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Northeastern’s top finance executive, Tom Nedell, on getting to yes

“I like to see my role more as ‘How can I get to yes,’" says Thomas Nedell, senior vice president for finance and treasurer at Northeastern, who will be honored on July 14 as a CFO of the Year by the Boston Business Journal. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

If there’s one characteristic that separates Tom Nedell from many other chief financial officers, it’s an operating philosophy that puts yes in front of no.

As Northeastern contended with the onset of the global health crisis, Nedell helped steer the university forward—recognizing the urgency and, ultimately, the need to invest rather than retrench.

“It was as much about pushing people to act fast and decisively rather than being a block or a constraint, so the dollar signs were not part of the conversation in those early days,” recalls Nedell, who keeps colorful wads of Monopoly money in his desk drawer.

“I like to see my role more as ‘How can I get to yes’ rather than what are the reasons we shouldn’t do anything, whether it’s a big, strategic merger or whether it’s how we operate our testing center,” he says.

For his outstanding stewardship of the university’s finances, Nedell will be honored as a CFO of the Year by the Boston Business Journal at an event on July 14. The recognition is well-deserved, say several colleagues who appreciate his skill set that has helped foster Northeastern’s growth over the past decade.

“Tom is so much more than a CFO,” said Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern. “He is a truly strategic player who empowers the university’s highest goals. He sees opportunities and challenges the same way—with innovative solutions in mind. Tom helps fuel the vision of Northeastern and all that we’re able to achieve together.”

“Tom can narrate a story on top of the numbers,” says senior vice president and general counsel Ralph Martin. “He can tell in very plain terms what the strengths of the organization are, where the stresses will come from, and where the opportunities lie.” Not all CFOs can do that because many of them are bottom line-focused and not connected to the academic side the way Nedell is, Martin adds.

“And he’s a dog lover, which I find to be a sign of good character.”

During Nedell’s almost 12 years at the financial helm, the university has seen several large-scale growth opportunities become a reality. Northeastern hired hundreds of faculty members, invested in new technologies, doubled graduate revenue, and struck money-saving, revenue-sharing partnership deals for campus parking and student housing—all in the interest of supporting the teaching and research mission of the institution.

The university also erected new buildings, including the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex on the Boston campus and, nearby, the EXP building is under construction. The eight-story, 350,000-square-foot structure will eventually house teaching and research labs. 

The debt service within the university’s budget, largely the mortgage on the new buildings, has to be paid every year for the next 30 years, and balanced with old debt from earlier projects in such a way that won’t hamstring the university from making future investments, says Anthony Rini, vice president of administration and financial planning at Northeastern.

“Tom is the quiet guy who measures everyone’s expectations and takes the risks that are important,” Rini adds.

For example, Nedell wasn’t afraid to take the bold moves necessary to help the university move forward with a world-class testing facility.

“Taking that risk was big,” Rini says. “We built an infrastructure under Tom’s leadership during the pandemic that allowed us to be safe. While other schools froze retirement contributions, reduced headcount in large numbers, or pulled back the reins on spending, Northeastern plowed ahead.”

COVID-19-related safety measures required a substantial, multi-million dollar investment, expenditures that Nedell says were worth it to pivot quickly to maintain a safe environment for teaching, learning, living, and research.

The university’s commitment to keeping its doors open safely while investing in decorated dining tents, outdoor fire pits, and other measures that brought a sense of community and energy to the Boston campus, did not go unnoticed by prospective students and their parents. 

The university was flooded with a record 75,243 applications for the 2021 freshman class. Enrollment figures also show sharp increases in Black, Hispanic, and multi-racial students arriving in the fall.

“Our enrollment yield rate—those who accept us after we accept them—has gone up significantly this year, and that’s not something you can predict,” Nedell says. “In my mind it’s because, in comparison to a lot of our peer schools, we came through the pandemic so successfully.”

Those who work for Nedell say they value his calm, steady leadership.

“I moved from Southern California to work at Northeastern, and a big part of my decision to come here was Tom,” says Alysa Gerlach, the vice president of finance and assistant treasurer at Northeastern who works with Nedell. The fact that Nedell keeps his cool and is always measured in his approach makes it easier for people to deliver bad news.

“My first six months working here were a series of difficult conversations,” Gerlach recalls. “He never once didn’t believe me and he never once got in the way of all of the change that needed to happen.”

More change—and growth—is on the way.

Nedell says his strategic focus now shifts to the fall and the challenges of accommodating a larger than usual freshman class. He and his team are analyzing housing and space requirements and looking at hiring more employees to make sure the university continues to operate at the same level of service that people have come to expect.

Not all higher education institutions operate with the strategy of maximizing their impact by growing resources, he says. 

“Many of them are of the mindset of ‘let’s do the best with our population as it’s defined,’” Nedell says. “We’re taking a bit more expansive viewpoint to say that whether it’s teaching or research, that to have a greater impact, we need to be growth-oriented.”

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