Looking back, it probably isn’t much of a stretch to think that growing up near the beach in Santa Cruz, California, Lisa Bonnell would want to pursue a career in marine biology. Bonnell, who now leads the global audit functions for entertainment giant Comcast NBCUniversal, once saw herself sailing around the world seeking out new species of fish. But then she found out how much marine biologists make.
“I had this great beach life planned out for myself and then I realized they don’t make any money and most of them end up as SCUBA instructors, no joke,” Bonnell, who has a strong practical streak to go with a sharp sense of humor, said. “Having parts of my childhood when I was literally legit hungry for years, I decided that probably wasn’t the way I wanted to go. I figured it could be a second career and it may still be some day, you never know.”
Luckily, Bonnell had always had a knack for math and squeezed in several economics and statistics courses into her schedule, graduating from Santa Clara University in 1991 with a degree in economics.
After a short stint at Lockheed Martin, where she spent about a year doing statistical analysis of the company’s benefit plan, Bonnell moved to Ernst & Young (now EY), where she began to hit her stride. She joined the Big 8 (now Big 4) accounting firm around the same time as the business world was “freaking out,” she said, about Y2K, and had the opportunity to learn about different industries and processes and travel the globe. The experience led her to work with companies as diverse as The Walt Disney Co. and Coca-Cola.
Learning Lots at EY
“The great thing about EY was you’d get parachuted in to a project and you had three or four days to get it together, to understand what was going on in the project, who the stakeholders were, what the major issues were, before you were asked to stand up and present your area in front of the client folks,” Bonnell said. “It really forces you to get comfortable with learning on the fly, presenting in front of people on topics you know nothing about and then how to quickly gather and synthesize information. They really helped prep me for any job I had in the future.”
Bonnell was at EY for about five years, moving to computer maker Dell in 1998 to be closer to her parents in Austin, Texas. At the time, her father had been diagnosed with brain cancer and Bonnell moved down to help her mother care for him.
Bonnell took a job in finance at Dell, supporting its IT organization. About eight months in, an Oracle implementation the IT department was conducting went sideways.
“It was messy,” Bonnell said. “They knew from the consulting firms that they had had in helping them, that that was something EY would have dropped me in to do at another client. So I got yanked out of my job but good and [Dell] said ‘We heard you could fix this,’ and I did. That kind of set the stage for my career at Dell.”
Over the next five years at Dell, Bonnell moved throughout the company about every 18 months or so, putting out fires along the way. In 2007, when Dell decided it had to take $1 billion in costs out of the company, Bonnell was again pressed into service, helping it move away from in-house manufacturing and setting up supply chains between computer makers in China with retailers in the U.S.
Bonnell stayed at Dell for five years, leaving a few years after the company bought Perot Systems in 2009, when she decided she wasn’t quite cut out for the company’s new buttoned-down culture. At the same time, a former colleague had begun working for Comcast NBCUniversal, and encouraged Bonnell to come aboard.
Bonnell joined Comcast in 2011, initially to help with the integration of NBCU. She later moved over to Comcast Business, running operations for that business telecom unit for a few years and rejoining the audit division in 2016.
Comcast chief financial officer Mike Cavanagh, to whom Bonnell reports, said that her wide range of experience and ability to solve problems quickly has been a valuable asset as Comcast has grown.
“Lisa’s versatile experience, including overseeing the operations for Comcast Business, provides her with a unique ability to identify opportunities and mitigate risk across the entire company,” Cavanagh said. “She is a terrific and strategic leader who has developed a very strong team and is a great partner of mine.”
As the head of the audit division, Bonnell is in charge of making sure financial reporting across the entire company is accurate and compliant with regulations. But it isn’t all spreadsheets and computer models either.
Comcast has a crack team of finance professionals that keep a close eye on reporting requirements. Bonnell herself gets in the weeds too, conducting Sarbanes-Oxley tests and the like, but also takes time out to focus on risk management and cybersecurity.
‘Cool Stuff’ to Do
“I get to do cool stuff here that most other audit shops are not doing,” she said. “While I know people don’t describe internal audit as change agent, that’s what we’re doing.”
Bonnell added that she and her team go through every Comcast business in the company, from Fandango to Universal Theme Parks to regional sports networks and beyond, not just focusing on financials.
“The beauty of our team is we spend our time in the field, so when we audit stuff, we’re there,” Bonnell said, adding that that approach allows the team to train and educate workers on new processes.
“No one loves to get audited,” Bonnell said. “But when we leave, they feel that they’ve learned a ton. We get a lot more thank-yous than hate mail, and that’s great.”
Career Highlights: Bonnell earned a reputation as a “fixer” at Dell, where she led a transformation from in-house manufacturing and set up supply chains between computer makers in China and retailers in the U.S.
At Comcast, she has been a key figure in the integrations of major purchases like NBC Universal and Sky.
Quotable: “[At Dell] I could have told you exactly the size of the bolt that you need to close the door on a shipping container to put in 1,000 boxes that are packaged specifically for Walmart. Thankfully, I’ve lost that.”
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