The US automotive industry has almost as many intricate parts and interconnected pieces as a vehicle itself. When you consider the diverse areas of expertise involved in this sector — including sales, engineering, manufacturing, research and development, and purchasing and logistics — it’s no surprise that the industry supports millions of jobs and remains vital to the US economy.
During the recent global economic downturn, however, the US automotive industry was hit hard. After pushing through this period, many companies were able to make fundamental changes and begin using much more competitive and profitable models; the industry is now seeing strong and sustained growth.
When looking at the industry on a global level, an even broader picture emerges. PwC’s Autofacts group anticipates global light vehicle production growing to 108 million units in 2018, up from roughly 75 million units in 2011, with emerging markets accounting for approximately 83% of growth.1 This presents sizeable opportunities for companies to expand in markets such as China, India, Brazil, Russia and Thailand.
As companies find the best strategies for sustainability and growth — restructuring operations, redesigning products and streamlining cost structures — they offer accounting professionals exciting opportunities and challenging work. Keyword recently spoke with five PwC alumni who steered their careers into the automotive industry. Find out what led them there and what they encountered when they arrived.
When Brian Leiter began working at General Motors in 2008, he saw a company being restructured to fit leaner cost structures and operations. Leiter was excited to be part of such a dynamic time in the industry stalwart’s storied history, and he was eager to apply his comprehensive background in technical accounting to a new set of challenges. Shortly after joining the company, however, the American automotive industry went into a steep decline, caused by the combination of the global recession, waning automobile sales and tightening restrictions on consumer credit. In difficult shape financially, General Motors received federal assistance in late 2008 and filed for bankruptcy in 2009. “I didn’t really anticipate the industry to shift like that, and I quickly realized how an organization can run out of money,” he says.
Originally tasked with helping to re-engineer General Motors’ internal accounting functions in a changing business environment, Leiter knew the effects from the bankruptcy would add a new dimension to his job. He also knew his 16 years of experience at PwC could help.
During his time at PwC, he spent four years troubleshooting a wide range of technical accounting issues at the firm’s national office outside New York City. He then moved into the practice office in Minneapolis, where his focus was auditing. His final stop at PwC found him working on a consulting team to help General Motors handle accounting issues and validate historical accounting conclusions. His many experiences gave him the deep knowledge base General Motors needed. “I was intrigued by the opportunity to be part of the turnaround of an American icon,” he says.
As his work at General Motors has progressed, Leiter says finding the balance between strengthening and streamlining the company’s accounting functions and managing its new cost structures continues to be an interesting process. “We’ve made a lot of inroads rebuilding the accounting functions, and now it’s beginning to pay off,” he says. “We now run ahead of issues instead of reacting to them.”
In his current role as assistant controller of technical accounting, Leiter is part of a team that helps the business address highly complex accounting issues. He also creates global accounting policy for the organization and ensures consistent application throughout the organization. Recently, he began work to further integrate the company’s corporate accounting functions with its worldwide business units, which have traditionally operated independently, to reduce complexity and cost.
“I enjoy working at General Motors, because the situations we face are fairly unique,” says Leiter. “Whether it be venture agreements in emerging markets overseas or issues stemming from our legacy footprint—you don’t get to see these things at most companies.” In the future, Leiter says he wants to dive deeper into these challenges and take on other controllership roles within General Motors’ many and diverse domestic and international business units. “By and large, the players in the industry are global,” he says. “This offers an incredible opportunity to work in many areas of an organization and in many locations, while getting to grow professionally and personally.”
Before coming to PwC, Daniel Schumacher had already found a niche skill set that set him apart. In college he studied finance, and his first job out of school was at a business consulting firm, where he worked on financerelated information technology systems. His ability to bridge the gap between the fields of finance and IT made him an attractive candidate to join PwC—and eventually led him to the automotive industry.
In 2003, PwC needed help preparing the company’s financial auditing practices and technology systems for the recently passed Sarbanes–Oxley (SOX) regulations. With just the right background for the job, Schumacher joined the Chicago office that year to work in the global risk management services group. “At times, finance people struggle to talk to IT people, and IT people struggle to talk to finance people,” he says. “One of my key strengths is helping to translate between the two.”
After almost a year, he was invited to become part of a newly established systems and process assurance practice in Milwaukee, where he became the senior manager. “For me, that was a unique opportunity to exercise some level of entrepreneurial spirit,” Schumacher recalls.
In Milwaukee, one of his longstanding clients was Johnson Controls, Inc., a product and service provider offering building efficiency systems; vehicle battery technology; and automotive electronics, displays, and interior equipment. “I always enjoyed going to their design facility, because I got to see the mockups of the interiors and dashboards before they were released to the public,” says Schumacher, a car enthusiast since childhood.
