Tim Slottow: The man on top of the bottom line

Todd Needle/Daily
Timothy Slottow, executive vice president and chief financial officer for the University, works in his office in the Fleming Administration Building on Tuesday, March 8. Buy this photo

By Kyle Swanson, Managing Editor
Published March 9, 2011

Many high-profile executives — individuals who have influence over multi-billion dollar corporations — hold high-stakes meetings throughout the day and are often unapproachable by those who don’t work directly with them.

This is the second installment in the Daily's continuing series, "Executive Conversations," which is a set of features based on extended sit-down interviews with some of the University's top administrators. These conversations give readers an inside look at the personalities and lives of those in the University's highest offices, who make decisions that impact the lives of everyone on campus.

And while the University’s executive vice president and chief financial officer could easily fit into this category — having wide-ranging responsibility for a $5.2 billion enterprise — Timothy Slottow couldn’t be more of an exception.

There’s something different about Slottow, something that makes it almost impossible to believe he is one of the most powerful leaders at a corporation as large as the University, unless you see his business card. From the second he shakes your hand and greets you with a hometown smile, he seems too down to earth for someone in his position.

But then again, that’s not a bad thing. Not at all.

Whether Slottow’s balanced personality is the result of his upbringing, diverse work history or family that keeps him well grounded, having someone of his caliber and character in one of the top posts at the University is one way to ensure the institution’s success.

'We Make Blue Go'

With Slottow’s title as executive vice president and CFO, it’s easy to think of him as the University’s top accountant. And while that may be true for Slottow’s role as CFO, being one of three executive vice presidents at the University means his responsibility is much more far-reaching.

Slottow’s fellow executive vice presidents are Philip Hanlon, the University’s provost who oversees all academic operations at the University, and Ora Pescovitz, the executive vice president of medical affairs who is in charge of the University of Michigan Health System and other medical enterprises at the University like the Medical School. Slottow is in charge of everything else.

Collectively, Slottow’s areas of responsibility are commonly called business and finance. This includes thousands of University employees who help to support the work conducted by the University faculty and students in the medical and academic spheres.

Without the business and finance group, campus would look dramatically different. Computer labs would not exist, and no University employee would have a computer at his or her desk. But that wouldn’t matter, since buildings wouldn’t be powered or cleaned, and employees wouldn’t be paid for their work. That’s because the University’s business and finance division handles essentially all non-academic and non-medical tasks at the University, including building construction and maintenance, information technology services, investment management and human resources operations.

The ‘typical’ day

Asked to describe his typical day at work, Slottow simply replies, “There is not a typical day. It just doesn’t exist.”

There’s no such thing as a normal day for Slottow because he’s is involved in so many aspects of the University’s operations. His attention is called in many different directions that repeating a day would be almost unfathomable. However, the structure of Slottow’s days is often very similar.

A gymnast during his time as an undergraduate student at the University of California–Berkeley, Slottow remains physically active, often waking up by 5:30 in the morning so he has time to hit the gym before heading to the office.

But once Slottow reaches his office on the third floor of the Fleming Administration Building, his day disappears quickly.

Often scheduled with back-to-back meetings for the entire day, Slottow’s schedule doesn’t leave much time for working on tasks he must complete on his own — including reviewing financial statements and reports and responding to e-mails.

To help him focus on some of his more complex tasks, Slottow says he sometimes delays arriving to the office in the morning, instead opting to escape to a local coffee shop to avoid the inevitable distractions that can arise at his office.

“I’ll basically go, like when I was a student, to a coffee shop or somewhere just to not be anywhere near the phone or near the inbox if I really have to focus on something,” Slottow said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.

But even those early morning escapes don’t give Slottow enough time to catch up on the work that piles up on his desk or the e-mails that flood his inbox. To complete these tasks, Slottow takes work home with him at night and often responds to messages long after many others in Fleming have left for the night.

Balancing work and family

Though he works long work hours and is never truly being “off-the-clock,” Slottow is a family man. It may be difficult at times for him to spend as much time as he might want to with his children — all of whom are now in college — or his wife, but it’s clear he has found a way to make everything work.

Sitting in his office during an interview, Slottow shows off pictures of his children displayed on his desk. They’re a little out-of-date now, he admits, proudly sharing what each child is doing now.

His eldest daughter is a graduate of the University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and is now pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin. His son is an Engineering junior at the University of Michigan and an active member of the Parkour Club on campus. And Slottow’s youngest daughter is pursuing her bachelor’s degree at a small music college in St. Paul, Minn.

Though their academic endeavors may separate Slottow from seeing his children as much as he would like, it’s clear Slottow makes every effort to spend time with his kids — even if it’s just swinging by Zingerman’s Deli between meetings to have a quick lunch with his son.

Having celebrated his silver anniversary last summer, Slottow is also very devoted to his wife, who is a reconnective healing practitioner, an artist and a competitive ballroom dancer.

