Ciocca Center Intern Interviews Bob Guillocheau ’82

Bob Guillocheau ’82
Chairman & CEO of Ascensus

“We are very much a mission based company, values driven, and a lot of that came from my learnings at Holy Cross.  The ‘men and women for others’ very much resonated with me and it’s something I bring with me everyday when I go to work.”

Bob Guillocheau headshotOn March 22, 2019, Ciocca Center Student Intern Sarah Anderson ’20 interviewed Bob Guillocheau ’82 to learn about his journey from HC into the financial services industry.  Bob was an economics and accounting major and currently serves as the Chairman & CEO of Ascensus.

Who/What inspired you to enter the business world?  I graduated Holy Cross with an economics accounting degree and, typically if you have a accounting degree, you get recruited by what was back then the big eight accounting firms.  There have been mergers and today it is the big four accounting firms. The world has changed a lot from 1982 when I graduated, but getting recruited is what got me into financial services and the business world.  I took an accounting class in high school, taught by a woman by the name of Mrs. Ellis. She made it really fun and interesting and she was a businesswoman who explained to us how the world works and how accounting and finance plays into any aspect of company.

What was the trajectory of your career path?  From COO to President and CEO to now Chairman and CEO, was this a goal of yours? When I initially started working at Price Waterhouse, I thought maybe I’d make a career there. It’s a great firm, a teaching and learning place.  I thought I might become a partner. But, I found that you’re sort of like a mercenary: you get assigned a certain number of clients and you go in, do the audit, and are part of a small group of individual contributors.  I learned that I liked being part of a bigger team. When I was doing these audits at bigger companies, I said wow I think it would be fun to be part of that. I had an opportunity – a Price Waterhouse client was looking for someone to join as an assistant controller in the private corporate world, and I eventually became controller of that company.  At that stage of my life, I aspired to become CFO. I then left there to work at Mellon which at the time they were just a standalone business based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Mellon bought a company up in Boston where I was working and I was hired there as controller  and then became CFO. I was probably 28 at the time and it was a fortunate series of events to be at that level at that age.  That business ultimately was sold to what today is First Data Corp, at the time it was American Express then part of AMEX that acquired us. At First Data, they very much believed in the financial people being groomed to run businesses. I was the VP of finance for First Data Investor Services Group which is a half a billion dollar revenue business. We did an acquisition to get into the administration of retirement plans and they asked me to move over to the business side, which is something I was really interested in and expressed the desire to move out of finance and into the line of business.  I originally started in our retirement unit as the Chief Operating Officer and then a couple years later, I was promoted to Business Unit President in 1995. I was thirteen years out of school and running a business. It was a very small one at the time I started, probably about 10 million and then by the time that business was part of a larger transaction to PNC bank, the business had grown to about 80 million in revenue. I have been running these kinds of business ever since.

How would you describe Ascensus and the work you do? The company that I work for today was originally part of a publicly traded company which I joined in 2003 and I’ve been here ever since.  It’s very exciting, I love being part of a team and particularly a service-based business. That’s what I really love! Ascensus is an intersection of people, technology, and serving others.  I always say I’m part of a team of 3,000 people at Ascensus that go to work everyday with a noble purpose. We help more than 8 million Americans save today for a better tomorrow. Through a whole host of different tax advantage savings whether it’s employer-sponsored 401(k) plans, state-sponsored retirement plans, individual retirement accounts, college saving accounts, and able accounts, we help people save.  We are very much a mission based company, values driven, and a lot of that came from my learnings at Holy Cross. The “men and women for others” very much resonated with me and it’s something I bring with me everyday when I go to work with the other 2,999 folks at Ascensus.

As a pure play service provider, what is the primary financial focus at Ascensus? We’re in the tech-enable services side, in support of tax advantage savings vehicles.  So, large financial institutions partner with us. We provide all the service and technology that powers the small market solutions from big name companies that offer those type of investment savings to companies and individuals.  We are the technology and service behind it. If someone works at a company and their company uses different firms that partner with Ascensus, we do all the trading. We are not investment managers. When we say “pure play” that means we don’t do anything to compete with our clients.  We are just there to help our clients be as successful as possible and to save in the most cost effective way. That’s what we do! We’re the company that when someone picks up the phone and has a question or wants to take a loan from their 401(k) plan, someone answers the phone and that’s one of our 3,000 associates that makes up our team.  When someone gets a statement in the mail, that comes from us. We do all the trading of the dollars and all the regulatory reporting, all the nuts and bolts that comes with these saving vehicles.

