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New at the top: A former bricklayer lays the building blocks to a career in finance

I grew up in Delaware County right outside Philadelphia in a blue-collar family. My father was an iron worker and helped build a lot of high-rises in Philadelphia, New Jersey and even New York.

But he was disabled when I was in grade school, so my mother became the business manager for a construction company. I ended up working there as a bricklayer. It taught me the value of hard work, working as a team and completing goals.

Since then, I have held a variety of jobs at some well-known Fortune 25 companies and several midsize companies.

Mostly, I’ve been a financial person, but at various times I’ve also been a marketing person, ran sales organizations, was a business development professional as well as a general manager.

I believe that anyone looking to add value to an organization should do different jobs and take on different special projects.

Kevin Coghlan is the new chief financial officer of Southland Industries. (Courtesy of Southland Industries)

I started out doing the standard branch office and accounting office audits at Liberty Mutual insurance company. There, I fell into a reengineering project where I overhauled the paper flow system for what was a nearly $4 billion line of business.

I helped to recommend a series of improvements so we could be more capable in evaluating its risk, underwriting its policies and managing the billing collections and other aspects of that relationship.

When I transitioned to AlliedSignal, or what is now Honeywell, I really built a strong reputation for working hard. I put in the time and effort to make sure I understood the nuances of being in corporate finance or the treasury side of the business.

The early 1980s was the start of private equity and the use of financial leverage to drive shareholder growth. I was constantly working with senior leadership to help it understand the risks and benefits. I was seen as someone who would put in the effort but was also coachable because I got a lot of help.

During that time, I created a mergers-and-acquisition strategy to improve the business. I prepared a 50-page presentation to explain to the chief executive why I thought it was the right thing to do.

Unfortunately the plan did not work. We wound up backing away from a potential partner that would have helped us follow through on the strategy.

Failures are great ways to learn in your career. It improved my skills. After I moved on, the company eventually took advantage of the plan.

At Ingersoll Rand, I went in as the vice president of finance and controller for the $400 million-plus business and helped develop a plan to reinvigorate the sales-and-marketing approach. We grew the revenue to more than $500 million. We took the operating income of the business from $40 million to more than $90 million in a three-year period.

I moved to Paperwork Industries, a private equity start-up, because I was excited about the challenge of creating a financial unit.

It’s not every day someone has the opportunity. We acquired two facilities and built from scratch a strong financial organization.

Now comes a new opportunity at Southland Industries. The company is a strong performer in what it does, and it is looking to grow its business and increase its geographic presence. I’m very much looking forward to working with the people here to help them realize their aspirations.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

Kevin Coghlan

Position: Chief financial officer of Southland Industries, a design-build mechanical, electrical and plumbing contractor based in Dulles.

Career highlights: Chief financial officer, Davis-Standard; chief financial officer, Paperwork Industries; deputy chief financial officer, Schnitzer Steel; vice president of finance and controller, vice president of marketing, Ingersoll Rand; vice president of corporate planning and development, W.R. Grace; director of corporate finance, AlliedSignal (Honeywell).

Age: 55

Education: BS, finance and economics, University of Pennsylvania; MBA, finance and accounting, Pennsylvania State University.

Personal: Commutes between Richboro, Pa., and Northern Virginia. He and his wife, Sharon, have a daughter, Ilyssa, and a son, Sean.

Vanessa Small covers philanthropy and nonprofits for Capital Business. She also spotlights newly appointed executives in the New at the Top column, which chronicles their journeys to the top. Small was raised in Orange County, Ca. and graduated from Howard University.
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