Editor's note (February, 2013): David is now Senior Vice President, Chief Financial Officer of NBC Sports Group.
David Pietrycha’s office window overlooks one of the world’s most famous places: New York City’s Rockefeller Center. He works in an Art Deco skyscraper known to TV viewers as “30 Rock.” But it wasn’t an escalator that lifted the Saint Anselm grad to his CFO position at an international media company. It was hard work, networking, strategizing, and risk taking.
He says of his first job at NBC, “You can’t imagine a job further below the radar of the rest of the organization.”
Six years later, the 33-year-old Saint Anselm grad holds the top financial position at NBC News and MSNBC, which produces 40 percent of the network’s programming and represents a billion and a half dollars of revenue per year for NBC Universal. The continuing existence of Morning Joe, The Today Show, Meet the Press, Dateline, and other programs, depends in large part on him doing his job, and doing it well.
It may be the ideal job for a news junkie, which he is — yet it all started with an affinity for math and a desire to play hockey. And like the logician he is, Dave Pietrycha describes his career ascent thus far as a series of steps. As he puts it, “My path has been a little unconventional.”
Pietrycha’s introduction to Saint Anselm was through college trustee Steve Ellis ’69, a friend of his uncle’s in Connecticut. Ellis loves telling college-bound students about his alma mater, and when he heard that his friend’s smart nephew wanted to go to a small college in New England, he drove the kid to New Hampshire and gave him a campus tour.
The Wethersfield High School hockey team captain was admitted and immediately tried out for the Hawks. That was before Saint Anselm had an ice arena; but, Pietrycha says, “Hockey was my life.” In not making the team as a walk-on, he faced a disappointment that he feels to this day. He declared a major in financial economics in his sophomore year, but he was unsure what he wanted to do. In retrospect, he thinks not making the hockey team may have worked to his advantage. Living in Dominic Hall with friends on the hockey team, he played intramurals, joined the Red Key Society, and threw himself into academics.
In the fall of his senior year, Pietrycha was offered a spot in the finance leadership development program at the Nashua, N.H. office of BAE Systems, a global defense, security and aerospace company. It was a three-year program with one-year rotational assignments, one of which was at corporate headquarters in Washington, D.C. The program includes a company-funded MBA—which he pursued part-time at Bentley College.
Pietrycha took a job at the defense company but only stayed one year before making what he calls a life decision. “I took a step back and thought about it. I was four years out of Saint Anselm. I’d graduated from a leadership program and had an MBA. Did I want to be a defense guy or try something different?”
Jerome Burke ’82 was one of Pietrycha’s early co-workers at BAE Systems. Burke says he knew the young Saint Anselm grad had tremendous potential. "But you’ve got to chase your dreams. I’m always in favor of people doing whatever drives their energy the most and gives them the most satisfaction.”
Pietrycha and his wife, Laura, wanted to try living in New York. They went to visit friends and check out the job prospects in an industry “that didn’t have the government as its biggest customer.”
That’s where the risk comes in. Pietrycha moved to Manhattan and was hired as the financial manager of the retail store on the first floor of 30 Rockefeller Center. (If you’re looking for a Dunder Mifflin coffee mug or want to sign up for a studio tour, this is the place.)
“It was a mini CFO job,” he says. “It was an opportunity to manage a business and a conduit for me to get into a good company. Whenever you make an industry change or a geographic change — and this was both — there are trade-offs. (He lived in a 400-square-foot fifth floor walk-up and gave up automobile ownership.) “It wasn’t my dream job, but it turned out to be a good decision.”
Pietrycha’s BAE training paid off: after less than a year, he took a position as director of financial planning and analysis in NBC Universal’s TV stations division.
“I was closer to the center of what the company does. It’s where I really cut my teeth in media and TV,” he recalls. “There were a lot of late nights turning the crank, but in the big picture, it served an important purpose. It gave me an appreciation for the details of everyone’s job in the division and it set me up for more growth.”
Eighteen months later, he moved into NBC’s local media division, starting in the advertising sales group and moving up to vice president for financial planning and analysis. During this time, then-owner General Electric enrolled him in their training program for experienced financial leaders. (Comcast is now the major shareholder.)
Figuring out appropriate pricing required the young executive to follow advertising trends closely. “It’s a very important piece of our business, and very dynamic,” he says. “Building up that expertise is a real differentiator.”
It was a role that offered Pietrycha one of the highlights of his career: going to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing to help manage the advertising inventory. Later, as the American economy began showing signs of trouble, it also provided one of the major challenges.
“TV is a very high fixed-cost business. When advertisers cancel ads, you can lose profits at an incredible pace. We were forced to restructure,” Pietrycha says. He was the number two financial person in the group; so when the CFO took a leave of absence, it all landed on his desk.
“It was a really severe environment to run a business in, and an incredible amount of pressure,” he says. “But I learned a lot, and it was a big part of setting me up for my next couple of moves.”
