Becoming a Director of Global Trade Compliance

Time and time again, we’re asked by junior candidates what it takes to reach the senior grades within the indirect tax world. And rather than give you our answer, we thought it would be best if we shared the views of those who have been there and done it!

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Suzanne Bullitt, Director of Global Trade at Eastman Chemical Company in Tennessee. From our first conversation over the phone, it was interesting to see a continuous trend of professionals who just so happened to ‘fall’ into this niche sector of indirect tax…

Another week, another journey to share! Thank you, Suzanne, for taking some time to shed light on your career through Directorship! With every story, there’s always a once upon a time… Where does yours begin?

My passion for trade and compliance started early in my career when I accepted a role as an account manager for a large customs brokerage & freight forwarding firm. My role as an export account manager fueled my passion for international trade. I soon moved to the corporate side of supply chain and trade and went on to further my studies in International Political Economy.

Trade Compliance became my primary role shortly after 9/11 as the US enhanced their supply chain security requirements and political policy placed more regulatory mandates on multinational exporters and importers. I witnessed trade compliance migrate from a supply chain function to a legal requirement and found my niche in the industry. For 18 years, I’ve navigated a career in trade compliance and I must say, it’s been nothing short of exciting to watch this industry grow and develop.

I can imagine it being rather interesting to see the industry evolve. With the sector now being well established, how would you describe life as a Director of Global Trade?

My last few years as a Director of Global Trade have been exciting! In the current political environment, trade policy and resulting laws and regulations are changing almost daily – keeps myself and the team on our toes! As a result, trade compliance is no longer simply the interpretation of trade laws and regulations… Trade compliance has morphed into a strategic role that requires professionals to provide strategic insight on business initiatives as well as advise government agencies on pending regulations. Professionals in the industry have a unique opportunity to dip their toes into corporate strategy and government affairs, making our roles as compliance leaders a highly respected advisor to our executive teams.

It’s safe to say that there are most definitely viable career opportunities in trade compliance as a whole – After starting your career in the industry, is there anything in particular that you did to become a Director at Eastman?

Eastman was looking for a trade compliance professional who could create a cohesive global trade compliance program (e.g. lead a team, implement policies and procedures, etc.) while still being mindful of business growth and corporate strategy. It was my strategic mindset that led me to my role at Eastman.

I’m sure your extended experience in a specialist leadership role helped to carve your path into Eastman. I assume you’ve stayed active in self-education?

I’m extremely active in self-education and finding information for myself. Regardless of my time and experience in trade compliance, I continue to attend workshops and seminars to expand my knowledge and I’m pursuing my Master of Jurisprudence degree in Business Law and Compliance.

It’s true when they say you never stop learning! I imagine this factors into your schedule, although I’ve seen a trend in routines for trade compliance experts – or lack thereof! What’s yours like?

Like many trade compliance professionals, my day-to-day varies. I’m often advising business stakeholders on legal requirements, work with counsel on various law matters and manage a corporate function (e.g. managing people, budget, etc.).

As a functional leader, I take my role as a people leader seriously. I enjoy growing my team, spreading my knowledge, and offering professionals the opportunity to learn and grow. I believe it’s so important to place a high priority on mentoring future business leaders.

Very well said. I think it’s extremely important to show that example and be enthused about your team’s development. It can only do good! What sort of advice can you give to the next wave of leaders coming up, in regards to key habits?

Trade compliance is a delicate balance of understanding the legal obligations and providing strategic insight to our business stakeholders. It’s so important to continue to learn new topics and gain insight from other professionals and legal advisors – expand your network!

This industry isn’t one you can learn from reading a manual. Soak up material, connect with other industry professionals, and attend courses and training as much as your time allows. But, don’t forget to learn about the business of your company! The more you understand how your organization operates, the more strategic insight you can provide to any stakeholders in your business.

We’ve seen a common trend of advice towards networking… Any advice you’d give to young professionals who want to deepen their career into leadership roles within Global Trade?

Global Trade leadership requires you to be both a subject matter expert as well as a leader of people. As you continue to grow your industry knowledge, don’t lose sight of your professional growth as a leader. Your success will come from your team’s success. It’s just as important to develop your leadership skills as it is to enhance your industry knowledge.

Short, sweet and simple. Since starting your career in global trade, do you have any career inspirations or professionals that you look up to?

I have many. For fear of embarrassing any of them, I won’t name them individually, but they know who they are. All are professionals who I’ve looked up to, attempted to emulate, and still reach out to for advice and guidance on my career.

Do you have any recommended reads or inspiring books you live by?

I’ve found the following read to help fine-tune my leadership skills:

I’ve also enjoyed the following and would recommend it to other women in business.

Thanks for filling us in on your valuable reads, Suzanne. I’m sure there will be lots of people who can take plenty of value from your career experiences and hopefully, we’ll get to hear about your continued success in the future!

Are you at the senior level within Indirect Tax? If so, we’d love to hear about your experiences and share them with our global tax network.

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