Chatham resident Ken Sommer is putting more than 30 years of experience in finance to work for the town as well as for small businesses on Cape Cod. Sommer, newly named chair of the finance committee, was chief financial officer for Visa International before moving rull-time to Chatham in 2007.
A native of Boston, Sommer’s family moved to northern New Jersey when he was a child. Sports were his passion and baseball in particular was his love. He played third base and pitched until he realized that he wouldn’t be a major leaguer. “I knew I better go to school,” he says now with a smile. At Michigan State University he studied accounting, graduating in 1980. It was also at Michigan that he met his wife, Betsy.
He was offered a position in GE’s training program but before he could even start, the economy took a nosedive and the program was cut in half, leaving Sommer back at home in New Jersey without a job. He found a position at Lever Brothers inNew York and in 1982 he moved to Citibank, where he would rise through the ranks to become regional chief financial officer in both the Asia Pacific and Latin American regions.
His years in Singapore were especially formative. Calling that period the “most important both personally and professionally,” he witnessed the rise of Asia as an economic power. He also experienced the cultural diversity of the area and developed a new understanding and appreciation of the people of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the entire southeast Asia region.
In 2000, Sommer left Citigroup to become the chief financial officer of Visa International. It was at Visa that he honed his skills in collaboration and consensus building, balancing the needs of the banking community with running an efficient and effective service for the consumers who were their customers. His final assignment at Visa was serving as interim president and CEO during the restructuring that led to the company going public in 2008.
With all his jobs, the Sommers had lived around the world, but when they came to a friend’s wedding in Chatham in the summer of 1999, they realized that they found the place they could call home. “We came for a wedding and wound up buying a house,” Sommer says with a smile.
When he left Visa in 2007, Sommer was ready for a new direction. “I needed time to figure out what to do next,” he says. In high school he and a friend had set up a house painting company, hiring friends to paint houses during the summer. The experience had been a positive one. “I always thought I might go back to owning my own business,” he recalls. And with his options open, and his wife Betsy, now the owner of the Chatham Beach Dog, the S ommers’ decided they wanted to make Chatham their year-round home.
Today Sommer is a partner in the nationwide consulting firm B2B CFO, offering the services of a chief financial officer to local business owners.
With his involvement in the Chatham Beach Dog, along with his corporate experience, Sommer is uniquely qualified to work with small business owners. While having a CFO on staff is often out of the question for a small business, they can often benefit from financial advice as needed or on a part-time basis, Sommer says. His goal is to help companies improve their cash flow, increase their efficiency and grow their businesses.
Sommer sees his role on the finance committee in a similar way. “We are an independent voice, appointed by the moderator, outside of both the town staff and the selectmen,” Sommer says. “We look at the issues from a financial perspective and report what we see, raising issues as they pertain to finances. Both taxpayers and selectmen rely on us.”
Sommer finds Chatham to be a microcosm of America. “We have to find a way to continue to improve in a difficult economy. There is nothing easy anymore,” he adds. “Chatham has lots of resources, both natural and human, and we need to continue to foster those and evolve as the town sees fit. If there are issues, we are better off dealing with them to move forward.”
He often thinks back to being at school in Michigan in the late ’70s. “Most of my friends’ fathers worked for the auto industry,” he recalls. They would never have believed what would happen to the Big Three. It’s a cautionary tale to keep looking ahead, he adds. “We have to always think of the future, to protect what is good and to make it better.”
In addition to his work with the town, Sommer sits on the Eli Broad Business School advisory board for Michigan State University. He and his wife Betsy enjoy traveling, boating and spending time with their two golden retrievers, Raffles and Wrigley. Ken Sommer, new chairman of the Chatham Finance Committee.