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Connect, May 2012 - Katherine Lee - EY - United States

Connect, May 2012

Katherine Lee

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  Current position:
President and CEO, GE Capital Canada
  Last EY office:
Toronto, Canada
  Born in:
Seoul, Korea
  Board/community involvement:
GE Women's Network, GE Asia-Pacific Network, Korean Students Association of Canada
  Recent read:
Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (to find out why her son enjoyed it so much)

Katherine Lee

Making the most of
changing times

There are those who like change and those who don't. And there are those rare few who embrace change as an opportunity to stretch their skills, broaden their vision and learn how to thrive. Ernst & Young LLP Canada alumna Katherine Lee is one of those people — and we had the chance to get her perspective on what it takes to embrace the realities of today's economy.

Early lessons in adaptation

President and CEO of GE Capital Canada Katherine Lee offers a bold and optimistic take on today's volatile economy: learn to like it, and the potential is huge.

"While the business environment is slowly improving, the landscape is changed forever. It's no longer about weathering a storm, but learning to thrive in a completely new climate," says Lee. "It's time to find the opportunities, adapt and grow — and do it because of, not in spite of, today's economic realities."

She says this with an earnest smile. After all, she's intimately familiar with the trials and triumphs of adapting to unfamiliar territory.

Born in Seoul, Korea, Lee came to Canada as a child with her family. It was an early life change that planted the seed for the mobile mindset she developed later on. Throughout her career, Lee's taste for new challenges has meant learning to adjust to new cultures, people and working environments — repeatedly. She's worked and lived in four different countries and a diverse group of cities, including Seoul, San Francisco, Tokyo, Montreal and Toronto.

"I think everyone should seek out opportunities to experience new environments if they can," says Lee. "Whether it's a new country or a new part of the company, every time you stretch beyond your comfort zone, you grow in ways you wouldn't otherwise."

The thrill of empowering

Lee began her career in the Toronto office of EY. Those early years provided Lee, who was serving in what was then called the Entrepreneurial Services Group, with a first taste of what it feels like to empower business owners. Now, she leads a company that provides businesses with the capital they need to thrive. GE Capital provides its customers across Canada with financing of approximately US$4 billion per year.

"I came to know GE while working on the liquidation of Standard Trust at EY," explains Lee. "We sold a portfolio of non-performing loans — mostly real estate — to the winning bidder, GE Capital Real Estate."

Lee recognized the opportunity to branch out and accepted GE Capital's offer to join the company as a real estate loan portfolio manager. She soon progressed to the role of Portfolio Business Development Manager, and later to Director, Mergers and Acquisitions, for GE Capital's Pension Fund Advisory Services.

Lee took the helm of GE Capital in January 2011 — 16 years from the time she joined the company.

“Whether it’s a new country or a new part of the company, every time you stretch beyond your comfort zone, you grow in ways you wouldn’t otherwise.”

Understanding the unique context in which your customers operate is important. However, Lee is quick to point out that the demanding economic climate means organizations need to provide more than understanding in order to be competitive. They need viable solutions, and this, Lee points out, is where the GE slogan, "Imagination at work," comes in.

Taking it to the next level

One year into her new role, all Lee can think about is how much more she wants to do. "The past year has been about building a unified leadership team, which we've done very well, and really getting to know our employees and customers."

Now, Lee says, it's time to "be bolder — to take the business to the next level, with new customers and new programs to deliver even more growth. It's an exciting time."

A vital part of her growth strategy is "forming meaningful relationships" with customers and spending less time in the office. "The most important thing I can do on any given day is stay close to our customers and our people," notes Lee. With more than 10,000 small- to mid-market customers and approximately 600 employees at 20 locations across Canada, she has her work cut out for her.

When meeting customers, Lee asks two questions: "How's business?" And, "What are your top challenges?" Lately, the answers are often the same: business is improving, but we need to find ways to grow our profits. We need solutions that address the shortage of skilled labor.

"Being in the field and understanding the challenges and opportunities our customers are facing helps me identify ways we can support them now and in the future — beyond simply providing capital," explains Lee. "That's what will set our organization and our people apart more than anything else."

Bold moves

When first starting out, Lee says she never set her sights any further than earning her CA (Chartered Accountant) designation. She certainly never considered the possibility of being CEO of a multinational organization. Lee believes her growth as a leader started when she joined EY. Things really began to take off in 1999, when she was appointed Managing Director of GE Capital Real Estate Korea, splitting her time between Seoul and Tokyo. "That experience taught me how to build a business and a team from scratch — in a business environment that was completely foreign to me."

Her challenge to ambitious professionals looking to jumpstart their careers? "Be bold enough to grow your strengths every chance you get. Take on an unpopular opportunity in your organization and find success there. Opportunities open up when you show you can go where others wouldn't — with a smile."

Away from the job, Lee enjoys spending time with her husband, Roman (also an EY alum), and their 10-year-old son, whether it's a quiet evening at home or a boisterous night cheering on their beloved Montreal Canadiens.

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