By Heather Blahnik (Madion '96, US '98, AI '99)
A very successful businessman and now the CFO of Ohio State University, Geoffrey Chatas got his start in AIESEC. He first joined AIESEC while at Georgetown University for his undergraduate degree, but got more heavily involved when he was pursuing his master’s degree at Oxford University. There he was involved at both the local and national level and did a traineeship at a bank in Brussels one summer. It was this experience that led Geoff to choose a career in finance over a career in academia.
After finishing his master’s degree, he followed that internship up with another, this time at Citibank in Switzerland. There he worked for a year, at first doing reconciliation, which he admits was quite boring. Geoff decided to take matters into his own hands and marched into the office of the CEO of Europe and told him that he could do a lot more. The CEO's response was to place Geoff as his own personal analyst for the rest of his traineeship. Geoff prepared board meetings, traveled around Europe with him and helped him with Citibank´s expansion into Eastern Europe.
“They had a lot of us doing not so exciting work, and I think that was an important lesson. If you think that you can do more, sell yourself and tell the people that you are working with that you can do more.”
After his traineeship, Geoff decided to do an MBA at INSEAD and when he finished, Citibank asked him to come back and he worked for them in New York and in the UK. Then he went on to BankOne, where he worked in finance. However, Geoff knew that he didn’t want to be a banker forever; he wanted to get into strategic corporate finance. So when American Electric Power, one of his clients from Citibank in New York, called him to become VP Finance of a global energy business that they were setting up he jumped at the opportunity. He spent the next few years traveling the globe, setting up businesses, buying businesses and applying all the things that he had learned in AIESEC and INSEAD.
From there, Geoff’s career continued to take off. When he was only 29 years old, he became Treasurer of American Electric Power, a Fortune 100 company. He was later hired by another utility company, Progress Energy, to be the CFO when he was 39 years old. Then Geoff decided to get back into finance, going to JP Morgan where he helped establish one of the first US infrastructure funds, focusing his attention on energy investments. This allowed him to use his accumulated knowledge in a focused manner. He bought energy companies all across the US and Europe, was the chair of the boards of
those companies, hired CEOs and set policy.
After doing that for a few years, Geoff decided it was time to make a complete change and went into the field of higher education, where he accepted the role of CFO at Ohio State University. In this role, he hopes to help re-think how college can be affordable for students and also allow the university to undertake research and other academic pursuits. “The biggest challenge when I arrived was helping to modernize the way that we think about finance. My argument was and is that you can’t run a $5 billion enterprise without a focus on modern, global financial techniques and expertise. That is where the similarities come in with what I did before. We borrow money from the capital markets. We issue debt. We work with banks. We have an audit. Those are the similarities. The difference is that we are not a company in the profit-making business; we are a company in the teaching and research business. Our product is ideas and people. I believe that we have a mission to invest in our students and our faculty.”
Geoff goes on to talk about some changes that he has been working on:
“What I do is to help people understand. Over the last 3 years we have generated about $1 billion in new resources and we are investing that in scholarships and hiring new faculty. We are looking at all of our businesses and asking: If this doesn’t have to do with research or teaching, then why are we doing it? Why can’t someone else run it? Why can’t we monetize that business and reinvest it in our people? People are getting excited as they see that we are accomplishing this. We are helping define the national dialogue on the future of higher education.
The old model of the university was that the CFO was a state budget guy. And if I had asked you before our interview what percent of our budget came from the state, you would never have guessed six or eight percent. Most people think that it is 50%. That is why I am out doing interviews and am at conferences telling people that the next great frontier for financial management in the US is higher education, and that is what I think is my mission: taking everything that I learned in the private sector and using best-in-class techniques to make sure that we keep higher education affordable and relevant.”
When asked what the future might hold, Geoff responded:
“I am 50 and I still think that I have a few more innings to go in this job. I think that there still is a lot left to do. I have been here 3 years and we are just beginning to realize the potential. I don’t know if I have always been like this or if AIESEC played a part in it, but I believe that every day you come up with a big idea - not always a great idea, but a big idea. That means that you get 365 big ideas a year and if 30 of them stick, you’ve had a good year. So if I look at what I have left to do, I have a lot of big ideas left in higher education that we haven’t even begun to tackle. When I look at the future that is where I am: helping to implement the strategies that we are beginning to formulate at Ohio State.
If you look at my career, people will say that I have always done one thing. And it is true that I have always done finance. But I have always tried to be cutting edge, whether in utility or higher education - that is the kind of person I am. I ask how can we keep pushing the edge of the envelope and how do we keep redefining. I do think that the experience that you have at AIESEC gives you that “can do” attitude.”