But Slottow’s wife isn’t the only one with a dancing gene. Slottow enjoys spending some time on the dance floor too. The proof is on YouTube, where there’s a video of Slottow and his wife dancing on the stage of the Michigan Theater at a benefit for the Make A Wish Foundation of Michigan, an organization for which Slottow also sits on the board of directors.

And while dancing may provide a common competitive activity for Slottow and his wife, the entire family has pursued another activity — tae kwon do. Each member of Slottow’s family has a black belt.

Perhaps that statement should be clarified though, as neither Jack nor Nala — the Slottow family’s two dogs — have black belts, though both are very much a part of the family. In fact, while showing off the pictures and trinkets that line the bookshelf in his office, Slottow points to a party invitation sent to some of his senior staff members that jokes about how much the dogs are considered part of the family.

Slottow also enjoys hitting the tennis courts, though the executive, who is humble about his abilities and accomplishments, insists he’s not yet skilled enough to play competitively.

“I practice enough to be competitive, but so far, I am not good enough to actually be competitive,” Slottow said. “But I enjoy getting the exercise, learning a new sport and meeting folks from all walks of life who are crazed about tennis.”

As if his interests weren’t well-rounded enough, Slottow also plays classical guitar. And though he doesn’t show off his musical talents on YouTube, Slottow makes an appearance in and is the subject of the lyrics in his youngest daughter’s original music video “Don’t Be My Hero.”

A matter-of-fact man

Between balancing his family and his wide range of work responsibilities, Slottow’s attention may be stretched thin. It is impossible for him to spend as much time with each business unit, family member or hobby as he might like, but his focus on results is something that drives his success.

A self-described “fact-based, data-driven” man, Slottow’s past as a consultant and his financial work for both Amtrak and the city of Seattle have shaped his rational approach to ensuring decisions are made with the best interest of the University, not individual actors, in mind.

In fact, Slottow said he’s probably one of the only people he knows who is in such a high-profile position but hasn’t had to compromise on morals or doing what is best for the organization as a whole.

“I have always done what is best for the institution since coming to Michigan because of the fact-based decision-making process,” Slottow said. “Not many people can say that in jobs like mine.”

This approach is something that’s possible, Slottow says, because the University is free from many of the political pressures he faced during his time with Amtrak and the city of Seattle.

“We’re independent from the state, yet we’re a public non-profit whose mission is to educate leaders to solve big problems,” he said. “If our regents were appointed by the governor, I hate to say this, but I think I would hate it because they would be motivated by political appointees and political careers.”

Keeping sight of what matters

Amid pictures painted by his wife and the electronics and paperwork essential to do his job, Slottow keeps simple reminders in his office of how important his group’s work is to the University. They’re tokens and trinkets that help him remember what his work means and how vast the work of business and finance truly is.

One such indicator is an old fire suppression system sprinkler head perched on his bookshelf. Given to him after a day of shadowing the division of his office responsible for maintenance of fire suppression systems on campus, Slottow received the sprinkler head as a souvenir.

Other symbols of the essential work done by the business and finance groups are scattered throughout Slottow’s office. On the circular, four-person conference table that sits in Slottow’s office, between his desk and a small seating area, is a special set of coasters.

With the Michigan ‘M’ proudly emblazoned on each of the four coasters, Slottow explains that the set was a gift from Lewis Morgenstern, a University professor of neurology and neurosurgery and director of the University Hospital’s stroke program.

Morgenstern served on a faculty committee that advises Slottow on business and finance matters affecting faculty when he decided to take a sabbatical from his post at UMHS to work for Slottow’s office in what Slottow described as “an intern, a grunt” position.

But after working with the business and finance division of the University, Morgenstern’s career path changed slightly. He has since written a script for a movie that describes the role of the business and finance division at the University and now has a partial appointment in the University’s Office of the Provost.

Slottow also keeps things in his office that clearly demonstrate how much he values the people who work for his organization. Walking around in his office, Slottow points to a poster hanging near the door. It’s a poster that displays what are supposedly the best movie quotes of all time.

It looks of out place, but Slottow explains it was something his assistant bought him because one of the people Slottow corresponds with likes to include movie quotes in his messages. The poster, Slottow says, allows him to build a better relationship with this person and to take part in the fun exchanges.

Slottow takes great care to make people feel valued, especially by making time to listen to feedback from his staff. Through informal, off-the-record conversations with cross-sections of his division called “pulse checks,” Slottow hears directly from all members of his staff about what issues employees are facing so he can stay in the loop.

It’s perhaps unusual for an executive at Slottow’s level to meet with employees who range from custodians to his boss, University President Mary Sue Coleman, and the University Board of Regents. But it’s what makes Slottow the leader he is. He doesn’t settle for anything less than what’s best for the University. He can’t. He cares too much to give anything less than his best.