In 2009, Schumacher brought his dual skill set to Johnson Controls, where he started as director of global IT audit, and after a year, took on SOX compliance responsibilities. “I wanted to move out of an assurance and advisory role at PwC, where I provided guidance, and start implementing solutions at a public company,” he says. He serves the company’s three business units, with responsibility for supporting global IT projects including systems audits, IT advisory projects and integrated financial audits, along with managing SOX compliance.
“One of the things I really enjoy about Johnson Controls is that it isn’t a company you can sum up in one sentence. The diversity within our lines of business is so pervasive that it’s almost like having a portfolio of clients internally,” he observes.
Schumacher’s responsibilities include managing and coordinating information with teams overseas in Slovakia and China, as well as with his team in Milwaukee. “The can-do spirit of the people I work with is amazing,” he says. “Together, we’re driving improvements that strengthen the quality of the company,” he says.
Looking ahead, Schumacher says he hopes to continue on a path where he can put his finance and IT skills to good use and indulge his passion for cars. “I used to pore over copies of Car & Driver and Motor Trend magazines just to read the specs,” he says. “The coolest thing about my job now is hopping in my car at the end of the day and knowing that Johnson Controls products helped put that thing together.”
With her talent for analysis, persistence in seeking answers, and experience cultivating ideas in both collaborative and teaching roles—it’s no surprise that one of Erin Brzezinski’s former co-workers used to tell her: “You have a knack for envisioning problems down the road.”
Before moving to Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, Brzezinski began sharpening her troubleshooting skills while climbing from associate to manager in the assurance practice in PwC’s Toledo, Ohio, office. During her seven years at PwC, she worked closely with an oil and gas client and was periodically called on to help untangle unique auditing issues during multiple special projects.
Part of her time at PwC also included work with the Quality Network, where she taught teams about audit quality, helped teams solve accounting issues, and identified and reported common problems to the national office. “PwC was a vibrant and constantly changing environment, but also very challenging,” she says. “I believe I’m better professionally and personally after my experiences there.”
In 2011, Brzezinski took the opportunity to join Cooper as the manager of technical accounting. Today, her primary responsibilities include researching technical accounting issues and documenting the company’s conclusions in accounting memos. Her regular duties require her to stay abreast of the progress of the Financial Accounting Standards Board and International Accounting Standards Board’s joint projects to assess their impact on the company, and she also assists in preparing the company’s filings for the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“I enjoy the challenge of exploring an issue and figuring out an appropriate course of action,” says Brzezinski. “I also have a creative side, and I find that doing the research and then writing the accounting memo is an outlet for that.” Brzezinski says she learned to craft technical accounting memos at PwC, and through that process she gained valuable critical-thinking and creative skills. “Although it was frustrating to receive endless feedback, I find myself applying the same level of scrutiny to the memos I write at Cooper,” she says. “I learned a lot about time and stress management at PwC, but the biggest takeaway was my writing skills—I use them every day in my role.”
Her critical eye for evaluation is an asset in the teambased environment at Cooper. “Cooper encourages employees to help each other succeed,” says Brzezinski. “I appreciate the collaborative environment, because bringing different perspectives to the table helps the group arrive at the best conclusions.”
Many of Brzezinski’s co-workers have come to Cooper from different accounting firms, and she says they all bring varying research methods and skills to technical accounting that complement the processes she learned at PwC. “This is a significant benefit to Cooper,” she says.
As for future aspirations, Brzezinski says she wants to become a corporate controller and remain at a larger company. To get there, she continues to rely on a core philosophy: “You have to believe that things can always be improved. That mindset has brought me to where I am today, and I think it will help me continue to be successful.”
During his four years at PwC, Tim Wiegand learned many lessons while working on core assurance and special projects in the Toledo, Ohio, office. “PwC was like boot camp for accounting professionals. I don’t know where else I could have learned so much, so quickly,” says Wiegand, who worked mainly with oil and gas clients and progressed to become a senior associate.
Recalling his experiences, he cites one of his biggest takeaways from PwC: “Communication is the cornerstone of effective business.” The wisdom and versatile communication techniques he developed at PwC proved valuable in 2010, when Wiegand transitioned from the familiar world of external accounting to work in internal auditing for Cooper Tire & Rubber Company.
