Mari Solberg, division vice-president-Internal Audits for Spectrum Brands, comes from one of the founding families of Monterrey, located in northeast Mexico. And as the family continued to occupy the original family home, the city grew big around it and the neighborhood surrounding the home became dangerous.
“The buses could not come into the neighborhood because the bus drivers were afraid that they would get attacked and maybe killed,” Solberg said. “They would stop at the edge of the neighborhood and drop us off. We would then have to walk the rest of the way home. More times than I can count, we would have to run through gang fights to get home. We had to run and just hope that we were not going to get hurt. And none of us ever got injured. We made it home. The gangs left us alone. The gangs at the time knew each other and were fighting against each other and we weren’t part of it, so they just left us alone.”
Solberg’s father and mother were determined that their children would not be shaped by the neighborhood.
“Education was important,” Solberg emphasized. “My dad would say that the only inheritance he would leave us would be in our brain. ‘When I go, there will be no money. There will be nothing for you to inherit except what you have learned. All of my resources will go into your knowledge and what you can learn.’ He said that he was building minds, not things. He strongly encouraged all of his kids to continue pursuing their education.”
While Solberg’s father, in particular, raised his children with ‘old world’ values, he didn’t have ‘old world’ expectations for his daughter Mari.
“When I graduated from high school, it was clear to my dad that I had a different skill set than my brother and sisters,” Solberg said. “I happened to learn things faster and maybe I was more outspoken than the rest of my family. So he said, ‘Well, Mari, this is Mexico and you told me that you want to be in business. Some of your ideas are not extremely popular here, as far as equality goes. I’m thinking you are not going to reach your goals here.’ At the time where I grew up, there was an expectation in Mexico that if you were a woman and you were married, that you would no longer work. By the way, that meant married by 19-20-years-old. Otherwise, you were getting too old for marriage. That’s not what I wanted. So I kind of agreed with my dad. So not only were you not expected to work anymore after you got married, but also if you had children and were still married, then for sure, you were expected to not work anymore, which was good for my older sister. But then I sort of broke that mold.”
Solberg was a U.S. citizen because her mother was a U.S. citizen and her parents married after she was born. Solberg was encouraged to study business in the United States only if she could support herself and not become a burden on American taxpayers. In essence, the message was succeed or come back home. And so, she headed to Boise State University in Idaho where she could stay with relatives while she got her feet on the ground.
“After the first year of college, I applied for some academic scholarships,” Solberg said. “I always had really good grades. And I stayed with my relatives and I went to college at Boise State University. I got a 4.0 GPA and after that, I got an academic scholarship for my next year of college that included room and board and tuition for 1-2 years. I started to work at that time. I started saving money to pay for the next year. And that is how I financed my own education in accounting. I worked throughout college to pay for tuition, room and board.”
Solberg’s skill set as an accountant would prove attractive to Corporate America. She was immediately picked up by Boise Cascade, lumber and building materials manufacturer and worked for them for six years. She also fell in love with Tim Solberg, a native of Stoughton, WI who was stationed in the military in Boise.
“We married and moved to Wisconsin in order to be close to family,” Solberg said. “He said didn’t see us living in Mexico and I wanted to be close to family. Family is important to me. So we ended up moving close to his family.”
The contrast in family backgrounds made Solberg and her husband appreciate the value of diversity whole also appreciating our common human ties.
“When we first got married, there were differences,” Solberg said. “I come from a family of seven and he comes from a family of two. He was just completely overwhelmed by how loud and busy my family was. And there are only two boys in his family and he came into a family with six girls and one boy. There was way too much stuff going on and he would go hide for a while just to get away from the commotion. But there were a lot more similarities in our families than differences. Sure there were more of us and more women than boys. But at the very core, we both care deeply for each other’s family and for our own. The way that we expressed it was very different.”
Solberg was quickly picked up in Madison after they moved.
“I worked for Group Health Cooperative,” Solberg said. “I managed their budget department. I was the budget manager for a couple of years. And then I saw a posting for MG&E in internal audit, which I love. So I went to MG&E and I spent another couple of years there. I was recruited out by American Family Insurance and worked 15 years there. I had two little girls during that time. After that, I was recruited by Spectrum Brands three years ago to run their internal audit department.”
When people think about audits, the Internal Revenue Service and the thought of penalties come to mind, a very negative experience. But in Solberg’s case, as the head of Spectrum Brand’s internal audits, units of Spectrum Brands want her people to come in and take a look for the internal auditors are as much problem solvers as they are a force that keeps people accountable.
“Every year, I talk to general managers and financial officers and ask, ‘What keeps you up at night,’” Solberg said. “And they tell me all kinds of things. They might say, ‘The strength of the dollar as compared to other currencies. That can affect how we perform.’ Or maybe we have a lot of private label competition where Walmart and Target might be making products that are similar to ours and selling them cheaper. So they tell me what is keeping them up at night. And that is what we call risk. And so I say, ‘Okay, you are worried about that. What are you doing about it?’ ‘I have some hedging programs …’ They tell me what they do and then I ask, ‘How good is that working?’ They might say, ‘I think that is okay.’ And that is where I come in. I remove the ‘I think.’ I have a group of employees that are highly qualified in assessing risk by taking a project apart and putting it back together, hopefully in a better way. So what they do is they take away that ‘I think.’ And they give them an opinion.”