Becoming a Senior Director of Global Trade: Elizabeth Bishop

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!

I had the chance to catch up with Elizabeth Bishop, Senior Director at ACCO Brands. It was made fairly clear that she’s extremely passionate about her role and wanted to share her ascension to Directorship!

Liz, thanks for taking some time to walk us through your career. Let’s begin with your story; where does it start?

Where does it all start, such a broad question! Let’s start from the beginning! I grew up in Indiana, originally wanting to be an elementary education teacher (3rd or 4th grade). I entered Indiana State University in Bloomington, Indiana and it wasn’t too long after starting college that I knew I needed to shift my major – This is when I changed over to business – thought I’d have more career opportunities with this degree. Before I finished my undergrad, I had two children, one of who passed away from SIDS. It was a rough time trying to juggle being a mother, working full time and going to school full time, but I was determined.

I started working at Thomson Consumer Electronics while I was doing my undergraduate (I transferred to the remote branch of Indiana University). I had an amazing mentor named Leroy Brown at Thomson who did an excellent job guiding me through my career. Starting out as a temporary executive assistant, I quickly became full-time while expanding and changing my career. About halfway along my 10-year tenure at Thomson, Leroy approached me and said I should apply for a Foreign Trade Zone Administrator (let’s remember, I’d never worked in this field before). Although I was reluctant to apply, I followed his advice and eventually got the job.

If you’ve never heard of trade compliance, neither had I at the time. Back then (some 15-20 years ago), Global Trade wasn’t anything like it is today. When you get into this, it’s a self-taught field. My manager at the time, Elaine Williams, taught me the ropes for running an FTZ. I think it was around 2-3 years later when the company decided they’d move the operations to Mexico, so I had to find something new.

Since I’d been ‘sucked’ into the trade compliance world, I decided to continue my adventure. My next role led me to Rolls Royce North America (don’t get too excited, it was the jet engines, not the cars) and I also started my Masters (MBA) during this time. At Rolls Royce, I was the Import Manager, leading a team of highly skilled import specialists. From there, my career took off – I worked at ThyssenKrupp Steel in Alabama alongside finishing my Master, Otis Elevators in South Carolina, Monsanto (now Bayer) in both California and Missouri and currently, I’m the Senior Director at ACCO Brands in Illinois. Not forgetting to mention, I’m also a mom of almost 7 (the last one due in May 2019)!

I’m 1 of 3 kids, and my parents still manage to mix our names up… I imagine 7 makes for a busy household! Considering you’ve got a lot on your plate, what’s life like as a Director of Global Trade Compliance?

Awe, I get this question a lot, even from my own children. It’s really hard to say ‘This is what you do every day’, because every day is different in Global Trade. In my current position, I have more than the operational role of Trade Compliance since I also have a strategic and mentoring role. I take pride in making my team my number one priority – if my team isn’t good, I’m not good. You shouldn’t move into a leadership role unless your team is your number one priority.

I’m also responsible for the strategic area of Global Trade, such as taking on new acquisitions, going into new countries (identifying the regulations, document requirements, and government agency interactions), and overall training. Operationally, my team handles all the paperwork that comes into the country from suppliers, ensuring the right country of origin is declared, correct classifications for the products (as this is what your customs duty is based upon), the right declarations have been submitted, and more. This same information is required for export, but you have the Bureau of Industry and Security to work with and not customs when it comes to exports.

Each day is different for my team and me; one minute we may be classifying a new product that is being launched, determining the correct duty rate, and identifying any free trade agreements that are applicable, and the next minute we are working with our finance team to reevaluate product pricing due to changes in government laws or regulations. We also work with engineering during the design phase of an item; changing the material or specifications of an item can have a drastic change in duty cost. This doesn’t just stop with one country – my responsibility is to make sure our company is complying with the laws globally. We import and export out of many different countries and regulations change from one to the next.

I’m with you on the team mentality – working together on bigger causes! Thinking of your journey, what’d you do to put yourself in a position to become a Director?

Sometimes you never know where your life will take you, or you do and it’s completely different to your expectations. I never once said ‘I want this position within XXX Company’, I just pushed myself to keep going. Never stop learning, no matter what you do. Even if you don’t want to keep ‘climbing the ladder’, just keep learning something new every day. At the companies I’ve worked at, I never limited myself. I’d network, reach out to others to see how I could assist, and jump onto projects that might have been out of my typical day-to-day, but it all allowed me to learn something new.

Help other people; by doing this, you’ll always learn something new. When I didn’t understand a process, I asked why, I dug into the process to see why this allowed me to learn new things and, at times, improve a process! If, at any time I felt I wasn’t learning, I’d reach out to my manager and tell them I needed to take on more responsibility or participate in a project to expand my knowledge. I never stop learning.

