Susan Uthayakumar, President of Schneider Electric Canada: Driving Success
October 18, 2018
BY Owen Hurst
First and foremost, I must note that sitting down with Susan Uthayakumar feels more like sitting down and conversing with a friend than conducting an interview with the company President of one of the largest electrical manufacturers in the world. Of course, she exudes the confidence and knowledge her position demands, but equally identifiable is an open and caring nature.
In a recent sit-down Electrical Industry Canada was able to learn a little about Susan’s history and what drives her to succeed.
To begin Susan was born in Sri Lanka and immigrated to Canada at a young age. She went to high school in Canada and attended the University of Waterloo where she obtained Undergraduate and Graduate degrees.
Upon completing university Susan began her working career with Deloitte, which she notes was a great forum to begin her career as she was surrounded by highly driven and intelligent individuals. She enjoys that the position was demanding and really helped nurture a strong and driven work ethic. Further her work with Deloitte instilled in her a great interest in acquisitions which would serve her well as her career unfolded.
After working at Deloitte Susan began a position with McCain Foods Canada in corporate development, which had a large focus on acquisitions and new manufacturing development. Through this she gained insight into the logistics of manufacturing operations and all the various intricacies that required attention such as operational efficiency and safety protocols. She also learned about the need for global partnerships and the benefits that they can bring to the table.
Susan notes that working for McCain on global projects, and through her earlier work at Deloitte, she became cognizant of the need to spend some time working in the US, as it is one of the largest markets. And so, in 2003 Susan emigrated to the US. She notes at this point that she had met her husband while working at McCain and with a little bemusement points out that she thought it would be better to start fresh in the US rather than transfer within McCain in order to keep work and personal life separate. She began her career in the US with Crowe Capitol, through which she had her first contact with Schneider Electric.
Initially she worked with Schneider on various acquisitions throughout the US and Canada and admits that looking back she is very proud of the work she did, and in particular her efforts in Schneider’s acquisition of Power Measurement in Canada.
It is at this point that Susan really dug deep into her past, reminiscing about exactly what drew her to pursue a permanent position with Schneider Electric. She loved that Schneider was about energy efficiency, and about the greater good of something. And she recalls that coming from a developing country she had a great respect, not just for electricity, but for just how much it truly has allowed us to accomplish.
Deciding to stay with Schneider she wanted to expand her role and knowledge beyond that of acquisitions and took a leadership role in finance to gain insight into the business drivers of the company. She focused her efforts in this position on the finance side of sales, distribution and marketing with a goal to truly understand the business as a whole. And as her understanding grew it served to fuel her fascination with the company and all it had to offer.
With the knowledge she gained she made the decision to move outside the US and work in a smaller market to really get her hands dirty and help grow Schneider in a smaller market. Now Susan notes that Canada is by no means a small market, but in comparison to the US, it offered different opportunities for growth. And thus in 2010 Susan returned to Canada as the new CFO of Schneider Electric Canada. Although still in finance she discusses how she took the opportunity to continue learning the operational side the business, with a particular interest in distribution.
At this point she recalled an interesting story from her early days as the CFO. She remembers attending a meeting with Gary Abrams, the former President of Schneider Electric Canada, whom she greatly admires. The meeting was a joint affair with several top officials from a distribution partner, who noted that they had never had anyone from finance join the meetings previously. To which Gary replied, “Ah she maybe the finance leader today, but who knows where she will be tomorrow.” Susan couldn’t help but smile as she recalled the instance, noting that it was at least 8 years ago, well before there were any considerations or aspirations by her to obtain her current position.
Continuing her rise Susan took a leadership position with Schneider’s Power Business Unit. In her time with the Power BU she remembers not just her growth but the growth that the company was undertaking. Schneider was evolving as it recognized the changing world around it, at that time we were starting to see the convergence of OT and IT. From this and all the advancements that were coming Schneider evolved from a product-based company to a solution provider, and now is in essence a truly a digital company.
She admits that as she advanced within the company the knowledge she acquired tied her to the industry, a fact that her younger self would not have predicted but is now one of her true passions. And through her drive and love of the industry she continues to grow alongside the company and driving it forward jut as she has done for herself throughout her career.
Susan has now been in her position as President of Schneider Electric Canada since the beginning of 2018 and we asked her about any challenges the new role has brought that she may not have anticipated.
She responds that there were a number of challenges to this role, but true to her nature she has risen to meet each of those challenges head on.
First and foremost, Susan recalls how essential it was that she worked in various positions at Schneider, learning the various functions and operations of each department as well ensuring that she was aware and interacting with the major players in each area.
It was also essential to integrate herself into the broader electrical community. To fully integrate herself she joined associations such as becoming a board member of Electro-Federation Canada (EFC). She also feels it is important to make herself available to Schneider’s clients and to attend events.
In her new role it was essential to undertake these endeavours to ensure she had a deep knowledge base and also to be sure to surround herself with knowledgeable individuals. She also notes that a leadership role means you need to be in a place where you can knowledgeably answer questions, not knowing is really not an option. And I can certainly attest after a short time with Susan that her knowledge truly runs deep, and her confidence surrounds every response she provides.
One very important point that she made when discussing the company and how the wider economy can affect business is that cyclicality is something you need to learn. Susan recognizes that times of crisis can teach us how to succeed and she learned a lot through the currency shifts of the Canadian dollar, and the energy crisis in 2008-2009. Looking back at these events she states how crucial it is in her role to stay ahead of changes and to have contingency plans. Another critical challenge she identified was the need to set yourself apart from your competitors, particularly in an industry in which it is not always easy to do. However, learning was the biggest challenge, but it was the excitement of learning that has kept driving her forward.
She also feels it is important to point out, particularly as she is raising her own daughter, that she feels there is yet a greater role for women to play in the electrical industry. She is truly grateful for the diverse culture at Schneider and feels that although much progress has been made, and she is a testament to that, that more diversity will benefit the industry as a whole.
All in all, Susan Uthayakumar is an extremely impressive woman, mother, company president and a industry leader for today and tomorrow and we look forward to watching her guide Schneider Electric Canada into the next generation of the electrical industry.
About Schneider Electric
Schneider Electric is leading the Digital Transformation of Energy Management and Automation in Homes, Buildings, Data Centers, Infrastructure and Industries. With global presence in over 100 countries, Schneider is the undisputable leader in Power Management – Medium Voltage, Low Voltage
and Secure Power, and in Automation Systems. We provide integrated efficiency solutions, combining energy, automation and software. In our global Ecosystem, we collaborate with the largest Partner, Integrator and Developer Community on our Open Platform to deliver real-time control and operational efficiency. We believe that great people and partners make Schneider a great company and that our commitment to Innovation, Diversity and Sustainability ensures that Life Is On everywhere, for everyone and at every moment. https://www.schneider-electric.ca/en/