Through his 40 years in the financial services industry, James E. Rohr has witnessed tremendous change. As part of the W.L. Mellon Speaker Series, the chairman and CEO of The PNC Financial Services Group emphasized the importance of that change to Tepper School of Business students, faculty and administrators.
Down-to-earth, humorous, and eager to engage with the standing-room-only group packed into the auditorium, Rohr began and ended with the students’ most pressing questions, the theme of change woven through the hour.
Rohr observed, “Just six years ago, there was no Facebook, the #1 entertainment company in the U.S. was Blockbuster Video, and Apple was rumored to be on verge of bankruptcy.” He laughed at his bank’s serious early-1980’s discussion over the wisdom of an ATM purchase, for “who would ever want to talk to a machine instead of a teller?” and contrasted that with today, where online and mobile payments are growing exponentially.
In response to the rapid pace of change, Rohr noted PNC’s desire to better understand and effectively develop products and services that anticipate the needs of its customers. To help accomplish this, he was pleased to announce PNC’s support for the formation of the new PNC Center for Financial Services Innovation at Carnegie Mellon, housed at the Tepper School.
“We want to continue innovating … and do that in a collaborative way,” he stressed. “There’s really no university like Carnegie Mellon to be able to do that.”
Rohr commented on the university’s culture of innovation dating back to Andrew Carnegie himself, who while not often described as such, he saw as “the single biggest innovator of his time.” He pointed out that when Carnegie discovered he could build a stronger, cheaper, and faster bridge by including steel within the iron, he integrated structural steel manufacturing with his bridge construction company and marketed to the burgeoning railroads. “Carnegie grew from a big company to a dominant player, all because of technology,” Rohr maintained.
He urged the group, like Carnegie, to view change as an exciting “opportunity to succeed,” noting the numerous opportunities available to students graduating from Carnegie Mellon.
“Carnegie Mellon is really at the vortex of change, whether that’s in computer science, finance, big data, or much more,” he said. “It’s one of the great places to go to school.”
He commended the students for their ability to tackle challenging work, contending that while luck, managing risk and relationships were all factors in success, that “To be successful, you’ve got to show up. Hard work, without a doubt, is the single biggest determinant.” Not surprisingly, in response to a description of the CEO position, he was quick to quip, “Any CEO who’s at 40,000 feet, you don’t need him. A lot of stuff happens on the ground.”
When questioned about management and leadership, Rohr relayed a key observation. Early in a career, he explained, “You personally can still move the numbers. But then there comes a point where you can’t. Success at that point is totally dependent on the people you’re leading. If you want them to win, they’ll follow you, whether it’s a small group or a larger one.”
The discussion turned to a more serious note in response to the future of mobile payments. Rohr commented on rapid change, new players, fragmented regulation, and cyber security threats, stating, “This is not for the faint of heart. While you sometimes hear talk about banks being too big to fail, in the world of technology we’re going into, it might be a bank that’s not big enough to protect itself.” He cited such concerns as additional reasons for the creation of the new PNC Center for Financial Services Innovation.
Responding to a question regarding the fiscal cliff and government inaction, he nodded with a simple “Oh, wow.”
“We’ve failed the next generation,” he continued. “We’re handing off $16.5T dollars worth of debt, $1.5T embedded deficit, with 0 interest rates. It doesn’t matter which side of the aisle you’re on. If you look at Greece, that’s what’s going to happen. I think it’s a very serious issue and we are not, as a country, paying attention.”
The session closed, however, on the positive.
“The country’s doing better and better,” Rohr remarked. “I believe the demand for Carnegie Mellon students has never been higher and it’s never been higher from PNC. Come join us.”
James Rohr is a Carnegie Mellon life trustee, the chair of the Presidential Search Committee and sits on the Tepper School of Business advisory board. The PNC Foundation recently established the Tepper School PNC Professorship in Finance.
PNC Center for Financial Services Innovation at Carnegie Mellon
W.L. Mellon Speaker Series
Tepper School Business Board of Advisors