Expatriate Chris Liddell, the chief financial officer for American car giant General Motors, has been recognised with the inaugural Lifetime Achievement award as part of the 2011 New Zealand CFO awards.
The judges described Liddell as a multi-dimensional leader whose drive has led to numerous high profile executive roles in New Zealand and the US, including CEO of Carter Holt Harvey, and CFO of International Paper and Microsoft.
"Who could have thought that within 20 months of being bankrupt and needing a US$50 billion bailout that General Motors would be making profits again? The success is due in no small part to the inspired and decisive leadership of Chris Liddell," said Chye Heng, CFO of Beca Group and one of the award judges.
The award was handed out at a ceremony last night ahead of the New Zealand CFO Summit while Liddell was in New Zealand with his fiancée Renee Harbers as part of his philanthropic work here. Other award finalists, including CFO of the Year, will be announced at the March 24 summit, which is run by Fairfax and Conferenz.
'It's lovely to win any award and something that is a lifetime award makes it even more special. From a CFO perspective it is, I guess, the ultimate award down here so I'm very proud to have received it," Liddell says.
He says 50% of people thought he was crazy when he left cash-rich Microsoft 18 months ago to take on the CFO role at troubled GM. The other half were too polite to say anything. But he describes the chance to be involved in GM's turnaround and successful US$23 billion IPO - the world's largest - as the "opportunity of a lifetime".
"It was a great example of an iconic company that had fallen on hard times. It was once, 50 years ago, the most valuable and probably the most highly respected company in the world, and over the years and decades that position had eroded both economically and in terms of its reputation. I saw an opportunity to be part of a team that helped rebuild it, culminating in the IPO at the end of last year."
A contendor to replace Ed Whitacre, the man who recruited him, Liddell missed out on the CEO role to Dan Akerson.
"I've always taken the view that if you do your role properly, good things will happen. So I'm actually delighted at what we've been able to achieve in the relatively short period of time I've been there."
Last week GM reported fourth quarter earnings slightly above expectations - its first full year profit since 2004 and the largest in a decade. Liddell says it was a satisfying moment, announcing the US$4.7 billion profit to the market, a turnaround achieved after the company slashed costs and debt in a 2009 bankruptcy financed by the US federal government.
"We couldn't have just one quarter of profitability and then just lapse back into losing money as we have done in previous years. So it was incredibly important to put the foundations for success in place... and one of those foundations was sustainable profitability."
Liddell hopped on a plane to New Zealand straight after announcing the results in Detroit and says he celebrated "somewhere over the Pacific by sleeping".
He has gained a reputation in the US as being good at holding down costs while building up cash but says while cost control is important, he prides himself as much, if not more, on contributing to the strategy of companies he works for.
"As a CFO you have to be able to put our foot on the accelerator when you're pushing for growth offshore but at the same time being able to put your foot on the brake when economic circumstances mean you have to save costs."
Liddell cites one of the reasons for his success as a willingness to take risks with his career, doing things differently, and being a good all-rounder.
If his nearly $9 million annual salary at GM is not enough to be envious of, the Matamata-born 52 year old also admits that another attraction of the job was his love of cars. These days he drives a stylish two-door Cadillac CTSV coupe (they're not made here) and has his pick of the GM fleet which he rotates every couple of weeks.
"Fortunately in my position they will keep supplying me as many cars as I want and I think it is important I understand all the cars, not just the high performance ones but right through the fleet.''
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