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Shaun O'Connor '93: MBA studies at Western opened a world of opportunity

Shaun O’Connor always welcomed a challenge from his Ancell School of Business professors during his Master of Business Administration studies at Western — and that self-confidence to seek out opportunities to grow has become the springboard for a successful corporate executive career that has taken him all the way to Abu Dhabi.

“Shaun was the type of student who always took the discussion to the next level,” Professor of Management Dr. Eugene Buccini recalled of O’Connor, his former student in the class “Negotiation and Conflict Resolution” and a 1993 MBA graduate of WCSU. “He wasn't just interested in the ‘what’ but wanted to know the ‘why.’ In the negotiation class, he grasped the concept of collaborative negotiation and used it extremely well.  The student's entire grade for the class is based on a one-on-one negotiation with me for their grade, and Shaun received an A — need I say more?”

O’Connor, who this year became chief financial officer of the Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) in Abu Dhabi, credits Buccini, Professor of Justice and Law Administration Charles Mullaney and other faculty mentors at Western with providing important foundations for a career that has progressed through management positions of increasingly substantial responsibility at IBM, AIG, GE Capital, CB Richard Ellis Investors, and now TDIC. 

“Not a day goes by in my career that I have not used the skills and knowledge I learned from Eugene Buccini and Charles Mullaney,” O’Connor observed. “The ‘Negotiation and Conflict Resolution’ class, which was probably the most influential class I had, helped me develop and refine skills I still use today, as in structuring complex joint ventures at my new company. In ‘Business Law’ with Professor Mullaney, I learned how to structure arguments and debates to put across my point of view while ensuring they are based on fact, not conjecture.”

Recipient of a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Purdue University, O’Connor started out on the accounts payable staff of IBM at its Westchester County site, and took on progressively more challenging finance roles during his seven-year tenure at the company including management of a joint venture project. Yet he already was seeking opportunities to gain the skills needed to broaden his career horizon beyond accounting to seek future corporate management positions, and he found an excellent vehicle to achieve that goal in Western’s MBA curriculum.

“I was looking for a program that would challenge me intellectually as well as fit my very busy work schedule,” he said. “I felt the program at Western would fit my expectations more fully.”

He and his wife, Traci, also a Western MBA graduate, found the program well suited to the everyday workplace. “The professors were tremendous at putting together a challenging syllabus that would pull in real-world case studies and allow students to relate to current work issues and strategies, while also applying book knowledge to drive points home,” he said. “Throughout my roles in corporate finance, operations and quality control over the years, the ability to leverage school learning and apply those skills to each challenge has allowed me to progress in my career. My ability to solve problems and develop solutions to restructure procedures has resulted in several promotions over the past 25 years.”

His first break following graduation from Western came with his acceptance of a position with AIG, where he found that his academic studies and IBM experience served him well in becoming a team manager. Three years later he joined GE Capital, where he served for more than a decade in a various finance and operations positions that required him to manage large teams of more than 100 employees around the world. His first overseas position was as chief financial officer for the Paris-based GE Capital Real Estate in Europe.  In 2008, he was recruited to become global CFO and chief risk officer at CB Richard Ellis Investors in Los Angeles.  “CB Richard Ellis Investors allowed me to couple the role of risk manager with my core finance roles, and broaden my skill set to include commercial deal structuring while maintaining my global teams and obligations,” he remarked.

In May 2011, O’Connor became CFO of TDIC, established in 2006 as a developer of major tourism, cultural, commercial and residential real estate in Abu Dhabi, largest in area of the seven emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates. One of TDIC’s most significant projects is the development of

Saadiyat Island, located about one-third mile off the Abu Dhabi coast and site of a diverse array of planned development ventures including a cultural district housing the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Zayed National museums. 

“My role was created by TDIC’s board to bring modern financial structuring, controls and leadership to this company,” O’Connor remarked. “ I am responsible for traditional finance tasks such as accounting, planning, treasury and cash management, but also for moving the company from being subsidized by the government to being able to stand on its own financially. I provide financial oversight of the projects we are building, and am responsible for structuring new joint ventures and funding to support future development.”

Being a good mentor and teacher is critical to his success at TDIC, he said. “You need to be able to challenge each individual based on their skills and develop them for their next roles.” With more than 70 nationalities represented in an emirate where expatriates account for 85 percent of the population, he added, “you need to assimilate quickly into the new country’s culture and learning diverse customs and obligations.  Sensitivity is key, and patience is a must. While learning a new culture, you also need to learn about your new company, and how to interact with new peers and manage your new team — all this without forgetting to use the skills that made you attractive to your new employer.”

If he has one regret about his new job, it is that he and his wife Traci were unable to bring along their eight-year-old black Labrador Retriever, Chase, given the extreme heat typical of summers in Abu Dhabi.  Despite the heat, he remains a dedicated runner averaging 30 to 35 miles per week, a veteran of two marathons and nearly 30 half-marathons. He also swims, plays golf, plays tennis, reads and travels extensively.

For current students and young professionals beginning their careers, O’Connor urges them to embrace challenges as he learned to do at Western and in the corporate world. “Most people never realize how much they can accomplish until they try,” he affirmed. “My role as a manager has been to push people well beyond their comfort zone — once I know what they can achieve, then I stand back and watch them succeed.”

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