How would you describe your leadership style on the Ascensus team and how do you measure leadership success? I always say that leadership at Ascensus doesn’t bring privilege, it brings responsibility and that responsibility is to create the type of culture where people see working at Ascensus as a place to have a career, not simply to have a job.  I try to participate in all leadership training programs for newly promoted leaders. We’re very much in the knowledge-based business. If you are interacting with an associate from a Ascensus, whether you’d be an employer that’s offering a 401(k) plan to their employees, or you’re one of those employees, or you’re the state offering a 529 college savings program to your residents, if you’re interacting with an individual at Ascensus that has eight years of experience, you are going to get a different and deeper relationship and depth of knowledge than someone who has been working here for eight months.  As much as we have good training programs, it’s a combination of technology training and people who feel good about the organization and want to stick around. I think that’s what leadership is all about – leadership is about creating the type of culture and environment where people feel recognized and rewarded for their efforts. They feel really good about being part of the organization and that in turn is a very real and tangible experience that the client feels. If they’re interacting with people who are proud to be part of the Ascensus team and really know their stuff, they are going to have a different service and customer experience.  Those clients will have a good experience with us and they’re going to stay with us for a long time – we’re going to help them grown and that’ll in turn help us grow. That’ll give us a continuous improvement process, one that will enable us to grow and grow profitably and then be able to continue that virtuous cycle of recognizing and rewarding people giving them the right tools and training for them to excel.

You love being part of a team.  What does the team aspect of business look like to you in regards to leadership? I’m a big sports guy.  In our leadership sessions, I say a leader is like being a great point guard in basketball.  It’s all about trying to make those around you as good as they can possibly be. It’s really, in many respects, about being very selfless.  I remember when I was a little kid, I read a book about a football player named Gale Sayer. The title was  I am Third – and right underneath it, it read “The Lord is First, my Family is Second, and I am Third.”  In the business world, I think there is a lot to be said for that. Leadership is all about putting the needs of others first and foremost.  I think if you look around and see people that you’ve had the opportunity to work with and mentor and you see them growing and developing, that’s probably one of the greatest rewards of being a leader.

What is your favorite memory from Holy Cross and your time spent on Mount St. James? I learned a lot about discipline.  I learned you get out what you put in.  Obviously, it was a rigorous and demanding from an academic perspective. I had always done really well in high school and I thought I was a hard worker, and then my freshman year was a rude awakening!  I really learned about time management and to be successful you have to put the time in and learn to love the grind. I think for so many people, and what I’ve seen over the course of my time in business, it’s not necessarily the people who had the highest GPA – it’s all about the intangible skills around discipline and hard work that drives success.  I found that certainly to be true in my career. At Holy Cross, I played lacrosse and interestingly enough, I always did better during the spring season when I had a lot less time to get the work done. I learned to use my time efficiently.

I obviously had some great professors, Professor O’Connell was one of our top accounting professors.  I learned a lot from him and that was a great foundation for my career. I spent a longer part of my career outside of finance and then became a business unit leader and ultimately became chairman and CEO of a company that has around 700 million in revenue.  At the end of the day, whether you’re in corporate finance or accounting, you need to understand it. It’s comforting to the shareholders and investors that I understand the balance sheet, income statement, and understand what’s important to the economic side of the business.  To me, the economic side doesn’t drive the business, it’s really an output for having all the right inputs. The inputs are all around the culture, the values, and the mission of the company. The business has grown from about 600 people to the 3,000 people today.  The revenue growing from about 100 million to 700 million didn’t happen because I understood the balance sheet or income statement, it happened because we have core values which are: people matter, quality first, and integrity always. Those guide our decisions and create the kind of culture at Ascensus.  When you get all that stuff right, then the numbers take care of themselves. The foundation in finance and accounting that I had at Holy Cross has certainly helped me a great deal. The foundation along with the ethos of “men and women for others,” to me those two things coming together is really what enables businesses to be successful.

How do you connect with millennials today who aspire to enter the business world post Holy Cross?  What advice would you give your kids or my fellow classmates? Well, I’ll give you a two part answer.  Roughly 30% of our 3000 associates that make up the Ascensus team are millennials. I think we’ve done a really good job being able to recruit and retain them because they love the mission based on the culture we have.  They appreciate the sense that we’re doing something for the greater good, it’s not just about managing money. This work makes me feel good about what I do. Trying to pursue something you believe in and that you have passion about makes it a lot easier to go to work every day when you feel like you’re making a difference.  As folks are evaluating where they want to go, I think culture and mission has a lot to do with it. It’s not just simply about the job, you’re choosing to become part of something bigger than yourself that you can relate to. If that organization’s mission and culture aligns with your vision for those kinds of things, then I think that’s a great place to start.  The hard work and discipline and grind to get ahead has served me well and I think there is still a place for that. I agree with the work life balance. Being disciplined and working hard while being part of something you believe in is a great recipe for career and personal success.

Thanks for reading! Cassie

Cassie Gevry, Associate Director of Student Engagement
Ciocca Center for Business, Ethics, and Society