New at the Top

Lorna Donatone

Monday, June 18, 2007

Position: President, school services, Sodexho, a Gaithersburg company that provides integrated food and facilities management services in North America.

Career Highlights: President, Spirit Cruises (then a Sodexho subsidiary); chief financial officer, Spirit Cruises; chief financial officer, Comsearch; chief financial officer and controller, Ginsburg, Feldman & Bress Chartered; project manager, CCAIR (doing business as USAir Express); director, management information systems, CCAIR; vice president and controller, Dominion Bank Washington region; assistant controller and director of accounting, Presidential Airways; manager, general accounting, Presidential Airways; and audit staff, Touche Ross & Co. (now Deloitte & Touche).

Age: 49

Education: BS, management, Tulane University; MBA, accounting, Texas Christian University.

Personal: Lives in Virginia Beach with husband, Stephen; and their daughter, Catherine, 18. Other family members include stepson, Stephen, 41; and stepdaughter, Christine, 39.

How did you get to where you are?

I got here because of a lot of hard work, great opportunities, terrific mentors that I sought out and a great support system. My first major career jump was leaving public accounting and going to work for a client as manager of general accounting. The airline industry in the 1980s was very turbulent and it was there that I got a great deal of street sense in management. The airlines went into bankruptcy, and I stayed through the entire experience, including the creditors committee. And although I would never want to repeat that experience, it gave me tremendous lessons in business.

The next major career leap was my first chief financial officer position at Comsearch. I went from controller at a law firm to CFO of a software services company. It was a big job not only from an industry standpoint but from roles, responsibility and sphere of control. The CFO position was my first jump out of the finance world into a number of different parts of the business -- management of information technology, oversight of the general office, risk management, payroll -- and that really expanded my skill set. From there I changed industries again and went to Spirit Cruises, which was a division of Sodexho, as CFO in 1999. Spirit Cruises was my first experience in the hospitality and food services industry, and I fell in love with it. What I enjoy about the services industry is the proximity to the customer. I am only one stop removed from my client and customer, whom I can reach out to and touch. I have great passion around serving people and spent a lot of time working with my team, ensuring that we had the right service culture to serve our clients and customers. My financial background has served me well throughout my career but especially at the president level. It enabled me to very quickly analyze the financials of the business, then move right into management of the team and people.

Sept. 11 was a big turning point with the business. It was where I learned that regardless of position, during times of adversity like that everybody has impact. Our two biggest markets were Washington, D.C., and New York. And like all hospitality businesses, post-Sept. 11 was very difficult. And what we found was that as members of the hospitality industry, we had a great responsibility to get back to business as usual. Because it was only by getting back to business that people could start living normally. So we did that as quickly as possible. We had to restructure the business and get back to basics, as did everyone. As a result of that, I was appointed president in 2002 and continued with the turnaround of the business.

The other aspect that got me to where I am was mentoring. Throughout my career, I have spent time finding mentors who can help me learn and continue to grow. I've found that mentors are a terrific way to remain teachable. I also sit on a number of boards. Board service has rounded out my experience on the job but it has also given me even a higher-level strategic view that has helped me in the president's role. Finally, I wouldn't be where I am without the support of my family. My husband in particular has stayed home for about the last 10 years. I am convinced that it would have been a much harder journey without him. Also, my daughter keeps it interesting, and she is my constant reminder of what's important.

-- Judith Mbuya

© 2007 The Washington Post Company