An American in Mexico City: George on Achieving His Career Goal to Work Internationally

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George Letten is the CFO of the Mexico Operations, Global, and Export at Navistar Inc. which covers Latin America, EMEA and APAC. Since joining Navistar in 2010, George has held many roles from Sr. Manager of Internal Audit and SOX to Strategic Finance Manager of the North American Truck and Global Bus Operations to Director of Finance for the Procurement and Supply Chain and Director of Finance for the Navistar Defense division. Prior to joining Navistar, George worked in the Internal Audit and SOX practice at Protiviti Chicago from 2004 to 2010. Connect with George on LinkedIn.

What do you do as CFO, Mexico Operations, Global, & Export at Navistar and how did you get there?

george letten

I am the CFO for anything that is made or sold outside of the U.S. or Canada for Navistar. I run the full financial operations including, accounting, finance, treasury and taxes. I’ve been with Navistar for eight years now and spent time going through a multitude of jobs from the Internal Audit group to Procurement for North America.

This role was really an opportunity to go outside of the U.S. and experience a different culture and business environment. It’s been a great role in understanding our different business geographies; Mexico is vastly different from Brazil or Colombia.

It had always been a goal of mine to get good international business experience within finance. When I left Protiviti, one of the major reasons was to get back into finance and accounting. I fell into Internal Audit and SOX really by accident. Joining Protiviti gave me the opportunity to see different industries, business practices and different parts of the country. But I wanted to go back into finance.

So was Protiviti kind of a detour for you in your career?

It was! It was more of a learning detour. I started in industry which is probably vastly different than what most people in consulting do and the majority started right out of college. I joined Protiviti in 2004 during the heart of when Sarbanes-Oxley was getting a ton of attention.

I had only worked in one industry prior, so Protiviti appealed to me from the perspective of getting to see different industries and how different companies operate in those industries. I started as a Sr. Consultant and when I left in 2010, I was a Sr. Manager in the same practice. The amount of experience and learning I got in that six years was key to learning how companies work and prepared me quite a bit for my roles at Navistar.

Protiviti was only a couple years old when you joined the company. What was the Chicago office like at that time?

When I first joined, it was a very small office. I still remember when we made 100 million in revenue as a group, which was a very big deal. I vividly remember sitting in the new employee orientation and HR asked me if I had a passport. I didn’t; so they said, tomorrow we need you to go get one as  your first project will be in Germany.

Initially, we focused a lot on Internal Audit and SOX. But as I was rounding out my time there, I was helping companies with optimizing inventory operations, implementing financial systems, or restating their financial statements.

What did you do at Navistar when you left Protiviti?

When I joined in May 2010, Navistar was just going through the process of insourcing their Internal Audit department. They had primarily been a SOX shop as they were coming off a financial restatement. I came in and helped them take over the SOX piece, so they could go back to focusing on Internal Audit items. My goal was to eventually rotate out of Internal Audit and SOX to start doing more finance and accounting. After a year and a half, I took on a hybrid role of internal controls, SOX testing and special finance projects. Eventually, I moved into a Sr. Manager role within the North American Truck and Global Bus division as well as serving as the controller for our company-owned dealerships.

In 2014, I became Director of Finance for Global Procurement and Supply Chain, which covered all the materials we purchased all aspects of getting the material we George Lettenpurchased from suppliers to their position on the line at the plants. Little less than a year within that role, I moved into a department that we called joint strategic operations and planning. I moved mainly as my business partner, who was the head of procurement, was moved to lead that group and I was tasked with cutting about 20 – 25% of SG&A [selling, general and administrative expenses]. Within 9 months, we identified these savings and helped right-size some of those areas.

I moved on from that project to become what was essentially CFO for the Navistar defense group. I was in that role for a year when the opportunity to move to Mexico City came up.

The company wanted someone to be local to react as things developed locally post-election, as well as change some of our processes. I was initially CFO in Mexico for Operations, which included our plant in Mexico, parts and distribution center, finance company and commercial sales. About six months in, they liked the progress we had made and brought in a new business leader to Mexico to oversee the commercial aspects outside of U.S. and Canada. My responsibilities expanded into supporting him by picking up global operations and export sales.


What has it been like to carve out a new role and move to a new country all at once?

It’s been a great learning experience. I’m not just defining the role, but also working with the operations and business side that has traditionally not had to worry about reporting locally or balancing the business locally. The teams used to report as separate finance organizations into our headquarters in the U.S. The idea of this role was, let’s put someone locally in Mexico to take away the disconnect and optimize business decisions.

When I first started, the biggest thing was that we just wanted to implement a new process. My thought was that if we don’t have a structure in place, we’re going to continue down the same path we’ve always done. We focused on quickly building a process. We’ve been fine-tuning it since.

How does the local culture impact your day-to-day at work?

I’m the only non-Mexican in our Mexico offices. I did not know Spanish before, so language has been a challenge, but I think I’m getting better every day in how I interact and personally conduct myself.

When I took a cultural study prior to moving to Mexico, I couldn’t be more different from Mexican culture. I’m a lot more introverted and I have no problem making a decision. The culture here is more of bringing people to a mutual decision and not one of driving conflict. I hear people’s opinions, but it doesn’t have to be a majority decision for me. They are also more defined by power structure hierarchy whereas I’m fine going outside of those channels to accomplish goals.

Because the way I approach things is not how they approach things, I’ve changed a lot. I’ve tried to merge their ways with the ways I’ve been doing things. Sometimes that means a compromise, but other times it’s reinforcing something new when we can’t compromise.

It’s definitely changed how I approach problems. That’s why I wanted an experience like this. Other people I know who have worked internationally told me that the experience changed their approach and helped them become more well-rounded. It has also helped me understand the things I won’t compromise on.

What was it like to move to Mexico City?

I have two children, so it was a difficult decision. When the opportunity presented itself, my wife got on board knowing that it was one of my goals. It wasn’t necessarily a smooth transition for my kids, but they’ve opened up and embraced a new culture. They are learning what it’s like to be a minority in another country. We don’t speak the language, so they’re learning how to adapt and work through that process. They are picking the language up like I am, but it’s been a challenge.

Embracing Mexican tradition and holidays like the Day of the Dead has been a great experience for us. My kids were very excited about having an altar dedicated to people who have passed on. I know there’s pieces of this experience that we’ll take with us when we eventually go home.

We’ve also traveled a lot within Mexico. When my wife and I approached this opportunity, we wanted to live a little bit like tourists in that sense. My wife has already planned out our travel for next year!

What was Mexico City like during the recent Presidential election?

The elections were an experience. It’s a very citizen-run process which I didn’t fully appreciate until I was down here. I was walking my dog on election day and saw a house with courtyard open and it was a polling place! And they actually fingerprint you. So you’ll see a lot of people with their thumbs up with ink on them to show they voted. They also have a special card, kind of like a driver’s license, that you need to vote.  Also, the election season was very violent. There were over 100 candidates across the country that were murdered. It is a very different experience from your traditional U.S. election.

What’s it like working for such a historic company?

The interesting thing about Navistar is that it’s old, but also new. We’re a historical company that has transformed itself over the years. Navistar went through major turmoil in the 1980’s and sold its agricultural division, which is what most people think of when they think of Navistar.

When I describe what Navistar does now, the first words out of my mouth are that we’re the ones who make the international trucks with the big diamonds on the grill. It’s unique working for a company with such a huge history, even though those aren’t the things we do today.

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