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Carol Kissal – The CFO Leading Emory University’s Financial Future

Carol Kissal is a woman with many hats. As the CFO/VP of Finance at Emory University for the past three years, Carol handles a large scope of tasks, including treasury, debt/cash management, accounting, data analytics, and more. Though she points out these are standard items in any CFO’s portfolio, there something about leading finance at an institute of higher education that gives the job an extra kick:

“I think what makes Emory University a little different from other organizations is that is extraordinarily complex. As a CFO here you have to know a little bit about everything, and that’s what makes it exciting.”

Carol’s career trajectory that led her to becoming Emory’s CFO started as soon as she left college. After owning her own business for a while, she had the distinct realization that:

“All roads leads to finance and money. If you really want to be in the “thick of it” that’s where the action is.”

She obtained her MBA, spent time moving up the ladder in various positions, then became a treasurer, then deputy CFO, and finally CFO at multiple different organizations. Her work stood out and she ended up being recruited into Emory, despite no background in higher education. But, as far as succeeding in a new sector, Carol never had concerns.

“The way I see it, CFOs cut across industries. You have to be a subject matter expert in your area—finance, and all the duties a CFO has—but you can do it in any industry. That’s the beauty of finance.”

Joining a Growth Organization as a CFO

Carol came into Emory during a growth period for the university, something she recognizes is a challenge for a mature organization. Navigating through regulations in regards to research funding and the Affordable Care Act, as well as challenges higher education in general faces with respect to tuition make up just a few of the hurdles Emory’s financial team faces.

Despite the obstacles, Emory has had a series of financial wins during the growth period they’re currently experiencing. Recent expansion on the hospital side of the university has been a phenomenal financial asset, as well as the ever-growing research portfolio, which currently sits at over half a billion dollars in funding. Coupled with a growing tuition revenue, Carol and her team have balanced the expenditure base of Emory.

When looking towards the external factors at play with the financial challenges and successes Emory has been experiencing over the last few years, Carol observes them at both a local and national/international level.

Local – “Here we have Emory University, housed in a city that is also growing exponentially. Atlanta has had a great resurgence over the last few years—even over the last few decades. You can see it by the construction that’s happening all over the city and the companies deciding to situate their headquarters here. Those are wonderful things that are happening. Emory’s new president is very focused on community engagement, as Emory wants to make sure that they are supporting the city growth and is very committed to the expansion of Atlanta.”

The recent move Emory has made petitioning to join the city of Atlanta in order to obtain a MARTA rail line is just one of the many ways the organization is looking to influence the economic boom of the city.

National/International – “You have to look at it on an international level because a lot of our students come from many different countries, and the research we do is all over the globe. Being a non-profit, we want to make sure we are serving humanity on the academic and teaching side as well as the research side. As the international community changes and as the national administration changes, we have to make sure that we are preserving our integrity and our mission. It’s all about finding balance between our mission, what’s happening around the world, and the regulations that are coming from the government.”

With all of the challenges and all of the pieces at play that are heralding the financial future of Emory, Carol sums up her view of that future pretty simply:

“I think the near and the long future of Emory from a finance perspective look wonderful. We’re going to be very focused on making sure we’re financially secure and able to actually make some investments in all sorts of things—infrastructure, technology, you name it—that take us out to the long view of our mission. I think we’re poised for success because Emory has the ability to manage investments and seek other sources that can help us to meet our mission as we see it coming to life in the next 10 or 20 years.”

Sharing Financial Successes and Struggles

Considering a long career that has benefited from professional connections, one that has led to becoming a CFO of such a multifaceted organization, Carol points to networking as a major key to her success. For one, networking groups offer the opportunity to share success stories with others. One of Carol’s biggest pieces of advice pertains to analytics and performance management, but ultimately comes back to finance:

“When I came to Emory a few years ago, I set up an office of financial systems and data analytics. Universities are flush with data, and I wanted to capture all of it to make smarter business decisions. We went through a process of reallocating our resources and laid out plans of what we wanted to accomplish and how we could measure that. It’s been very successful so far, and it just goes to show you don’t always need to add cost in order to add value—most of the time you can just reallocate.”

As happy as Carol is to share her insights with her peers, the return she gets from networking is just as rewarding:

“When I network at the CFO Forum I always ask CFOs about the challenges that I’m going through and they give me a different perspective on things that they’ve done which, many times, I can incorporate into my functions. Like I said, you don’t have to stay in your industry. Oftentimes I have my folks in the Emory finance department say ‘we’re going to benchmark ourselves against other higher ed’ and I remind them we need to benchmark ourselves against finances in any industry because you need to look at it from a broader perspective. The CFO Forum gives you those different perspectives on how to do things.”

To exchange ideas with CFOs like Carol, and other partners of the CFO Forum Atlanta, engage digitally through our online forum or join us at our next quarterly event.

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