Michele Sullivan

Vice President, Caterpillar Foundation
Photography by Kira Kwon

I grew up in East Peoria, Illinois. After graduating from East Peoria Community High School, I attended Bradley University, earning a bachelor’s degree in business and then an MBA. During graduate school, I had the privilege of working full time at IBM and attending classes in the evenings.

With my dad retiring from Caterpillar, I grew up with yellow blood—I always knew Caterpillar would be my career choice. My sister, DeAnn Sullivan-Reed, also works at Caterpillar in Morton. During my last semester of graduate school, I started my career at Caterpillar in information technology.

My soon-to-be 25-year career has been exciting and full of opportunities. After working on marketing systems, I moved to the North American Commercial Division and held multiple positions in the operations and marketing areas. I have also had opportunities as a Six Sigma Black Belt and Master Black Belt. My career then took me into the product support side of Caterpillar, where I held various management positions relating to new product introduction and parts.

For the past decade, my dream job has been in the Caterpillar Foundation, and my dream came true in 2011. I have been involved in a variety of nonprofit organizations for quite some time, and knew that is the work I loved. Leading the Caterpillar Foundation combines two of my passions: Caterpillar and working with nonprofit organizations.

Please reflect upon your major accomplishments of 2012.
The Caterpillar Foundation has shifted its focus to work on the root causes of issues. Like most cities in the U.S., Peoria has blighted neighborhoods. On July 12, 2012, the Caterpillar Foundation joined thousands of central Illinois residents to officially welcome Local Initiatives Support Corporation, or LISC, to Peoria.

LISC had not opened a new office in 15 years. Due to its strong nonprofit infrastructure and excellent public-private partnerships, the organization agreed that Peoria was a great location for a new office. The LISC-Peoria team will help transform distressed neighborhoods on our city’s east and south sides, including the 61605 zip code, one of the poorest regions in the country. The Caterpillar Foundation is proud to be an investor in this project, which will help address the root causes of poverty—not just the symptoms.

The Caterpillar Foundation continues to invest in areas where Caterpillar has a high concentration of employees. In 2012, more than 50 percent of its dollars will go overseas, to mirror where our employees are located. Our facilities are engaged more than ever in identifying opportunities for nonprofit investments. These communities are experiencing the positive impact of Caterpillar Foundation investments in the areas of basic human needs, access to education and impacting the environment.

How has your organization adjusted to changes in the business climate over the last several years?
The needs of communities are greater than ever, while available dollars are tighter than ever. The Caterpillar Foundation continues to sharpen its focus on outcome-based investing, which allows us to better serve people and communities in need all around the world. We measure these investments similarly to any other investment Caterpillar makes. It’s wonderful to help feed hungry children, but how will you feed them? How many children will be impacted? Does the program have educational value? How will you measure success? We invest in organizations that have the greatest impact for the money. Moving our investments to work on root causes also makes a greater impact on issues.

What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life?
I have always believed that if your home life is good, everything else will follow. Having a flexible schedule enables me to carve out personal time. When I travel, I will take extra-early flights home so I have time at home before returning to work. When I have events to attend, I will bring along a family member or friend, not only to spend time together, but so they can see the great work organizations are doing in our communities. Work-life balance usually isn’t 50/50, so I adjust work to include my family as much as possible. Having one of the most rewarding jobs and seeing firsthand the impact of many organizations around the world makes my life seem very balanced.

Did you have a mentor in the early stages of your career? How did he or she help you along the way?
My mentor taught me that “to listen to someone is to truly understand what they are saying.” In today’s world, it is all about getting things done and moving on. When a person would speak, I would be thinking of my response without really understanding what they were saying. To be successful, you must understand what a person wants or needs in order to react properly. To this day, I fold my hands and really focus on the person speaking—and understanding his or her message.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
People are always first. Everyone has heard the phrase “treat others as you would like to be treated.” This absolutely applies to your personal life, as well as your work life. I am a believer that you must work with people to ensure they have the time they need for their families. If it is going well at home, it impacts their performance at work in a positive way. People remember and appreciate the support they receive. Everyone experiences challenging times in their lives and will need some type of support. It is important for everyone to provide whatever support they can to help someone through their challenges because one day, we will need support.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Rarely in life do you succeed all by yourself. My family and friends have had a huge impact on my success. I am grateful for the opportunities Caterpillar has given me, including my dream job at the Caterpillar Foundation. I’m extremely proud of the work we do, and with the generosity of Caterpillar, we are able to make a difference in the world.

How do you unwind after a long day of work?
I love to go home, enjoy a glass of wine, and go for a swim… all with my dog Allie by my side. My pool is my oasis.

If you could have dinner with anyone past or present, who would it be? Why?
I would have dinner with my dad to tell him he was right… about everything!

What is your favorite movie?
I love The Sound of Music. It shows how quickly life can change, that we live in the best country, and the importance of family. iBi