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The Evolutionary Path to the Presidency

AECOM finance chief Mike Burke has been preparing for his upcoming new role for years.
David McCannMay 23, 2011

When AECOM finance chief Mike Burke moves up to his new role as president on October 1, it won’t involve a sea change for the operationally minded executive. He’s been in hands-on mode since he came to the company in 2005 after 15 years at KPMG.

But in some respects, his focus at the $8.5 billion engineering and infrastructure design firm will be quite different. For example, while Burke, who is both a certified public accountant and a tax attorney, has worked on dozens of acquisitions over the past five and a half years, now he’ll be driving them.

His promotion is part of a clear succession plan (something many companies lack, to their great risk). The CEO is taking over for the company’s retiring chairman, the finance vice president will step into Burke’s shoes, and the head of Americas operations will take the new post of chief operating officer. It’s not the first time AECOM has taken the everyone-moves-up-one approach.

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CFO recently spoke with Burke about his new job and upcoming challenges. An edited transcript of the interview follows.

It sounds like it’s been a wild ride for you at AECOM. What attracted you to the job back in 2005?

It was a private company then — a fairly big one, around $2.4 billion — that was looking to expand its capital base by doing an initial public offering, and to do some acquisitions leading up to that. That was quite appealing, and all of it happened. We raised private-equity money that allowed us to make 30 acquisitions. Our $800 million IPO was one of the top 10 on the New York Stock Exchange in 2007. We used that capital to continue to grow; we’ve doubled the workforce to 45,000 employees and more than tripled the revenue.

AECOM bridge

How will your experience as a finance person inform your role as president?

It starts off with my previous career at KPMG. I was not just a finance person but a member of the board, involved in the management of a very large professional-services organization. That’s exactly what AECOM is. So, much of what I learned about managing at KPMG was transferable.

As we think about our size and scale, obviously our engineering and construction management activities are of utmost importance, but being a well-managed financial organization is, too, because you can’t have one without the other.

Was the succession of top executives long planned?

Yes, we put a lot of thought into it. Shareholders like to see orderly transitions. We had a CEO in place for five years, and the outgoing chairman was the CEO before that.

Does that make you the heir-apparent to the CEO seat?

That’s a decision to be made by the board at the right time.

What are your plans, now that you’re president?

I’ll spend a lot of time working on acquisitions, which have been an important part of our strategy, having completed 30 of them since 2005. I’ll be out in front of the deals, not just analyzing the financial side, but actually driving deal origination and the strategic decisions around them.

Other than helping to drive company growth, what was your biggest achievement as CFO?

You might hear this a lot, but I’m proud of the quality of the team I’ve been working with. But building that team was not only about quality in the finance organization. The team allowed me to reach well beyond my finance role for the past few years. I wasn’t pigeonholed into just the CFO role and got very involved in operations. Other than that, we’ve improved our EBITDA margins by 400 basis points over the past five years.

But when you’re alone with your thoughts, how do you feel about formally transitioning out of finance?

You don’t wake up one day and decide to take an operational role. It evolves over time. I’ve had the good fortune to work for a CEO who allowed me to spread my wings much earlier than some CFOs are allowed to do. I started getting involved in operational matters years ago. I always tell people who work for me, try to take on the responsibilities of the next level before someone gives them to you. That helps you to move ahead in your career.

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