Changing with the Times

At tech company Cree, Michael Beland places an emphasis on making his workers feel like important pieces of the puzzle as the company adjusts its course in multiple ways

Although technology firm Cree has been innovating in the semiconductor and LED space for decades, corporate controller Michael Beland recognized several cultural elements in need of updates.

Before their new chief financial officer came in, the company’s Glassdoor ratings were fairly low; changes needed to be made to their mission statement and core values to make the company “the best place to work” to which those statements and values aspired. With Beland’s help, and that of his team and fellow managers, Cree made tremendous strides in crafting a company in which everyone involved can be proud to take part.

Michael Beland, CreePhoto: Courtesy of PPD

Beland’s background in accounting and corporate control finds frequent use in his current role at Cree. Having worked in both corporate America and private equity at firms such as Shaw Group, Beland experienced just about every accounting issue known to man, which serves him well at a firm with so many unique challenges.

By the time he came on board to Cree, though, change was in the air, which he found exciting. With the existing CEO at the time in the process of retiring, a new CEO came in with a strong semiconductor background, shaping a new strategy for Cree’s future.

“In the past, we focused on lighting and LED products,” Beland says, adding that as the industry became more commodity-based, these products became harder to differentiate. “We couldn’t be top dog in the LED industry anymore,” so that precipitated Cree’s pivot to other areas with stronger growth potential—semiconductors, silicon carbide, 5G networks, and more.

In addition to the company’s outward change in direction, Cree is also working to fulfill the promise made by the company’s motto—“Cree is We.” Talking to people who’d been there before he came along, some employees described to Beland a past “bullying mentality” with factory and hourly workers, as well some managers taking a “my way or the highway” approach to communication. Under Beland’s supervision, Cree is working to shake that preconception into a more equitable, collaborative environment marked by integrity and respect.

“Do the right thing, and say thank you to employees,” Beland says.

Given his prior experience, Beland feels extremely comfortable leading these changes. “Public accounting gives you a lot of exposure to other companies and relationships with executive management,” he says. In his time working for big-four accounting environments and Fortune 500 companies, Beland saw the pressures faced by large companies with even larger infrastructures, and the importance of cultivating loyal, engaged workers who feel respected. In occasions where VPs of other departments ask for information from one of his staff, Beland encourages them to direct their attention to him instead.

“I’ve always told my team if someone’s asking you to do something that you’re not comfortable with, have them come see me directly,” he says.   

When it comes to Cree’s change in direction, Beland is working to facilitate greater automation of robotic processes in accounting. So far, he has allocated a team member to learning Excel macros and next-generation programming languages. They also began using Wdesk financial reporting software to file FCC documents, leveraging tools to automate and link info directly into Wdesk. “[We just want to] hit F9 on our keyboard, and 90 percent of our FCC work is done,” Beland hopes.

“If you’re not having fun, you’re going to be miserable.”

Processes aren’t the only things being automated at Cree, however. With the support of Cree’s new chief financial officer, Beland launched several initiatives to help workers become more autonomous and take more ownership of their labor. The company put delegation of authority matrix under review and is working to push for greater decision-making from lower level employees.

“If I can challenge my team to take more ownership of their area, I believe they own the entire process,” Beland says. “I trust them to make those decisions.”

This egalitarian approach to Cree’s work fits with Beland’s management style; he describes himself as an “accounting cheerleader.” First and foremost, he wants his employees to enjoy working at Cree: “If you’re not having fun, you’re going to be miserable.”

Instead of maintaining distance, he manages by walking around the office, mingling and observing everybody in action, “just to make sure everyone sees I’m visible and available if needed,” he says.

These changes, both internal and external, have the potential to bolster Cree in the coming years. With robotic process automation, Beland’s team can streamline processes to the point where financial statements take days, not weeks, to process. Internally, he’s still working every day to make his department a place where workers feel free to work and grow without pressure from himself or other execs.

By improving the way Cree treats its processes and its people, Beland wants to see a return to Cree’s passion about being first. “If we step up, Cree’s going to get it done,” he says.