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Western Union interview on CSR with Ann McCarthy, EVP Corporate Affairs

By Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

In the 1960’s, Detroit, MI was an interesting place to live. It was during this time that Motown Records emerged, forever tying the city to the soulful sounds of Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and Smoky Robinson – just to name a few. There was also the burgeoning automobile industry and The Detroit Riot of 1967, but despite all of this change, things remained rather traditional in the home of Anne McCarthy, current Executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs for Western Union – traditional, though not boring or by any means quiet.

McCarthy grew up in a large Irish Catholic household that extended out to her neighborhood. She had 11 siblings and, according to her, everyone on her block either had two kids or ten, but at her Catholic school “if you didn’t have at least eight, we thought there was something wrong!” Her U.S. Marine-trained father father was definitely the disciplinarian, while her mother Cay – jokingly nicknamed “Chaos” by her father – allowed her children more flexibility.

In Detroit, McCarthy’s father had a growing consulting business and was able to send his kids to a college of their choice, though McCarthy was unsure of the path she would take. Thankfully, an emerging interest in writing forged a path that would eventually lead to her position at Western Union.

“I seriously considered doing something with writing or journalism,” she said. “ I really liked the art of writing and telling a story,” McCarthy said. After graduating from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism, like many aspiring journalists, she was hit with the sudden realization that writing would barely cover the bills, let alone pay for creature comforts. McCarthy decided to enter the world of PR, later completing executive education programs at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and at INSEAD at Fontainebleau.

The move into PR seemed like a wise choice. After all, writers are known for their dreamy thoughts and less than sunny disposition. McCarthy, on the other hand, has a powerhouse of a personality and a business mind to boot, as illustrated by her successful career prior to joining Western Union in 2007. Not only did she serve as senior vice president of Global Communications for SAP A.G., where she led communications activities for the Customer Solutions and Operations division, but in addition she’s held senior positions globally at E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, Polaroid Corporation, IBM Corporation, Sara Lee Corporation, and Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide.

Overseeing Corporate Affairs at Western Union

McCarthy is currently based in Englewood, Colorado, the home of Western Union’s global headquarters. As she pointed out, Colorado may be an unlikely location for a company that does business on a global level, but as we’ll soon find out, Western Union isn’t your standard company.

McCarthy’s position as executive Vice President of Corporate Affairs has her overseeing global media relations, employee communications, reputation management, public affairs, community relations, and the Western Union Foundation. Technically, standard stuff, but Western Union allows the EVP to think outside of the box.

Despite originally being established as a telegram service in 1851, the company has managed not only to survive but to flourish in the electronic age, generating $5 billion annually. Western Union is adept at adapting to the times, and McCarthy and her team continue to use sound business practices, but with a twist.

For example, take the “Random Acts of Giving” campaign dreamed up by McCarthy and the marketing and communications teams during the holiday season of 2009, which had award-winning musician Wyclef Jean performing a free concert in Times Square and distributing prepaid gift cards totaling $250,000 as a way of celebrating the spirit of giving and attracting new customers to the Western Union franchise.

In return, Western Union donated $225,000 to Jean’s organization Yéle Haiti, which just weeks later would be one of the first aid organizations on the ground after the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Western Union was also there to lend a helping hand in the aftermath. “We were one of the first companies offering our services to Haiti,” McCarthy said. “Haiti is a location where we are very involved, and it’s part of our charter to help those in need. These are our customers. We are committed to funding educational initiatives that can – and do – change people’s lives.”

Learning Lessons, Challenging the Status Quo

Obviously, things are going well for McCarthy now. She isn’t living as a penny-pinching writer, but rather as an EVP of a global company. Along the way, McCarthy faced challenges and difficulties in order to be the success she is today.

When McCarthy was 36, IBM asked her to take on all of their marketing and communications responsibilities in Japan, meaning that she’d worked her way up from director to VP in just six months. The promotion proved to be a defining moment in her career – and was welcome after she faced one of her first career challenges at her previous employer..

“I was asked to go to Europe for two years, but before I did I had to find my replacement,” McCarthy said. “When I came back, the person I’d hired was double promoted – over me! It was a very humbling moment, and I left the company less than a year later.”

According to McCarthy, her climb up the corporate ladder can’t be classified as challenging, but rather a natural progression. “I certainly worked hard, but I always felt I was recognized and rewarded for my contributions. I think staying at one company sometimes makes things more difficult. It’s important to stay current and add a perspective beyond one industry. I’ve found that if you stay at one place for too long, outsiders value and recognize your work more than your own company. It’s important to me to continue to learn and challenge the status quo.,” McCarthy said.

Taking demanding positions around the world has given McCarthy the financial security she’s always wanted, but as many women in senior positions know, it’s also made having a personal life difficult. McCarthy, who was married eight years ago at the age of 42, cites not having children as one of her biggest disappointments. Thankfully, however, the EVP finds a balance with work/life issues. She works hard during the week and plays hard on weekends with her husband, enjoying a very active lifestyle. They pack as much family time, golfing, tennis and biking into their days as they can. It’s a needed break from corporate America, especially for a woman who loves the outdoors and often finds it hard to spend her days sitting behind a desk. She’s learned a lot along the way and has wisdom to share with younger people coming up the ranks.

“You have to be an environment where you continue to learn,” McCarthy said. “And if you’re not learning, you need to change your environment. Gender has never been an advantage or disadvantage for me. I like being a part of a dynamic team that solves challenging problems. ”

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