Dr. Jenne Britell's resume would impress just about anybody. Currently a senior managing director of Brock Capital Group, an advisory and investment banking firm, and chairman and CEO of Structured Ventures, she is a former senior executive of GE Capital, held senior management positions at Citicorp and others, and was founding chairman and CEO of the Polish-American Mortgage Bank in Warsaw, Poland. She currently serves on a couple of other boards, including Crown Holdings, as well as being chairman of United Rentals.
Yet few things in her illustrious business career excited her as much as visiting United Rentals branches, where, as she puts it, “the rubber truly meets the road” and she gets to see the technology at work that is transforming United Rentals into a profoundly more efficient company, and talk to the United Rentals staff that puts the technology into practice.
Britell, who joined the United Rentals board after being recruited by founder Brad Jacobs at a time when the company was looking to separate the board from the management of the company (CEO Michael Kneeland is the only management executive on the board), is fascinated by the rental industry and its vast potential for growth. She also sees that the industry has a long way to go in terms of broadening its capacity to serve its customer base and expand the services it can provide.
Britell certainly knows the hard work required and only has to think back to 2008, when the agreed-upon acquisition of the company by Cerberus fell through. She well recalls how Kneeland, serving as interim CEO while the company carried out a search for a permanent successor to previous chief executive Wayland Hicks, kept the company on track moving forward at a difficult time.
“I know very few people, and I've spent my career in corporate life, that could have done it with the grace, style, courage and thoughtfulness that Michael did, he was superb,” says Britell. “At the end of what was probably the longest job test in history, I said to Michael, ‘Are you sure you want this job permanently, because the board would really like you to take it?’”
Kneeland took the job and began what is widely viewed as an excellent working relationship between United Rentals' management and its board. Britell, however, is quick to clarify the roles.
“Michael runs the company,” she says. “I am not an operating officer. I do not participate in the day-to-day running of the company, my role is really to support Michael and be there as a sounding board in any area that he thinks I or the board can be helpful.”
Britell describes her role as a supporter and facilitator.”We have a very collegial board with people with extraordinary skills,” Britell says. “We did a self-assessment at the end of 2008 and there were three areas we felt as a board we needed.”
Britell says the board decided to concentrate on bringing in people with strong skill-sets in logistics, technology and retail. Some of the people the board brought in include Bobby Griffin, who had been head of Ryder International operations; Filippo Passerini, chief information officer for Procter & Gamble; and Jose Alvarez, who, when he came on the board, was CEO of Stop & Shop.
“A number of us have real global expertise,” says Britell. “In different industries, but nonetheless with different perspectives. The board focuses on big-picture strategy, expertise in areas where our other experiences can be helpful.”
In addition to her capacities as a supportive facilitator and obvious financial and business acumen, Britell also brings an awareness of the cyclical nature of business. “I can deal with change and how one deals with change,” she says. “If you look at the past couple of years, that's clearly the key for us. I happen to think change can be very positive and broadening in opportunity. Difficult times sometimes are great opportunities for change and for good people and good companies to really demonstrate how good they are.”