Admittedly, that’s quite a question, and one that requires travel to answer. Which is exactly what that newspaper photo inspired young Emerson, then a student at the University of Alabama in the early 1990s, to do. He recalls, “Unemployment at that time was rather high. This guy in San Francisco had posted his résumé on two billboards that covered his front and rear. I thought: Wow, is it that desperate? What am I going to do to stand out?

Mannheim Steamroller

As the college kid pondered those questions, he remembered the many moves he made as a kid growing up in a military family while his father served in the Army. He decided an exchange program Alabama had with The University of Mannheim in Germany might give him the foreign language skills and experience to set him apart. There was only one problem: Mannheim wouldn’t accept him unless he was proficient in German … and Emerson didn’t Deutsch sprechen. Undeterred, the student paid his own way overseas, enrolled in a five-week immersive language course, and gained the proficiency to steamroll his way into Mannheim.

While such initiative is impressive— not only for a college student but for most adults—Emerson’s upbringing prepared him to take it. Those childhood moves with his New England family prepared him to adapt to new situations. “That moving shaped a lot of who I am,” he says. “With every move to a new post, it was like you could reinvent yourself. There were new friends in a new area; everything was new again.”

In addition, the kid benefited from excellent role models. “My main mentors have always been my family,” Emerson says. “My father and grandfather both taught me how to be calm and approach problems in life. Most important is the way they lived their lives. They put family and friends first and have generously given back

to their communities.” Even now when Emerson leaves his Grand Prairie, Texas, office after a 12-hour day, on the 45-minute drive home he regularly calls his dad in Maine. Then when he arrives home, his focus is on his own family, not business—and perhaps a good book or a nice bottle of wine shared with his wife and neighbors as they all watch their kids play.

Another aspect of Emerson’s youth that shaped him was employment. Since high school he always got a job of some sort—jobs that paid his way through school. So when he enrolled in Mannheim, he naturally sought work on the side, including an internship at ABB, a Swedish-Swiss- German conglomerate that at the time was one of the largest construction companies in the world. Little did he know how fortuitous that internship would become.

From Roll Tide to Roll Off

Upon returning to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for graduation, Emerson learned that Mercedes-Benz was building their first U.S. production plant just a few miles from the college town. The German company wanted to hire graduates from the local university, so Emerson threw his name in with thousands of others. “What stuck out in my résumé wasn’t a naked dude wearing billboards, but that I had gone to Germany and worked for ABB.”

The newly minted graduate was hired and worked on-site as a financial controller for three years while state- of-the-art facilities were built and production got underway. Emerson went from his alma mater’s team cheer of “Roll Tide” to seeing new vehicles roll off the assembly line. “The first production car rolled off in ’97,” he says. “It was a great experience to see that happen and be part of that little team that did something that no one in Germany thought would ever happen: Mercedes building cars abroad.” After that success, Emerson was given the opportunity to return to Germany

by Mercedes’ parent company, Daimler-Chrysler, and soon wound up in Daimler’s Munich aerospace division. In the year 2000, this division was merged with aerospace companies from France and Spain to create the new European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) that would later be reorganized in 2014 as Airbus Group SE. Being in the finance department, Emerson found himself right in the middle of the three- company merger. “Two of us worked on building this joint pro forma plan for what the new EADS would look like.” That work helped launch a successful initial public offering. How did the young executive find himself in an integral role for such a major merger? He reflects, “It was the right place, right time, right attitude.”

Creating Value

With a key role in a successful IPO now on his list of accomplishments, Emerson went to Washington, D.C., as vice president of investor relations for EADS North America, and soon thereafter he became senior vice president of finance (CFO) for commercial operations. For eight years in those jobs he immersed himself in all aspects of the company. “It was a great experience because it helped me learn about all of the business lines: helicopter, commercial jet, military, satellite, communications … all of it.” Furthermore, he realized an important truth: “Our job is to create value. Everything we do is to create value.” With that mantra taken to heart, he also somehow found the time in 2007-08 to earn an executive certificate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Leaving the Comfort Zone

The young executive was rising fast through the international aerospace corporation and had become quite confident and comfortable in his financial capabilities. However, a promotion would stretch him out of that comfort zone when he was


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