Bruce Van Saun has made a career ruffling feathers of executives in roles in which he’s been tasked with righting corporate ships.
And it’s taught him quite a lot about what it takes to be a leader, and how to find the keys to job success.
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It’s also what helped prime him for the position he now holds as chairman and chief executive of Citizens Financial (NASDAQ:CFG).
Finance in His Blood
To know Van Saun, you have to start from the beginning. He grew up in the suburbs of New York and New Jersey. His grandfather worked at Irving Trust Bank where he established a commercial trust division.
Van Saun is proud to admit Wall Street, or a career in financial services, runs in his blood.
“Growing up, I had a sense that there were interesting careers and jobs to be had in New York as the financial capital of the country,” he said.
He’d always been good at math and finance, so he completed a bachelor of science in business administration at Bucknell University and capped it off with an MBA in finance and general management form the University of North Carolina.
When he set out to begin his career after school, he looked to General Mills (NYSE:GIS) – not for its food business, but for a chance to learn the inner workings of a Fortune 500 company’s finance department.
“I got a chance to work for a guy who was strong – he worked as treasurer – and I thought he’d be a good guy to learn from. It could be an additional finishing school,” he said.
For two years, Van Saun worked on financial planning and analysis, and he said he might have stayed longer if the company hadn’t decided to spin off its non-foods business, forcing a move to Minneapolis. He said the move was never in the cards because, at the time, he was engaged to his soon-to-be wife who was working to in fact, move herself to New York to join Van Saun.
So, he said goodbye to the company and moved on to Kidder Peabody & Co, where he really saw the basic skills he’d learned at General Mills begin to pay off in a big way.
“Whether it’s a deal, a financing idea, or a new business opportunity, always try to be thinking about what you could do that’s impactful."
“The world was changing and everyone recognized there needed to be more rigor [in investment banks],” I was building budget models and routines in terms of monthly evaluation of financial results. There was a begrudging acceptance that it was a good thing to do,” he said.
But what really changed the outlook on his career was when General Electric (NYSE:GE) bought Peabody.
“They would say, ‘Can I see last year’s strategic documents,’ and others would say, ‘You have to go see Van Saun for that.’ It’s kind of fortuitous that I had that brief exposure to the way Fortune 500s operate at General Mills, when GE came in and was looking for the kinds of stuff I was building and putting into place.”
After five years in a number of roles there, Van Saun was tapped by Wasserstein Perella & Co. He worked there as both chief operating and chief financial officer during his tenure.
“They were the ‘it’ firm of the moment. Everybody wanted to go work there,” he said. “I was 32 or 33, so to get to be CFO with a galaxy of investment-banking all stars was a great opportunity.”
It was the early 1990’s as Van Saun was just getting settled into his new gig when, as timing would have it, the M&A market “cratered” and caused the company to lose several of its key players.
“It was hard to be a one-trick pony, working to build out other business activities,” Van Saun said. “But we made it through that downturn and came back with new people and a broader business model. That was great experience getting to see how those financial minds operate.”
Surround Yourself with Smart People
Since the early ‘90s at Wasserstein Perella & Co, Van Saun has held positions at top-ranking firms including Bank of New York Mellon (NYSE:BK) and Deutsche Bank (NYSE:DB), before he found his way to RBS (NYSE:RBS), where he worked until 2013 as group finance director and executive director of the board.
It was at that point that he faced what he sees now as one of his biggest career challenges.
“At RBS we were tasked with taking the bank that had fallen the hardest in the crisis and get it back to safety and good health, which has been referred to as the biggest turnaround on the planet,” he said.
With hard work and dedication to the job and the company, Van Saun, alongside a team of financial experts, managed to pull it off, and in 2013, he was called upon once again. This time, to lead the spinoff of Citizens Financial from its then-parent RBS.
He joined the company in October of that year with the goal to take the company public within 18 months. Instead, the timeline was shortened to just a year. But armed with a career full of expertise, Van Saun didn’t hesitate to step up to the challenge. In September 2014, he took Citizens public. On that day, it closed up 7% from it IPO price of $21.50 per share. In the months that have followed, the stock has seen a steady climb higher. It closed Friday at a new all-time high of $28.23 per share.
But it wasn’t the stress of trying to keep a major financial institute afloat, or spinning off an arm of it into a public company that really gave Van Saun color to his career. He said the most important thing he learned during that time was to always make sure he was working in an environment that allowed him to make decisions alongside other hardworking people.
“If you’re the No. 1 guy, in the past I was often alter ego to the CEO: I wanted to work with good, smart people I could learn from. Because then, you can amalgamate their characteristics into your own leadership style,” he said.
Not only that, but his best career advice is to make sure you always do your job and the duties you’re tasked with to the A+ standard…no matter what role you’re in…and then reach for something that goes beyond that.
“Whether it’s a deal, a financing idea, or a new business opportunity, always try to be thinking about what you could do that’s impactful,” he said. “It served me well not to just be content, but to always be restless and thinking about what more I can do to be successful.”
The mistake many people early in their careers make is settling into a role and being afraid to push too hard for a promotion – that was especially true for those who found work in the difficult labor market that proceeded the Great Recession.
But Van Saun said settling is the worst mistake anyone could make in their careers.
“Don’t be afraid to take on new challenges, and risk. Push yourself,” he said.