Susan Uthayakumar, President of Schneider Electric Canada: Driving Success

Susan Uthayakumar, President of Schneider Canada

October 29, 2018

By Owen Hurst

First and foremost, sitting down with Susan Uthayakumar feels more like sitting down and conversing with a friend than conducting an interview with the Canadian president of one of the world’s largest electrical manufacturers. Of course, she exudes the confidence and knowledge her position demands, but equally identifiable are an open and engaging nature.

In a recent sit-down, we learned 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 earned undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Upon completing university Susan began her working career with Deloitte, which she describes as a great starting point as she was surrounded by highly driven and intelligent individuals. She welcomed being in a position that was demanding and helped nurture a strong work ethic. Her work with Deloitte also instilled a great interest in acquisitions, which would serve her well as her career unfolded.

After Deloitte, Susan took on a position with McCain Foods Canada in corporate development, which had a focus on acquisitions and new manufacturing development. This gave her insight into the logistics of manufacturing operations and the various intricacies that required attention, such as operational efficiency and safety protocols. Susan 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 recognized the value to be gained in spending time working in the U.S., as it is one of the company’s largest markets. And so, in 2003 Susan emigrated to the U.S. She notes at this point that she had met her husband while working at McCain and points out with bemusement that she thought it would be better to start fresh in the U.S. rather than transfer within McCain in order to keep work and personal life separate. She began her career in the U.S. with Crowe Capitol, through which she had her first contact with Schneider Electric.

Initially she worked with Schneider on various acquisitions throughout the U.S. 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.What exactly what drew Susan 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 has allowed us to accomplish.

Deciding to stay with Schneider she wanted to expand her role and knowledge beyond acquisitions and took a leadership role in finance to gain insight into the business drivers of the company. She focused her efforts 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 U.S. and work in a smaller market, where she could really get her hands dirty and help grow Schneider in a smaller market. Susan notes that Canada is by no means a small market, but in comparison to the U.S. it offered different growth opportunities. 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 in our conversation 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 may be the finance leader today, but who knows where she will be tomorrow.” The conversation took place at least eight years ago, well before she had any aspirations for her current position.

Continuing her rise Susan took a leadership position with Schneider’s Power Business Unit. In her time with the unit she remembers not just her growth but the growth that the company was undertaking. Schneider was evolving in response to the changing world around it. At that time OT and IT were beginning to converge. 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 digital company.

Susan has now been in her position as President of Schneider Electric Canada since the beginning of 2018. We asked her about what challenges the new role has brought that she may not have anticipated.

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 of and interacting with the major players in each area.

It was also essential to integrate herself into the broader electrical community. She joined associations and became 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.

Undertaking endeavours like these ensured she had a deep knowledge base and could surround herself with knowledgeable individuals. She also notes that a leadership role means being able to answer questions knowledgeably. Not knowing is not an option.

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.

She also points 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 deeply appreciative of the diverse culture at Schneider and feels that more diversity will benefit the industry as a whole.

About Schneider Electric

Schneider Electric is leading the digital transformation of energy management and automation in homes, buildings, data centres, infrastructure and industries. With a 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. Schneider Electric provides integrated efficiency solutions, combining energy, automation and software; https://www.schneider-electric.ca/en/

Owen Hurst is Managing Editor of Panel Builder & Systems Integrator, where this article was first published.

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