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  Aileen Blake '01
  Aileen Blake '01

Broad business acumen adds up to success for Northern Trust's Aileen Blake '01

By Jennifer Beck

Even at a glance, Aileen Blake's professional ascent is impressive.

Named executive vice president and controller at Northern Trust Corp. in 2004, Blake has been recognized as a rising star, including by Crain's Chicago Business' "40 under 40" feature in 2005 and CFO Magazine's "25 Women to Watch" in 2008.

"Aileen consistently displays a strong work ethic, intelligence, passion and integrity in all that she touches and with everyone with whom she works," says Northern Trust executive vice president and chief financial officer, Steven Fradkin.

As a leader, Blake sees her role as being multifaceted. She emphasizes the importance of trusting her intuition while also taking a reasoned approach. "I've got a responsibility as a leader in the organization to have a point of view, to articulate it and to make sure, always, that viewpoint is well educated," says the 2001 graduate of the Kellogg School's Executive MBA Program. She also measures her success by the progress of those she manages. (Her staff numbers about 130, in the U.S. and Europe.) "If I fail to bring people along and develop talent, then I've failed," she says.

According to Fradkin, Blake also has a strong, professional presence and is "adept at assessing the talent of others and helping the people around her to be better than they might otherwise be."

The Kellogg grad began her career as a CPA with global professional services firm PriceWaterhouse, before relocating to London in the mid-90s for a position as internal auditor at Quaker Oats. There, Blake rose through the ranks, ultimately becoming vice president of financial planning and analysis for PepsiCo, which acquired Quaker in 2001.

She credits the nearly three years she spent in London on Quaker's European cereals business as pivotal. After working on a divestiture, Blake was asked to handle analysis that would identify how to make the remaining cereals business profitable on its own. "It was a defining period for me where I really did get pushed out of my comfort zone and learned an incredible amount in a short time," she says. From there, she returned to the U.S. to become finance director for Quaker's prominent hot breakfast business — a division that then accounted for about 40 percent of profits — where she led the analysis associated with growing the mature oatmeal business. 

In her role today at Northern Trust, Blake's challenges include leading significant changes designed to build capability and create more supportive processes. "Since I've been here, we've replaced all of our planning, analysis and reporting tools," she says. The changes she has managed, which had to accommodate for Northern Trust's growth and development over the last 25 years, included implementing a "data warehouse and analytical tools that leverage information from about 80 source systems," she explains.

Regarding the 2008 U.S. financial crisis, Blake says, "There's a lot of concern around the volatility and the inherent uncertainty that we're all facing now." She adds, however, that "Northern has been very careful to maintain an extremely strong capital base…and I think our strategy around that has served us very well." So well, in fact, that she notes that the firm paid dividends to its shareholders for the 112th consecutive year. 

 Reflecting on her experience in the Kellogg School's EMBA Program, Blake credits the curriculum and faculty with helping her advance her career goals. She found that Kellogg expanded her business frameworks into other disciplines and industries, further enhancing her confidence and her credibility in the broader business arena.

"I wanted to be the finance partner who brought well-rounded business acumen to the table, rather than being somebody who just knows the finance and accounting theory and doesn't have broad business knowledge," Blake says.

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