Cheryl Francis, '78

Cofounder and Co-chairman of Corporate Leadership Center

Cheryl Francis, '78, is cofounder and co-chairman of Corporate Leadership Center (CLC), a partnership between major corporations and academic institutions that advances top corporate leaders and leadership practices. CEO Perspectives, CLC’s flagship program for C-suite executives, is in its tenth year and is offered in partnership with the Kellogg School of Management and the Chicago Booth School of Business. Thirteen percent of program alumni are now corporate CEOs and 20 percent sit on corporate boards. More than 60 CEOs and board chairs have participated as executive speakers. CLC’s second program, Leading Women Executives, offers a unique development experience for high-potential women and their companies aimed at improving the cost/benefit trade-off for corporate executive women and their organizations. CLC owns this program 100 percent, recruiting academic talent from world-class universities based on their research and consulting agendas.

Francis is a director of three corporate boards: Aon, Morningstar, and HNI Corporation. She is audit committee chair and a member of the compensation committee for Morningstar; a member of the compensation and finance committees for Aon; and a member of the audit committee for HNI. She is a Cornell University emeritus trustee and Presidential Councillor, and a board member of the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago. Francis formerly served on the boards of Hewitt Associates and Lands’ End; and was chair of The Chicago Network, Chicago’s leading professional women’s organization. Francis has chaired the audit committees of four public companies and Cornell University.

Francis was executive vice president and chief financial officer of R.R. Donnelley from 1995 to 2000. She oversaw all financial functions, including mergers and acquisitions, of the $5 billion print services company. Under her leadership, all major management processes were revamped and aligned with value-based metrics, the business portfolio and capital structure were restructured, and shared services were introduced to increase transaction processing efficiency. These initiatives led to the repurchase $1.2 billion of stock (over 21 percent of total), the restructuring of over $2 billion in company sales, and an improvement in return on investment to greater than 14 percent (versus 10 percent in the early 90s) and a return on equity greater than 23 percent. Cash generation from the base businesses increased more than $200 million per year, while organic revenue grew faster than industry indices.

Earlier in her career, Francis was treasurer of FMC Corporation, its first woman officer, and an adjunct professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and her MBA from Chicago Booth. 

Francis is a frequent lecturer and panelist in university and business settings on subjects ranging from corporate governance, strategy and leadership, and the advancement of women. She created the Women’s Leadership Forum, a highly rated executive education seminar at the University of Chicago. She led The Chicago Network’s annual census of women board members and executives in Chicago’s top-50 companies and its efforts to increase the number of women on boards. Francis has chaired the judging committee for Financial Executive International’s Chicago CFO of the Year award since its inception in 2011.

Francis and her husband, Zed, led the campaign for the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago to create new service centers and models for the economic empowerment of Chicago’s working poor women. She was honored for Community Leadership by the YWCA in 2004. She is a member of the Commercial Club of Chicago and The Chicago Network. Francis and Zed are the proud parents of two sons.