While I was working at the residential
treatment facility, I went to school
part-time at night to get my master’s
degree, and I also was a waitress two
nights a week to put myself through.
‘I WASN’T BORN A PUBLIC SPEAKER’
I ended up being the director of
Head Start, running early education
daycare centers throughout the state
of New York. I became the executive
director, and I was totally in over my
head. I had budgets, I had payroll, I
had legal, I had rolling stock, facilities.
I had no idea—I was ill-equipped to
do this. I decided to go to business
school in public management.
My idea was to bring business to
delivering human services to people.
Smith said her fundraising work
with a social service agency was
pivotal in her development as a
public speaker, which she believes
is a key skill for turnaround
professionals. Speaking to male-dominated civic clubs as executive
director of the agency taught
her to develop a storyline her
audiences could identify with.
just speaking extemporaneously.
Never. All of that I had written
out. “Hello my name is Sheila
Smith.” I’m not kidding. You
write it out, you practice it, and
if there are a couple words you
stumble over, eliminate them.
Use humor. Humor is the great
equalizer. Make fun of yourself
or the audience. Use humor to
diffuse your tension. While they’re
laughing, you have a moment to
get a breath. So I always use humor.
I came to Boston to go to business
school, which I did part-time. By
day, I ran a human services agency,
doing everything from cradles to
rocking chairs—daycare centers for
abused children, runaway centers
for adolescents, senior centers,
and the like. I was the executive
director of this agency and going to
business school, but I also worked
at Lord & Taylor on the weekends.
I wasn’t born a public speaker.
I used to get extremely nervous
about it, but I did a couple of
things. One is, every opportunity
you have to practice, do that.
Small settings are best, with your
colleagues or within your office,
anytime they want somebody to
present—name it, the United Way
campaign, whatever—raise your
hand. Practice, practice, practice.
Two, if you’re speaking in a large
arena, a large setting, write a script
and practice. All the years I did
TMA speaking, it looked like I was
My last point is, to the extent
that you can tailor whatever
you have to say to people in the
audience—and maybe by name
or by profession—make it about
them. That’s very helpful in making
them engage with you because
once you say, “Tracy Sandler, you’re
from Canada,” all of a sudden,
she’s listening and everyone’s
like, “Uh-oh, she’s going to call
on me next. I’d better listen.”
I graduated from business school,
and a good family friend of ours
had just bought a building materials
company that, believe it or not, was
100 percent cash—no checks, no
credit cards—$100 million a year of
cash. He asked me to join his firm,
then as assistant controller in building
materials. I knew nothing about any
of that stuff, but I learned quickly.
years, when I finished winding down
this building materials company, I
went to work for that boutique firm.
it’s singers or
athletes or authors.
Then the CFO quit precipitously because
things were getting rough at this building
materials company—and I became the
CFO—largely because of the competition
of the big boxes. The Home Depots, the
Lowes, the Hechingers all started coming
into the marketplace, and the ma and pa
lumber and hardware stores all started
to collapse. In New England, there were
three big chains—the one I worked
for and two others. They all collapsed
under the financial competition
that the big boxes brought in.
It was a single-shingle guy. He couldn’t
run a PC or do any kind of Excel, so I was
his right-hand man in building models
around different workout initiatives
that we were considering. I did that for
about four or five years, and then I was
discovered by KPMG in a parking lot.
“You’re Sheila Smith?” “Uh huh, are you
selling something?” “No, we’re buying.
KPMG wants to start a restructuring
practice in Boston, and we heard that
you would be somebody we should
consider.” So I went to work at KPMG for
five years, and then, in 2000, I went to
Deloitte. At first I ran New England and,
in 2005, I became the national leader
for all restructuring for the U.S. firm.
Q What were your most gratifying,
favorite, or important
SMITH What I liked so much about
Lehman Brothers—and I had a tangential
role because we had to put hundreds of
people on this—was, I had to learn a lot
about things I didn’t know anything
about—synthetics, derivatives, and SIVs
(structured investment vehicles). I had to
learn a lot about the underlying financial
instruments so we could understand the
claims that were coming inbound to us
and the claims we would assert
outbound. Who had the security? Who
had the cash? Who was supposed to be
getting the benefit from that transaction?
Q Who inspires you professionally and/or personally?
I had to lay off ultimately about 650
people and shut the organization down,
and then collect all the receivables,
liquidate all of the property, and pay the
secured creditors back, in the process
of which we got the infamous list of
three workout firms from the bank. We
hired one of them, and after about 1½
SMITH I’m inspired by people who do
great things, like Barbara Streisand.
Watching the Olympics, the great
athletes make me want to cry at the
commitment and the things they’ve had
to give up to get where they are. I’m so
touched by great performances, whether
There was a whole host of regulators that
you had to become familiar with—not
just law enforcement, but regulators,
all of the alphabet soup that I had no
idea, as a citizen of the U.S., existed.
Then lastly, I mean, what a cool case.
It’s complicated, it’s fast-paced, you