Eric Harton is an amazing, global, CFO talent flying under our radar here. His career has taken him literally all
over the world with some of America’s premier CPG companies. It’s a cold Thursday, but we’re in a warm
spot at Muldoon’s in Carmel.
KB: Eric, thank you for meeting me.
EH: Glad to be here.
KB: How did you get to do all this?
EH: You’re going to see a theme emerge as we have this conversation.
KB: Ok, let’s go.
EH: I’m originally from Columbus, Ohio. I went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, GA. My Mom encouraged
me to go there because the college has a strong reputation for developing leaders. After graduation, I
joined the Deloitte Atlanta office. I felt public accounting was a necessary rite of passage. I earned my CPA
and eventually left Deloitte to join a former client. I was there until a former Deloitte colleague working for
Coca-Cola called me.
KB: That was huge.
EH: Yes, I landed a position as a budget analyst in Budget Services. Our department coordinated the
global financial planning process for Coke. My area of focus was foreign currency and working capital
management. Coke was into EVA (Economic Value Added) at the time, and I became the in-house expert
on EVA. I was then promoted to financial service manager for Africa and the Middle East. I reviewed the
monthly financial results with the Controller and Africa Group President and helped the CFO prepare for
quarterly Board Meetings.
KB: That’s baller stuff.
EH: I wasn’t looking to leave Coke, but a friend from Coke who had moved to Russell Athletic called.
Russell had recently moved their HQ to Atlanta and he wanted me to come over and talk to their new
International Group CEO and CFO. I was open to talk and ended up joining them. I immediately created a
foreign currency hedging program and then helped develop an expansion strategy for Asia. I later went to
Tokyo and set up the back-office operation, and after that, Hong Kong.
KB: And that led to more cool stuff, right?
EH: Yes, I joined Corporate Treasury where I led an international tax strategy project to reduce the
company’s effective tax rate. We had a 0% tax rate on our operations in Honduras and we wanted to take
advantage of that. Saved us a ton of money.
KB: You’re on fire. What did you do next?
EH: I took a role as the CFO of Russell Europe and moved to Edinburgh, Scotland. We lived there five
years. During that time, Fruit of the Loom acquired Russell. Fortunately, for me, the CEO of Fruit of the
Loom Europe allowed me to lead the restructuring. After that, he asked me to stay in Europe as GM for
Russell Europe…so I did that for a while.
KB: It sounds like you were able to weather the storm. But you left anyway.
EH: They had a different sales philosophy. They did not believe in having sales offices throughout Europe,
just sales people. So, I found myself winding down the Russell sales offices while at the same time trying
to grow sales and maintain margins. Then a recruiter called.
KB: I’m familiar with this phenomenon.
EH: A former colleague put this guy onto me. The opportunity was with Coleman Company. Do you know
KB: Yes, lanterns, camping equipment.
EH: Right. The President of Coleman offered me a VP of Global Finance role in the U.S. The path was to
CFO of Coleman. Six months in, my sponsor who brought me in left for…. wait for it…Sears. The new guy
had a different plan. So, I’m back in the market, talking to recruiters. That’s how I got to Sensient and
KB: Take me from Sensient to IFSA Butler.
EH: Sensient was good, until they decided to move their Group HQ from Indy to Chicago. At this point, I’d
moved my family four times. I wanted to get off the merry go round. I agreed to help the company move
to Chicago. I then commuted to Chicago for a year while working with the new team to make sure they
could close the books, create a budget, etc. At the end of that year, I returned to Indy with my family. I spent
some time working with a national construction services firm when the job with the Institute for Study
Abroad (IFSA) Butler University came up. I had a chance to meet with the company President and other
members of the executive team and I was impressed. IFSA Butler is a not for profit corporation that
provides study abroad experiences for US college students. IFSA is closely affiliated with Butler University,
but it is a separate entity. Our head office is in Indianapolis, but we have operations throughout Latin
America, Asia and Europe. IFSA deals with many of the same issues and challenges I experienced at any of
my CPG companies. I really enjoy sharing my relevant financial and management experiences with the
IFSA Butler team.
KB: What are the most important attributes as you evaluate talent?
EH: Leadership. A willingness to listen to people. Humility. Confidence. Communication skills are also
very important. I’ve hired people all over the world… these traits are important whether hiring in Chicago,
London or Tokyo.
KB: You’ve lived and traveled all over the world. Most of us haven’t. Tell me how that’s shaped your
EH: You have to be flexible and have a willingness to suspend judgement. In the U.S., we have our way of
doing things, and it often works, but there is always more than one way to do something. On a practical
level, you do not have to speak a foreign language. English is the language of business…but understand
that it’s a second language for many others. Speak clearly, eliminate slang and colloquialisms, be patient.
Also, eliminate sports analogies…unless you can speak soccer.
KB: Tell me more.
EH: My experience, generally speaking, Southern Europeans spend more time up front building a
relationship, learning about you and your family before diving into business. They want to know you before
they do business with you. Also, the style of communication can be less direct which means it can take
longer to get something done. I was in Italy once visiting a new customer to talk about credit terms. We
spent the first half of the day touring the facilities, talking about travel and family. We had a big six-course
meal and finished with a nice espresso back at the office. My customer then proceeded to ask for 200-day
payment terms. I thanked them for the wonderful meal, and then politely said “no” and began to explain
why. Before I could finish my sentence, the whole room lit up in Italian, with gestures and all, while I sat
there trying to figure out what I did wrong. Contrast that with my work in Germany. There, I could be too
nice, not sufficiently direct, which is what the Germans expect. I had to adjust my style accordingly.
KB: What do finance people need today to be successful?
EH: Early on, master the fundamentals. Pass the CPA exam if you’re in accounting. Ask lots of questions,
that’s how you learn. Develop your communication skills. Those that get ahead are those that can master
the technical skills and are able to explain things to the non-accounting people. You have to be able to use
all of your information and analysis to tell a story if you want to help move a business forward.
KB: What’s your favorite movie?
EH: Pulp Fiction.
KB: What’s your favorite quote?
EH: Fall seven times…. stand up eight.
KB: What is some advice you’d give your younger self?
EH: Don’t avoid risk, focus on it, and understand it. Never be afraid to ask more questions.
KB: When we started talking, you said a theme would emerge. I think I have it. What I see is taking the job
at Coke changed the trajectory of your career. And, your entire journey has been shaped by the
relationships you forged there and at other stops along the way.
EH: That’s right.