Susan Sheffield, 54
CFO, GM Financial
Location: Fort Worth, Texas
Education: B.S., economics, University of Illinois; M.B.A., Texas Christian University
What drew you to the auto industry? In my corporate commercial banking days, AmeriCredit — which was the predecessor company to GM Financial — was one of my clients. I had just had my son, and my husband had just started a business. While I really enjoyed banking, I always thought if I was going to stay in Fort Worth, there were a couple of companies that I thought would be a good fit. AmeriCredit called looking for someone to help head up their fixed-income investor relations.
First automotive job: AmeriCredit, in 2001.
Big break: I had been with the company for a few years, I had moved from the [investor relations] role into what we called our structured finance group — the group that raises the money for the business. The person who was running it decided to leave to go to Country-Wide. I thought, “Should I raise my hand?” It was really through the encouragement of my peers who came to me and said, “You’d be great.” I’ll never forget getting that support, just unsolicited.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? As you move along, you’ve got to be able to realize when you need to pivot, or learn from your mistakes. I’m a pretty passionate person, really driven. Sometimes that can narrow your vision. You need to be able to step back and broaden your view, open the lens wider. Look up and across the organization.
You’ve been in the industry 19 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? We’ve made some strides on female representation in the automotive industry. At General Motors overall, the enterprise, I would say we’ve done a really good job. It’s a very big focus, and has been since I’ve been there since the acquisition 10 years ago. A lot of effort and intentional drive to get women in the auto space. Finance tends to be dominated by more men. There’s been a lot of progress, but there’s still more work to do.
What work achievement are you most proud of? Just being part of a company that has a ton of resiliency and a great culture. We had downturns; the Great Recession and in the early 2000s. But we banded together and navigated through that really well through creative financing structures. We got the opportunity to basically build a captive from the ground up. It’s been just a joy to be part of the team built from basically an $8 billion portfolio of earnings assets or loans when [GM] bought us to $94 billion today.
Describe your leadership style. I try to be approachable. I used to say I wouldn’t ask anyone to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. I know what it’s like. I started out as an analyst at the bank and worked my way up, so I really appreciate what everybody is doing. Every role in the company is critical to the overall success. I started once-a-week “Conversations with Susan.” It’s small groups of like 10 or 15 non-officer groups within my organization, just to check in with them. I tried to encourage them to turn their camera on. I turn my camera on. We always start with a safety message and then just, “How is work from home going? What are the challenges? What’s working well?” And then I just open it up for questions.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? We’ve learned from the remote work force we have to be flexible about when people can be on, doing work. Maybe it’s easier for someone to work from 6 to 10 a.m. and then they need to focus on kids and making sure the school thing is going and they can pick it up at 2 p.m. But they get their eight hours in. You’re working a lot of longer hours; everything’s blending together. We’re trying to get people to take their vacation because nobody wanted to take any vacation, which is totally understandable. I didn’t either. However, for your mental health, physical health, engagement at work, it’s very important to take breaks.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? We need to continue to help people understand that while it’s an old industry, it has been and will continue to be on the precipice of massive and exciting change. Even the financing space — how people borrow money and how they interact with the dealer when they’re getting a new vehicle — it’s all changing and being disrupted. We’ve got to do a better job of marketing that. We’re really focused on casting the net wider from a diversity and inclusion standpoint when we’re looking to fill roles.
— Jackie Charniga