Behind a desk at Plaza Fleet Parts, her father’s automotive business, Barbara Feiner got her first shot at crunching numbers outside of math class.
“It was interesting to see how things worked from the financial side, like payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable,” she says of her high-school summer job. “I’ve always liked numbers.
“But it wasn’t particularly fun. It was grunt work,” she adds with a laugh.
Lucky for Feiner, Washington University’s vice chancellor for finance and chief financial officer, her days of grunt work are finished. Feiner oversees much of the University’s financial functions, including the nearly $2 billion budget to keep the University staffed, heated, cooled, furnished, landscaped, cleaned, protected and more.
The areas under her charge include most of the University’s accounting; sponsored projects or research accounting; the capital budget for campus construction projects; and the University’s banking relationships, debt and insurance. She also oversees resource management and administrative information systems and technology.
Feiner’s list of responsibilities is long, and her departments comprise approximately 250 people.
“Our employees are incredibly hard-working,” Feiner says, “and we have outstanding management. They are all experts in their individual areas and terrific at what they do. It is so enjoyable to work with all of them.”
One area in which Feiner is involved is perhaps highest on the list of issues most important to undergraduate students: tuition. Each year, Feiner meets with representatives from the University Council, the University Finance Committee and the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees to set the tuition for the coming year.
“We look at a few different things to determine what tuition will be,” Feiner says. “We look at what our peers — such as Harvard, Princeton, Northwestern, Chicago, Penn, Vanderbilt — have charged during the current year, and we try to make sure our rates stay in line with theirs. The most important consideration is the budget — what our estimated expenses, including financial aid, will be and what other revenue sources, such as gifts and endowment spending, we will have to supplement tuition in the budgets of the schools with undergraduate programs.
“One of the best things about working at this University is how collaborative the planning process is,” Feiner says. “There are so many groups that get together to work things out, and it has nothing to do with reporting lines.”
‘Programmed to go into education’
Feiner grew up in Belleville, Ill., and spent her high-school summers volunteering at camps for mentally handicapped children and in her father’s office. Her falls, winters and springs were occupied churning out As at the Academy of Notre Dame, an all-girls school in Belleville.
When it came to college, Feiner’s parents had a strong opinion as to what kind of school their oldest daughter should attend.
“When I was a senior, my parents took me to all the Catholic women’s colleges in the states contiguous to Illinois,” she says. “I broke my mother’s heart when I didn’t go to St. Mary’s in South Bend. But when I was in high school, women could not go to schools like Harvard, Yale or Notre Dame.”
She ultimately decided to attend Saint Louis University, the only co-ed school to which she applied. At SLU, Feiner majored in psychology and became certified in elementary and special education.
“It’s funny; back then, women were either teachers, nurses or social workers,” she says. “Most of my friends at SLU were either in nursing or physical therapy. Almost all my friends from high-school ended up being teachers. I was kind of programmed to go into education.”
Feiner graduated from SLU in 1971 and taught elementary-school for 10 years. She enjoyed teaching, but after seeing her eighth class of students through another school year, Feiner was ready for a change. She took accounting classes at a community college and thought back to her time at Plaza. She wanted to get back into the business world, but not with her father’s company doing clerical work. She decided to go back to school.
Family: Husband Tom; stepdaughters Christine, 29, and Mary Alice, 26; dog Casey
Education: B.A., psychology, Saint Louis University, 1971; M.B.A., Washington University, 1983
Favorite vacation spot: Door County, Wis.
Currently reading: “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini
Favorite place at Washington University: Brookings Quadrangle
In June 1981, she left her teaching job. She took the GMAT in July and started master’s in business administration classes at Olin Business School in August.
Though Feiner’s current duties are far different from those of her teaching job, she doesn’t regret her first career choice. She says she developed skills while managing a classroom that she still uses while managing the University’s finances.
“There are a lot of principles — in terms of time management, multi-tasking, dealing with people — that apply as a teacher, in business and in life,” she says. “For example, so much patience is required when you are a teacher. It’s required in the corporate world, too, when people aren’t seeing things your way, or when you’re trying to get something across.”
‘A whole new world’
Feiner was only a few weeks into her MBA program when she knew she had made the right decision.
“Business school was a whole new world to me, with a whole different language,” she says, “and it all kind of clicked. I especially liked finance, learning about capital markets and investments as well as how to look at a project from a financial viewpoint.”
Feiner graduated in 1983 and was quickly snapped up by Edison Brothers Stores Inc., a retailer specializing in shoes, apparel and entertainment. During her 13 years with the company, she served in different roles, including president of 5-7-9, a women’s clothing store.
While in the business world, Feiner didn’t leave the University behind her. Shortly after graduation, she became president of the business school’s alumni association and later executive vice chair and then chair of the Alumni Board of Governors and alumni representative to the Board of Trustees from 1995-96.
In 1996, Feiner was hired by the University to manage the endowment’s external investment managers. She quickly rose to chief financial officer in 1997 and was named to her current position, vice chancellor for finance and CFO, in 1999.
Throughout her career, Feiner’s keen mind and friendly attitude have earned her the admiration and respect of her co-workers, including Tim Thornton, WUSTL’s director of financial planning and analysis.
Thornton has known Feiner since 1985, when they both were at Edison Brothers, and he is collaborating with Feiner to create a strategic plan for the administrative areas within the University’s Central Fiscal Unit, among other things.
“Barb’s a great person to work with,” Thornton says. “She gets things quickly, understands what the issues are, makes decisions and moves forward.”
One of her biggest strengths, he says, is relating to people. “Barb knows everyone’s name in the accounting area — a group of well over 100 people — and she doesn’t get caught up in the chain of command,” Thornton says. “She doesn’t mind just calling people up and getting the information she needs.”
During her free time, Feiner likes to go on day hikes with her husband, Tom, in state parks in Southern Missouri and Southern Illinois — with an emphasis on “day.”
“I love being outside, but camping’s not really my thing,” she says. “I like restaurants. And showers.”
When she’s not hiking or managing finances, Feiner serves as treasurer of the board of trustees for the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a group in Boulder, Colo., that is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and provides research, observing and computing facilities and other services for the science community.
She joined UCAR’s board in 2000, when a WUSTL investment banker who already had worked on behalf of UCAR suggested Feiner fill the organization’s vacant treasurer slot.
“I’ve learned a lot about research in the past several years and expanded my knowledge about atmospheric science — though so much of the board members’ conversations go beyond me,” Feiner laughs.
If it wasn’t for Feiner’s ability to easily explain the nuances of finance, many UCAR board members might say the same thing of Feiner and her area of expertise.
“Barb is so savvy on everything involved with investments, bonding and anything else financial,” says Katy Schmoll, UCAR’s vice president for finance and administration. “She is able to translate complex financial issues for her fellow board members, most of whom have scientific, not financial, backgrounds.
“Washington University is lucky to have her,” Schmoll says.
Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton echoes Schmoll’s sentiment.
“Barb leads a specialized and effective team of financial professionals who are responsible for managing the University’s resources,” Wrighton says. “I am grateful for her dedicated service and for the care and attention she brings to her work. She is an extraordinary leader who has been a key contributor to the success we’ve enjoyed at Washington University, one of the world’s premier universities.”