Name: James Sheehan
Title: Chief financial officer & managing director*
Company: Benteler Automotive
Location: Paderborn, Germany
Family: Wife, Yanee; sons, Alex, 17, Liam, 8; daughter, Pearl, 9
Born: Cork, Ireland
Languages: English, German, basic Finnish
Education: ACMA, associate member of Chartered Institute of Management Accounting; bachelor's of commerce, University College Cork, Ireland
*Recently promoted to Benteler COO
What was your first automotive job and why were you interested in the industry?
It was a summer job at Ford. I had applied for a position in Cologne, Germany, but got an offer to join the product development unit’s light truck finance team in Essex, England. I returned to university at the end of the summer with a job offer from Ford to join the finance team as a trainee. I’ve always been interested in cars and manufacturing, and the global nature of the automotive industry – particularly at Ford – attracted me.
When I joined Benteler Automotive as CFO, the company was not operating at the level it should be. I had to quickly identify issues and restructure to ensure the future of the company. This was a challenge, as Benteler is a traditional family-owned business unaccustomed to change. Some of the decisions I made, such as exiting projects and facilities, were unheard of. But we achieved our targets and we are now seeing the benefits. Because of the restructuring, we have the opportunity to grow.
Biggest failure and what it taught you?
At one point in my career, I led a restructuring effort to bring two divisions together. The CEO asked me what position I wanted to have after the restructuring, but I declined to answer because I didn’t want that to influence my decision making. This meant that I missed a career opportunity after the restructuring. It was musical chairs: I was controlling the music, but I wasn’t playing the game. I learned that sometimes you need to be more forthright and act in your own interest.
What is your current challenge at work?
Developing the culture of the company. We need to bring excitement to the team and to change finance into a driving force managing the business.
What about the auto industry surprises you?
How small it is in terms of people, considering how big the industry is. This isn’t immediately obvious to the external world, but you end up dealing with the same small group of players, crossing paths with the same people again and again. People also tend to remain in the automotive business. It’s a tough industry, but the rewards outweigh the demands. If people do leave the industry, they often come back later.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
Be transparent and true to yourself. Be proactive in how you present information to people. It’s important to do this in a timely fashion, whether it is good news or bad news.
What advice would you give to a person considering a career in the auto industry?
Be ready for hard work. Be prepared to be mobile and open. It’s a global industry, and the more global experience you have, the more opportunities there are to grow.
If you were CEO of a company what would you do first?
People and culture are critical elements to be assessed when assuming the role of CEO, however, I would also ask for an analysis of the company’s cash position, historic performance, and future forecast. Cash is the key resource – without it, you are lost.
What job do you really want to have in the future?
I really want to work in general management, and I’ve just taken my first step in this direction, being appointed chief operating officer of Benteler. Finance is one of my strengths, and I believe it’s a great foundation to facilitate future success, but I’m also very operations-focused. I enjoy being on the front line, whether with a customer or in the plant. Eventually, I would like to build upon my skills as a CEO.
What do you do to relax?
It all centers around the family. We have a house in Florida, which we go to regularly. I enjoy reading and having movie evenings with the kids.
Audi A8L 4.2 V-8 Quattro diesel – as I drive 300km a day, this is the ultimate Autobahn machine.
May 2014-present: Chief operating officer & managing director, Benteler Automotive, Paderborn, Germany
October 2012-April 2014: Chief financial officer & managing director, Benteler, Paderborn
2011-2012: Chief financial officer, Getrag Asia Pacific, Shanghai, China
2007-2011: CFO/executive VP of sales, Getrag Americas, Sterling Heights, Michigan, USA
2005-2007: CFO, Getrag Ford Transmissions, Cologne, Germany
2004-2005: Manager of sales planning and analysis and re-engineering, Ford of Europe, Cologne
2002-2004: Manager of sales planning and analysis, Ford of Europe, Cologne
2000-2002: Finance manager, C1 and EuCD technologies, product development, Ford of Europe, Cologne
1999-2000: Finance manager, Nordic markets and Portugal, Ford of Europe, Cologne
1998-1999: Finance manager, European regional sales operations (ERSO), Ford of Europe, Cologne
1996-1998: Finance director, Ford Finland, Helsinki
1995-1995: Coordinator, RWD, large car vehicle center, powertrain finance, Jaguar, Coventry, England
1994: Senior analyst, AJ26, powertrain cost control, Ford of Europe, Dunton, England
1993-1994: Financial analyst, DOHC, powertrain cost control, Ford of Europe, Dunton
1992-1993: Investment analyst, controller's office, Ford of Europe, Dunton