Kofi Bruce, MBA ’98: Rising to the Challenges of the Marketplace and Society as General Mills CFO
Kofi Bruce, MBA ’98, followed his curiosity and today serves as chief financial officer at global food manufacturer General Mills. His professional journey is a study in the power of keeping an open mind.
As an undergrad at Stanford University, Bruce had a clear plan for his life. After graduation, he would join the Peace Corps, then earn a higher degree, and eventually become a U.S. ambassador.
He already had interviewed with the Peace Corps and was awaiting his placement when he took a job in mortgage banking to start paying student loans.
“I found I enjoyed problems and seeing them to fruition. By the time the Peace Corps came around (with a placement), I said, ‘I’m actually learning something new, something I didn’t expect to, and maybe (international relations is) not the path I’ll go down,’” Bruce says. “I ultimately ended up deciding to go to business school instead.”
International emphasis at Ross
Bruce says he chose to earn his full-time MBA at the Ross School of Business in large part because of its international emphasis and the opportunity to do an African Business Development Corps internship through the William Davidson Institute. ABDC is a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization that promotes economic and social justice in several African nations.
Bruce says he also appreciated Ross’ strong focus on collaboration.
“Almost all of the work we did, in class and outside of class, was very team-oriented. That, to me, was one of the things that Michigan helped hone and helped me apply later in corporate life as I moved on to roles at Ford Motor Co., Ecolab, and, ultimately, General Mills,” Bruce says.
“I look back at my two years at (Ross) as some of the best two years of my life. It had such a foundational impact on who I am as a professional right now, but also on some of the lasting friendships and connections I’ve built that have helped me along the way to get where I am.”
A strategic CFO in trying times
In 2009, Bruce joined his current employer, General Mills, a global food company whose brands generate more than $18 billion in sales. He served in a variety of finance leadership roles before being named chief financial officer in February 2020. He also serves as a senior officer on General Mills’ Global Impact Governance Committee, which works to advance the manufacturer’s environmental, social, and governance goals.
Bruce’s time as CFO has been roiled by societal demands for racial equity, a shifting consumer landscape, and a global health crisis in the form of COVID-19. The new pressures have forced many companies, including General Mills, to become more transparent with customers about their values and changed the way CFOs operate, Bruce says.
“The traditional view of CFOs has always been: They’re the person who keeps the corporate scorecard, the chief accountant for the company, etcetera,” Bruce says. “But I think the role and the scope have been expanded to be more strategic, more outward-looking and increasingly engaged in environmental, social, and governance goals because almost all of (the goals) have some amount of investment attached to them.”
Bruce continues to evolve and take on new challenges. In addition to his CFO duties with General Mills, he is an Electronic Arts board member, an Aspen Fellow with the 2018 Aspen Finance Leaders Global Fellowship, and serves with several nonprofit community organizations.
The importance of curiosity
“The single best piece of advice I can give anybody is the importance of curiosity— curiosity and an open mindset to explore (different) paths,” Bruce says. “In MBA programs, we all go in with a very clear agenda, such as ‘I’m gonna do this, and then there’s this, and it’s followed by this.’ It’s a clear and linear sequence.
“I would look back on my career and it’s anything but linear,” Bruce says. “It didn’t play out according to a plan that I would have mapped at the very beginning. It’s because along the way I was open to opportunities that I hadn’t imagined.”