of European operations, Genovese is indebted to her time as finance head for giving her a strong understanding of how businesses work. “As a CFO you’re more than just finance, you need to understand the workings of the entire company, you need to know what’s going in in marketing or engineering. You’re actively involved in creating the vision, the strategy,” she says.
On her transition to become 8×8’s MD of European operations, where a third of the group’s 1,500 staff are located, she says being CFO first really helped. “Because I know the system so well, it’s easy for me to help and brainstorm problems, it’s also helped because I was very engaged with the sales team as CFO,” she adds.
Having developed a global awareness has also prepared her well for this role, she says. “Knowing the global strategy, the global vision and the technology of the company, the values of the company and knowing how to apply them across a global platform is something I think I can do very well,” she says.
Genovese argues that it’s very important to have a business culture that features transparent and open communications, “because things in business do change so quickly. When you’re a global company, sometimes those messages don’t always get to your global operations as quickly as they should.
“So it’s always important to remember to communicate on a global basis, and be aware of the impact of your decisions you’re making in the US, or wherever your headquarters happens to be, on the rest of the teams globally,” she adds.