By Kevin Hong
Dan Finkelman ’77, a Wilson Alumni Scholar, spoke Wednesday about his business career and how a liberal arts education plays a role in the world of business in a talk entitled “I Only Got Fired Twice.”
Finkelman is teaching a short three-week course title, “Strategy, Leadership & Business Decision-Making,” this fall.
Mark Montgomery, Economics, began by emphasizing how rare visits like this are, as prominent businesspeople usually “have far too much experience [and] far too much market value, so this is really a gift to the institution and we are grateful for it.”
Finkelman graduated with degrees in both Economics and History. He holds an MBA from Harvard, received in 1981, and began his career at McKinsey & Company. He was Executive Vice President for Corporate Development & Innovation at Alliance Data Systems in Dallas and now serves as the new CMO.
Finkelman was born and raised in two small towns, Dover, Del., and Linconlshire, Ill.
“The reason why I think that’s important is that you need to have a diversity of experience to work with a diversity of people,” Finkelman said. “If all you have done is working in a city or a small town, then you do not have a good sense of how other folks live their lives. A liberal arts education enables you to work with a set of diverse people in teams, which is highly valued nowadays.”
Before coming to Grinnell, Finkelman worked at Kemper Insurance Company in the mailroom before he realized that college might be a better option. He only applied to two colleges, and Grinnell was one of them. He visited the other college and did not like it, so Grinnell became the only option.
“I had no idea how good Grinnell was,” he said. “I think my parents obviously had done more homework than me; they had some sense that that was not a bad place to send a child to.”
After graduating, he worked for Jewel Companies, which is a grocery retail company, in which he got to know a bit about finance and merchandising. Most of Finkelman’s professors were intrigued about why he did not want to get a Ph.D. in Economics.
“I told them about my struggle in college algebra and calculus, and that I’ll need to spend another five years; business school is two. So I made the decision and that was simple for me,” he said.
Finkelman got into Harvard Business School, and according to Finkelman, that was an admissions mistake.
“All of a sudden you are in a class of 90 people, and every one of them is smarter than you,” he said.
There, he studied with people who worked for JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs and the World Bank. However, he said what a liberal arts education gives you is “the ability to synthesize an overload of information and material and be ready to make a recommendation.”
“No matter what your career is, whether it is business or academia, whether you become a lawyer or a doctor, invariably you have to face the situation where there is just more stuff for you to try to comprehend,” he said.
After Harvard, Finkelman joined McKindsey & Company in Cleveland and worked there for 14 years. He then joined Cardinal Health, a job that only lasted for 16 months, and that was the first time he got fired.
“It’s hard to be good at something that you do not enjoy. Find that which you have a passion for and which gets you going in the morning and you actually like the work, because it’s important,” Finkelman said.
Finkelman then founded Columbia Consulting Group in 1996, after which he joined a few other companies, and now he is the new CEO of Alliance Data Retail Services.
“The most important thing is to learn how to learn,” he said.
Correction: The S&B incorrectly identified Finkelman as the CEO of Alliance Data, when he is in fact the Chief Marketing Officer or CMO (as he noted in the comments). We apologize for this error.