After a transformative 11-year tenure at General Mills, Marie Pillai has retired as chief investment officer of its $11 billion benefit funds.
Pillai stepped down in early November, she told Institutional Investor. A longtime member of her team, Kurt Hoddinott, has taken over the investment group, but without the CIO title as of yet.
Hoddinott is inheriting unusually healthy plans — the product of Pillai’s push to modernize General Mills’ approach to asset management. The pension plan was 102 percent funded as of the end of last fiscal year, while the union health plan had a “ridiculous” 160 percent funded status, the departing chief said.
Those are the metrics that matter most to sophisticated corporate plans, rather than annual returns or asset growth. But it wasn’t always this way.
“We made that change in our plan,” Pillai said in an interview. “It really was a heavy lift to convince the CFO and committee to move from an asset-only perspective to a liability-focused outlook. But I truly believed that we were doing the right thing: focus on your true mission.”
That mission is paying General Mills’ retirees their promised pension checks and for members’ health care. It isn’t blowing the doors off with high returns — although Pillai did that too.
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General Mills’ portfolio gained 10.8 percent annualized over the last decade, net of fees. Endowments and foundations tend be viewed as the “sexier” institutional investment vehicles, but they got handily beaten by the Cheerios manufacturer, according to median return data for about 100 large nonprofits.
Given her top-quartile track record and success at the Fortune 500 company, what advice would Pillai have for an aspiring CIO?
“Develop a clear vision of the plan’s objectives and its constraints,” she wrote in an emailed response. “Know and appreciate all the stakeholders in the process; network with others in our ‘ecosystem’; ‘search and reapply’.”
Finally, she wrote, “just be nice and do the right thing.”
Having retired from her corporate post, Pillai said she plans to stay active in the investment and business world. She serves on three investment committees for endowments and foundations, and is considering expanding her advisory work — after an extended vacation.
“As I spent about a third of my career on the CFO/treasury track in business, I’d like to put all of it to good use by joining a couple of ‘for-profit’ boards” for corporations, mutual funds, or the like, Pillai wrote. “No swan song yet!”