Translating Numbers into Stories at Northwestern University

Michael Szczepanek actionizes financial literacy to advance an ambitious strategic plan for the prestigious university

In a red-brick building on the Southernmost part of Northwestern University’s campus, Michael Szczepanek and his financial team are translating numbers into the stories empowering one of the most prestigious research institutions in the United States. The university was founded in Evanston, Illinois in 1851, and since then has grown to cultivate a global impact—made possible in part by the way the finance team takes the long view on protecting and furthering the prestigious institution’s legacy.

Michael Szczepanek, Northwestern University

According to the 2017 financial report, the private university’s total assets grew to $14.5 billion—an $836 million increase from the previous year. And with a AAA credit rating, Northwestern is able to advance its plans with vigor—even when knowing that the returns might not be seen for quite some time.

“When we make big bets, our payoff occurs over the course of twenty, thirty, forty, one hundred years,” says Szczepanek, associate vice president of finance. “You don’t see that in profit return. You see that growth in the eminence of the institution. My team has become instrumental in terms of having our leadership get the right information to make those decisions.”

In addition to strategic oversight, the Board of Trustees also provides a crucial lifeline, as significant contributors to what has become one of the largest endowments in the United States. Northwestern continues to grow its research portfolio, reporting approximately  $650 million in sponsored research awards received annually, and is known for its top-ranked Kellogg School of Management, Pritzker School of Law, Feinberg School of Medicine, Bienen School of Music, and Medill School of Journalism. It’s this prominence that Szczepanek keeps top-of-mind in motivating his team to find financial solutions that can help further Northwestern’s reputation and goals, one of which is to reach as many students as possible regardless of ability to pay tuition.

“The mission of this institution could very well result in the next breakthrough in science or developing the next journalist who helps spur a revolution,” Szczepanek says. “Our work in financial aid is a key factor. If we find a way to save $50,000, it can be reallocated to get that student here to succeed.”

Alumni and friends of these renowned programs play a central role in the university’s progress. Recently, the giving program “We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern” surpassed $3.5 billion in new gifts and commitments.

That vote of confidence from the Northwestern community attests to the mission of academic excellence and discovery. For Szczepanek, the mission-driven organization motivates his team to dig into the extensive data needed to help leadership set an industrious financial strategy.

Historically, the team looked at financial results on an annual basis, but Szczepanek recently implemented quarterly and monthly tracking that helps them build a more comprehensive story.

A walk around the university’s Evanston campus will reveal that capital strategy in action. In 2018, a $270 million investment resulted in the 96,135-square-foot Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center heralded by Yahoo sports reporter Pete Thamel as “the nicest athletic facility in all of college football.”

Last year, investments also enabled extensive renovations to the Welsh-Ryan Arena and, on the Chicago campus, the university built the Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Biomedical Research Center. Developing its assets ensures the university’s legacy not only endures, but also expands. Outside the Midwest, its impact reaches to the campus in Doha, Qatar, and academic branches in Miami, Washington, DC, and San Francisco.

“Higher education arguably has all the complexity of any large corporation and all the challenges of running a small service business,” Szczepanek says. “The breadth of challenges is what makes it exciting. There are so many opportunities for our team members to test their ideas and develop their skills. Our team believes in the concept of continuous improvement and is looking to become the  standard of excellence across and beyond higher education finance.”

In fact, Szczepanek says finance departments everywhere contain crucial stories ready for leadership teams to leverage. However, for these stories to be read and put into action, finance executives must not only translate the numbers, but also, as narrators, understand audiences.

“We can have all sorts of charts that tell a wonderful story, but if we don’t simplify it for leadership or for our Board of Trustees in a way that helps them understand what’s important, it’s meaningless,” Szczepanek explains.

To help write Northwestern’s legacy, Szczepanek cites his own family history. His maternal grandfather was also an accountant for a railroad pension fund. His fundamental advice? “Be honest and make sure it balances,” Szczepanek recalls. The finance leader also points to one of his first jobs as teenager in the fast-food industry, where he received an essential lesson in customer service.

“We have customers—whether they’re students, faculty, or staff members, they rely on the services we provide,” he says. “The underlying principles of service—quality, timeliness, cost-effectiveness, and genuinely treating people with respect—go a long way.”

Szczepanek’s team recently combined Student Accounts and Student Loans into a one-stop-shop now known as Student Finance. The integrated approach provides students with direct access to their information, reflecting the changing dynamic of a student population that prefers real-time access on mobile platforms.

“I’m trying to build my teams to make me an obsolete part of the process”, says Szczepanek, who also champions work-life balance as a husband and father of two. “Sustainable success cannot be dependent on a single person or process. Flexibility and adaptability are essential.”

He developed his own technical aptitude by earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in accounting from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After graduation, he spent the first five years of his career as a senior associate auditor at one of the Big Four auditors, PricewaterhouseCoopers. Then he joined another multinational giant, Pepsico, and later arrived at the University of Chicago in 2009.

Within six years, Szczepanek’s role at the University of Chicago evolved as manager, senior manager, director, executive director, and treasurer. The series of promotions widened his purview from financial reporting to internal auditing, debt and capital asset accounting, and capital investment. There, the financial leader earned a second graduate degree: an MBA at the Booth School of Business.

As Northwestern’s associate vice president of finance since 2015, Szczepanek and his team continue to embark on strategic endeavors that are helping write the most compelling chapters of the university to date.

“Research institutions like Northwestern are here to make the world better,” Szczepanek says. “How many global companies can actually say that’s their primary objective?”