“There was definitely a learning curve when I started at Cooper,” he remembers. “I wasn’t working in the Big Four anymore.” At Cooper, the auditing department was much smaller, and many of Wiegand’s co-workers didn’t have auditing or accounting backgrounds, which set him apart. “This was a challenge I didn’t expect,” says Wiegand, who holds a bachelor’s degree in finance, a master’s degree in accounting and a CPA license. “The skill sets and experiences of the internal audit staff were much different here,” he says, “but the internal audit staff knew the business of Cooper.”
To be effective, Wiegand adapted his approach to the audit process to help him better communicate with everyone involved. “I couldn’t use textbook accounting terminology anymore. I had to use non-technical terms to explain more complex concepts,” he says. “In exchange for the technical accounting and auditing knowledge I brought to the Cooper internal audit team,” Wiegand notes, “the other staff members imparted their Cooper knowledge to me. I feel our differences make us a strong team.”
Relying on his four years of experience at PwC helped Wiegand approach his new role. During his time there, he attended a number of courses in both technical subjects and communication, and gained on-the-job insights on how to tailor his communication. “I remembered how I used to work with new hires and interns who were just starting out. That helped me foresee issues and explain concepts in my new role,” he says.
In his current position as a senior internal auditor, Wiegand leads and assists financial, operational and compliance audits. He also performs annual SOX compliance testing. Wiegand works with a wide range of stakeholders and also with external auditors. “I essentially work with everyone at the company, because we are constantly auditing different business processes,” he says. “My to-do list is always changing, with many seemingly unrelated projects and tasks on it, but I enjoy the variety—it keeps me engaged.”
While much of his team’s work is based in the United States, they also get a chance to work abroad a few times a year. “I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to make a difference on a global scale,” says Wiegand. To date, he has traveled to Cooper’s operations in Mexico and China to perform audits. He may also have the opportunity to travel to the company’s recently acquired operations in Serbia next year.
Looking back on his career transition, Wiegand has some advice for accounting professionals considering a similar route: “Don’t neglect your soft skills—relationship building and effective communication are incredibly important.”
Tammi Dukes decided to reroute her accounting career 12 years ago. At the time, she was working as a business manager for the University of Michigan. “I needed to make a change, because I wanted to increase my potential for growth and overall job satisfaction,” she says. To move forward, she knew she needed to gain experience in the automotive industry, because of its dominating presence in southeast Michigan. To enter the industry, Dukes also knew her natural ability to draw learning experiences from the people and opportunities she encountered along the way would be a key to success.
Dukes began her transition by accepting an opportunity with a local consulting firm. In this role, she was engaged by Ford Motor Company on a temporary basis to assess Ford’s internal control functions for several divisions and accounting functions. The job ended up lasting three years, and she had the chance to become a technical expert on internal controls within the automotive industry.
“I had a really sound knowledge of internal controls by the time I joined PwC in 2004,” she says. Hired to work in the internal audit practice at PwC’s Detroit office, Dukes continued working with automotive clients and learning the industry. She spent her first few years developing and assessing internal control frameworks for automotive suppliers and original equipment manufacturers. “The amount of training I received at PwC was immeasurable. I had the opportunity to learn so many different tools and techniques through a variety of sources including their instructional courses and on-line training.” Over time, Dukes was promoted from a senior associate within the internal audit group to become an audit manager in 2007.
In her last few years at PwC, Dukes began working with International Automotive Components Group (IACG), a supplier of automotive interior door and trim systems, instrument panels, consoles, cockpits, flooring and overhead systems, as well as exterior components. When IACG offered her a job, it seemed like an excellent next step for her career. “It was a newly formed company that had exceptional growth opportunity, and I saw opportunities for my own growth there as well,” Dukes says.
She started as the internal audit manager in 2010 and is now the director of internal audit. In her current role, she spends about half her time assessing the company’s financial and operational risks and controls. She also works as a member of several committees that manage corporate governance within the company. “I have the ability to meet so many people in multiple disciplines across the company, both at a plant level and an operational level,” she says. Dukes also continues to work with teams from PwC, who staff most of her audits in North America.
Since IACG is a global company, headquartered in Luxembourg with approximately 90 sites in approximately 20 countries, traveling is a big part of her job. “Being able to relate to different cultures and different mindsets really goes a long way in building good relationships and getting the job done,” Dukes says.
No matter where she is in the world or who she is working with, her philosophy toward professional progress remains the same. “We’re all in a position where we can learn something,” says Dukes, who aspires to continue to progress in her career. “If you keep that in mind, your possibilities are limitless.”
1 PwC Autofacts provides automotive information and forecasts that help PwC clients assess implications, make recommendations, and support decisions in the automotive sector. Autofacts is headquartered in the US, and has analysts in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, China, India and Brazil. Learn more at www.autofacts.com.