There are no secrets to success I suppose, you just have to get information for yourself – Were you active in self-education?

I think my above statements may lead to this question. I believe my family thought I’d never stop going to school as it seemed I was constantly enrolling in different classes or courses to learn. After I received my MBA, I had a desire to move on to my doctorate but decided to put that on hold. When I join a new company, I want to give my 100% to that company, dig in and evaluate the processes, and see where I can bring my knowledge and skills to improve not only my area but other areas I may be able to impact positively. By doing this, I’ve learned that I get the ‘education’ I desire. You don’t have to just keep going to college and taking coursework, you can teach yourself day to day. See something you don’t understand? Teach yourself! This not only happens in my career but at home as well.

Well said, your input creates an outcome! Considering you likely have a busy schedule, do you have a daily routine?

Oh my… you may think I’m crazy, after all, I do have almost 7 kids!

My husband works at home with his own business, so that allows me to work out of the house. I get up each day at 6 am to get ready while my kids are getting ready for school. I get to work around 7 am since I like the early hours when it’s a little more quiet and it allows me time to concentrate on responses I need to provide people. When 1-2 hours have gone by, it starts to get a little more hectic at work; questions are coming in from different countries, my employees may need help with a certain shipment or item, or I may have presentations to conduct. It’s hard to have a daily routine while at work. I make sure I take time on my lunch hour to run home and have lunch with my husband and youngest son who isn’t in school yet. That gives me time to recharge and have a little fun with him before I head back to work to finish off my day.

Once work is over, I typically leave around 4 pm and my family life starts. I walk right in the door and start cooking dinner, then I usually have to run one of my children somewhere (between gymnastics and driver’s ed, we’re always on the run). When I get the opportunity to wait for a kid to be picked up, I’ll scroll through my work emails on my phone because now the other side of the globe is working. I don’t like waiting until the next day to answer their questions, as that could cause a 24-hour delay so I do my best to get a response back as quickly as possible so they can continue their work. Near the end of the day, when all the kids are home, baths are done, homework is done, and I’ve responded to as many emails as I can, it’s time for bed (around 11 pm). I love my job, both the career and my job as a mother and I wouldn’t change a thing.

Not crazy at all, sounds like you definitely have a lot on your plate! With work and general life being so busy, what habits do you think someone needs to become an industry expert?

Trade Compliance is an emerging and booming field. I recommend any student entering college at least give themselves the opportunity to learn about this career. The good thing is, colleges & universities have now started offering International Studies, Global Economy and other degrees that align nicely with this line of work. I have a son who wants to become an International Trade Attorney and the advice I give him is to start learning NOW. You’re never too young – In the United States, at 18 years old, you can take the Customs Broker Exam. This is a tough exam, but it’s a good thing to start studying early for. Pass the exam when you are 18, spend some time at a customs brokerage office while you’re in college to gain experience, and eventually move into a corporate role. There are several certifications available now in almost all countries related to international trade with a certified customs specialist being the main one. Make sure you’re dedicated and give your all to whatever you choose to do. As a student, sign up for ICPA, it’s a group of individuals who are dedicated to international trade; an excellent place to learn more about this field!

Discipline, I think, is a keyword to use here. Following that, do you have any advice you’d give to young professionals who want to drive their careers deeper into Global Trade?

Never stop learning. If someone tells you that you can’t do something, show them you can.

Network as much as you can, reach out and get a mentor, whether it’s in this field or another, find an executive that can guide you and is willing to share his or her knowledge. Teach yourself – don’t rely on someone else to teach you everything.

Learning should never stop, I’m in full agreeance with you there. Have you got any career inspirations or professionals that you look up to?

Still to this day, I give a lot of credit to my very first manager, Leroy Boone. Another inspiration I had in my life, not career-related, was my high school golf coach ‘Coach B.’ Both of these people (aside from my parents) pushed me to be something I never knew I could be. When I wanted to quit or settle, they didn’t allow me to. My husband and kids are also amazing supporters. I wouldn’t have made it where I am if it weren’t for the support they’ve given me on my career journey, especially my husband happily following me across the United States on each coach to go after my dreams. Everyone needs people like this in their lives. I’ve also learned to never limit myself. There was a time I set a salary goal and, once I made that salary, I felt like I accomplished what I wanted, but I never knew I’d blow that goal out of the water! So just don’t limit yourself!

What an inspiration! Liz, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with us. I know that there’s plenty of valuable information in your insights that multiple professionals can learn from.

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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