Smart Start, Inc. CFO Eric Karl discusses how his early career tutelage at GE under Jack Welch, Gary Wendt, and Larry Bossidy helped to color his approach to leadership
Just as childhood experiences can color the rest of one’s approach to life and relationships, so can early work experiences color the rest of a career. This is true in the case of Eric Karl, Chief Financial Officer at Smart Start, Inc. Karl began his career at General Electric in the financial management program (FMP). There he got to participate in meetings with the likes of Jack Welch and Gary Wendt, observe how Larry Bossidy led in challenging circumstances, help write and research speeches for future CEOs, and watch how some of businesses sharpest minds engaged with people and made decisions.
Karl who had attended Hamilton College as well as the University of Warwick in England, was the first FMP assigned to work over seas. From 1980-1990 Karl served overseas in Holland as well as stateside in Massachusetts and Indiana in various roles within GE plastics and GE Capital in training for a CFO position. His first CFO position came in 1998 with Biomedical Disposal. From 2004-2010 he served in CFO roles with Sumitomo Corporation of America. Karl has served as Chief Financial Officer at Smart Start since 2010. Throughout his career he has completed 50 acquisitions as a principal.
Smart Start is the country’s premier provider of services and technologies that separate drinking from driving. Smart Start offers fully integrated ignition interlock services, encompassing manufacturing, installation, service and comprehensive monitoring and reporting. Since 1993 Smart Start has installed well over half a million ignition interlock devices. Since Karl joined Smart Start in 2010 the company has more than doubled their revenue.
A GE Guy
Karl’s early days at GE still impact his work today as CFO. He still thinks of himself as a “GE guy.” According to Karl, “that means I still want an analytical data based approach. I don’t want to hear about people’s feelings or intuition until I’ve seen the numbers. [I ask,] what does the data show me? Why do you believe that? What supports that? What are the competitors doing? Those questions just tumble out.”
According to Karl a “collective mentality” is key to business success. And that starts with the attitude of the leader. Karl pointed out that while Super Bowl and World Series rings are handed out to individuals, it is based on the collective performance of the teams—not the individuals themselves. “As the leader you have to think ‘group’ and use grammar that is ‘group’: ‘we,’ ‘our,’…I do not jump all over people when something goes wrong. I tell them ‘I’m as responsible as you are.’ In a leadership role you can’t say ‘Well you screwed that up. The CEO doesn’t want to hear that someone who works for me screwed up – he is focused on results.”
While a passionate advocate of a “team first” mindset Karl also recognizes that intrinsic motivation is essential. He lets employees set their own goals and then coaches them along the way. Karl said that many employees may set their goals a little too high but he avoids correcting them. “Once a goal is set, I can be forgiving at the end. It helps develop people and give them purpose for coming to work,” said Karl. A big believer in autonomy, Karl gives free reign to employees who are getting results. And when results are not coming, he is vehement against passing off the blame for failure: “I don’t want to hear ’it’s their fault.’ I want to know how are you making money for the shareholders? How are you helping the company? How are you making the owners richer? The purpose of business is to serve customers and do it in a sustainable way.”
While Karl’s end goal was never to become CFO a blend of wide ranging experiences made him an ideal candidate for the job. He has now worked in CFO functions for over fifteen years. Karl credits that diverse experience with a decision he made early on: “take the job nobody wants.” He explained that a lot of people wait for the “perfect job rather than take on new positions and grow their skill sets. “If you take the job that’s not perfect by the time perfect jobs come along you’ve had three jobs and improved your skills,” said Karl.
One of Karl’s earliest lessons learned at GE was about aligning company goals with his own career goals. “I worked for a guy at GE who was viewed as being a really good division CFO and good at getting what his division wanted. He explained to me that ‘you figure out what’s best for the company, then what’s best for you, then align them.’ Develop and express your interests in that order and what you want will be what is best for those who own the company and it will happen,” said Karl. His early days at GE, under the mentorship of some of the strongest business minds in corporate America, certainly colored his approach to work for the rest of his 35-year career. And that approach has served him well.