Laura Fulton ’85 trusts her inner guidance when making professional decisions. Her intuition regularly encourages her to accept positions that involve risk-taking and trying new things while also honoring her talents and what she enjoys doing. This approach has guided Fulton’s career from an entry-level auditing job at a public accounting firm to her current position as chief financial officer of Hi-Crush Proppants LLC and its publicly traded partnership, Hi-Crush Partners LP. Eventually, that inner guidance may lead her to the CEO office.
In a conversation with Mays Business School’s Business Honors students, Fulton noted that following her intuition led to career twists that surprised even her. “If you had asked me if I was going to be in the sand business and if I was going to be in charge of logistics, I never would have guessed it,” she said. “I’ve really tried hard to listen to myself and take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves and then make the best of it. That’s something that Texas A&M teaches you more than anything.”
A career with breadth and depth
The CPA’s professional success is rooted in a career that – despite its twists and turns – allowed her to develop both breadth and depth of experience. Her first job after graduation was in Deloitte & Touche’s audit department. “Public accounting gave me experience doing a lot of different things, such as creating work papers and documenting specific action steps,” Fulton said. “I learned how to talk to someone who had 20-25 years of experience and ask, ‘What do you do? How do you do it? And why is that so important?’”
Fulton also credits her time at Deloitte with teaching her to lead others. “If I go back to the very beginning of my career at Deloitte, what they really taught me was a lot about leadership because you have to lead your audit team, tax team or consulting team,” she said. “I had the opportunity to lead recruiting teams and training teams.”
Her ability to lead, ask questions and think strategically proved invaluable when she was tasked with developing the Sarbanes-Oxley certification process while working at Lyondell Chemical Company, a centralized company with operations in the United States, Europe and Asia. “It was an incredible opportunity to create a process to document and test internal controls that no one in the United States had ever done before,” Fulton said. During that time, she also gained experience in Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reporting and polished her leadership and management skills by turning a dysfunctional group of individuals into a world-class department.
Fulton’s next career move took her in an entirely different direction. She joined AEI Services, LLC, a decentralized company that operated in the emerging markets of South America and Eastern Europe. When AEI leaders decided to sell the company three years later, Fulton used her generous severance package to take a six-month sabbatical to do some soul-searching about her life and career.
A few months after being laid off, Fulton began tapping into her intuition as she sought her next career challenge. “I always had the faith that I’m good at what I do and it will take some time, but I will find the right place,” she said, adding that she realized that she never worked for a small company. Six months after being laid off, Fulton found a match in Hi-Crush, a small company that was looking for someone with extensive accounting, management and leadership experience.
Using life lessons to inform business decisions
Fulton’s wide range of professional and personal experiences ground her day-to-day approach to business matters. Take employees’ paychecks. “Compensation is really important and very personal. I’ve learned that there’s no decision you’re going to make in this area that won’t have at least five different views of how you should have made that decision,” she said. “To try to come to a cohesive decision is a lot tougher than you think. As an accountant, I think there’s a logical answer. But no, this is a person’s paycheck and there’s emotion involved. Sometimes, you have to remember all those factors when you think about how you’ll make a decision.”
A family matter led Fulton to develop an increased awareness of the importance of communication during stressful times. She recounted how her son – who was 6 at the time – thought Fulton’s one-week break between jobs meant she was unemployed and that the family would soon be homeless. “He was picking up on things that I didn’t realize. He was overhearing me talking to my husband about, ‘Should I do this? Should I do that?’ He was hearing me make the decision and I didn’t realize how much he was paying attention,” explained the Houston Business Journal’s 2013 CFO of the Year for Small Public Company and Community Impact.
“That taught me to realize that you have to think through who is going to be impacted by the things you do and the decisions that you make. You have to put yourself in their shoes and try to think about how they are going to interpret this decision. They don’t come from the same background that I have; they don’t have the same experiences that I have. What is it that I need to tell them that will give them comfort in a time of change?”
This lesson has been driven home because of the recent downturn in the oil industry. As people lose their jobs, Fulton is more conscious of trying to communicate what is happening and how the company is trying to help employees make a difficult transition. She also considers important factors when making business decisions, such as the date when a layoff will be made since the timing can mean another month of health benefits for laid-off employees.
The downturn in the oil industry also forced Fulton to take on the role of the company’s “chief agitation officer” who asks colleagues to think about potential devastating scenarios. “You really can’t ever anticipate how bad things can get,” she said. “You always say, ‘I’m going to plan for the worst and hope for the best,’ but you almost have to be more Draconian than that. All you can really do is deal with the hand that you’ve got right then and there and try to be as proactive as possible.”