Those next moves were into what the corporate world calls “the C suites:” the ones with “chief” at the beginning and “officer” at the end. It is where the firm’s most important senior executives sit, and where the high-stakes strategic decisions are made.
As focused as the Saint Anselm grad has been, he arrived at C level much sooner than even he would have expected. In February 2010, Pietrycha was promoted to vice president and CFO of MSNBC and NBC News Gathering. The job involved developing a two-year strategic plan highlighting a $100 million growth opportunity for MSNBC and leading the analysis of key investment decisions about primetime shows. Last fall, he earned his next promotion: senior VP and CFO of NBC News, responsible for financial oversight of all NBC news broadcasts and platforms, including MNSBC.
CONNECTING THE DOTS
On January 10—the day of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary–Pietrycha sat in his biggest NBC office so far, talking about his career.
“Half the talent of NBC is in New Hampshire today,” he said. He had just returned from a weekend in the Granite State attending two nationally televised Republican debates, one of which was held at Saint Anselm’s Dana Center.
CFOs may be interested in dollars, but national politics and world affairs are the stuff of life for this kind of news executive. Arab Spring, Japan’s earthquake, and presidential politics affect the bottom line, and they are largely unpredictable. Staying on top of the news is critical. He has two TVs on, one on MSNBC and one on CNBC. He finished the New York Times on his iPad during his commute from Stamford.
“I connect the dots between the editorial decisions — who goes to cover events, where, and for how long — and the business impact it has on us,” Pietrycha explains. “We have people stationed around the world where very little happens but we anticipate that something could happen. And sometimes we need to do things as a news division that have no return, like three hours of straight coverage during a hurricane, with no commercials. On a net basis, we’re here to make money, but we have a responsibility as broadcasters of news. Not everything we do is a profit generator.” “C suite” or not, this office is small and chalk-plain. The only thing fancy about it is the view. The CFO hasn’t had time to put up his Hartford Whalers sign or to assemble the 240-piece 30 Rockefeller Center Lego set that sits on the credenza.
Pietrycha can describe the steps he took to get to where he is, but degrees and training programs — and even hard work — are not enough to fast-track a new college graduate to such a position. The X factor may be common sense and humility: not just being smart, but working smart.
“I think I had a maturity about it early,” he says. “A lot of people would turn up their nose at a role like the one I started with at this company. I felt I had a lot more to offer in the role, but I didn’t make a big deal of it. Whenever I saw an opening to get more involved and add value to something, I took it. I’ve learned something in every role I’ve had. And I haven’t shied away from the stretch assignments.”
He has an ability to take a step back and evaluate his circumstances. He believes in being fair and not treating people as subordinates. And he believes that how you think about a problem is as important as what you know. “A lot of what I do is in a gray area. It doesn’t have a black line around it as far as a job description.”
As accomplished as Pietrycha is, remarks Steve Ellis, he’d never walk up to someone and say, “Hi, I’m the CFO of NBC News.” “He’s enthusiastic about what he does, but you wouldn’t pick him out of the room as the guy who’s in that position.”
THE CELEBRITY FACTOR
Before moving into his current office, Pietrycha worked on the same floor where The Jimmy Fallon Show was taped. The guests’ dressing rooms were next to his office, and their wardrobes lined the hallway.
“I can't think of a better place to work,” says the Saturday Night Live fan. “It’s like the center of the world.” He has been in SNL’s live audience twice. He never knows when Brian Williams or Matt Lauer will step around the corner. He has actually started taking it for granted a little bit.
One of Pietrycha’s most memorable experiences was traveling to a White House correspondents’ dinner on a celebrity-filled Acela car (and going to the after-party at the Italian Embassy). NBC’s biggest news division is in the capital. While there, Pietrycha had a tour of the press briefing room from NBC News chief political correspondent Chuck Todd, and added his name to those of the journalists and artists who have autographed the tile wall that once surrounded FDR’s swimming pool.
Since graduating, Pietrycha has never stayed still for long. He often travels, since some of the 30 people on his team are in Los Angeles, Charlotte, D.C., and London. He has moved out of Manhattan to have more space and own a car again. One reason for choosing to live on the Connecticut shore is his love of fishing. His power boat, "Walk the Line" (named after the Johnny Cash song), is moored in Old Saybrook.
He says it has no deep meaning, but he mentions the boat when talking about keeping balance in his life. The rising executive, hockey-loving business student, and humble husband of a kindergarten teacher co-exist in Dave Pietrycha. And on a summer Sunday morning, fishing for blues and stripers, Pietrycha is in the right place to see the big picture and appreciate being able to walk the line.
He talks fondly of Saint Anselm; someday he will find time to hang up his diploma or a photo of the college. “Hockey didn’t work out, but I got a great education,” he says. He hosts visits from Saint Anselm economics and business classes led by Professor John Romps; attends Saint Anselm events; and hopes to find internship opportunities for Anselmian undergraduates.
Career wise, he is still ambitious: “In this field, if you have potential you move every couple of years. I’m still looking for bigger ways to contribute,” he says.