By Neil Koepke
EAST LANSING - When Frank Finn began his college hockey career at Michigan State as a student-athlete in the fall of 1978, he already had specific goals in his mind before he walked on campus. Frank wanted to have the best possible experience he could have as a hockey player, but even more importantly, he wanted to have a great academic experience - one that would lay the groundwork for his career in the workplace, following a life in hockey.
Based on memories of his four years on the ice and his successful international business career off the ice, it is clear Finn achieved those ambitious goals.
“When I started school, I said that I wanted to be more successful outside of hockey than within hockey, and that I wanted to create an impact beyond Michigan State hockey,’’ Finn said.
“I hope I’ve done that, but the bar was high leaving Michigan State, considering all of the amazing experiences I had playing hockey in East Lansing.’’
Finn, 56, who played hockey at MSU from 1978-1982 - one year for Amo Bessone and three seasons for Ron Mason - is the winner of the 2017 MSU Distinguished Alumnus Award.
He is currently the President of McCain Foods U.S., based in Chicago. Previously, Finn served in prominent executive roles with Shell Oil in the U.S. and London, and with Pepsi Cola in Michigan, Ohio, New York and in the Czech/Slovak Republics.
“When I reflect back on being a hockey player, I realize the skills I developed at MSU, such as teamwork, goal-setting, and time management. These were life skills that provided a foundation and became critical keys to success,” said Finn, a 1978 graduate of Livonia Stevenson High School.
“I was never the most gifted player. I was a scrappy player with a strong work ethic, and that served me well at Michigan State, as well as later in life. I’ve learned to never give up, to take nothing for granted, and to work towards improving every day.’’
Finn was at MSU during a transition time in the hockey program. The Spartans struggled during Bessone’s last season in 1978-79, and then went through a rebuilding process under Mason’s first two seasons. But as a senior, Finn was part of the Spartans’ first team to make the NCAA Tournament under Mason in 1981-82, a run that lasted nine consecutive seasons. That year, he served as assistant captain.
After his senior year, Finn took advantage of an MSU academic opportunity that exposed him to living abroad. This became a turning point in his life.
“Three weeks after playing in the NCAAs, I was on a plane to Europe, scratching my international itch,’’ he said. “I was able to complete my undergraduate degree at Erasmus University in Rotterdam (Netherlands). I was part of an exchange program with MSU. It was a gift I will never forget, and an experience that had a profound impact on my life.
“Studying in Europe fueled my appreciation and desire for the international experience. As you can see from my business career, living abroad opened up my eyes to a new and bigger world. Later, I ended up working for Pepsi, living in Prague and developing the business in the Czech and Slovak Republics. I did this for more than five years, and later I lived in London with Shell Oil.
“There was a time when I lived more of my adult life overseas than I did domestically, and that international experience was in no small part due to the opportunity provided to me by Michigan State.’’
Finn graduated from MSU with a bachelor’s degree in Marketing in 1982. Ten years later, while working for Pepsi, he earned an Executive MBA from Case Western Reserve. He has also received Chartered Director Certification from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
On the ice as a Spartan, Finn had seven goals and 23 points in 36 games as a freshman, and 11 goals and 27 points as a sophomore. He had his best season offensively as a junior when he scored 15 goals and had 16 assists for 31 points in 35 games, second on the team to Mark Hamway’s 33 points (18-15).
As a senior, with highly skilled players such as Hamway, Newell Brown, Kelly Miller, Tom Anastos and Lyle Phair taking over scoring roles, Finn found himself in even more of a defensive checking role. He had two goals and eight assists for 10 points in 34 games on a team that compiled an overall record of 26-14-2, finished second in the CCHA at 21-10-2, and won the CCHA playoff championship at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
In his first three seasons at MSU, Finn had the great fortune of playing with the same linemates – Ken Paraskevin and Gary Harpell. Finn centered the line with Paraskevin on right wing and Harpell on the left side. “We were primarily a defensive line and I had the privilege of playing with the same linemates for three years in a row from the first practice,’’ Finn said. “We played against the other team’s top offensive lines. When we faced off against Minnesota, we were up against Neal and Aaron Broten. Against Wisconsin, we played against Mark Johnson. With North Dakota, it was Doug Smail.”
“We were always trying to hold the top players in check. I think we did that assignment effectively. We weren’t known for being a goal-scoring line, but I had forgotten that I was second in scoring my junior year.’’
Finn said he has especially good memories of teaming with pals Harpell and Paraskevin.
“I’ve reached out to both of them since I heard I was going to be recognized with this honor. We still keep in touch as friends and former teammates,’’ he said. “That’s what the Spartan experience is really about. I thanked them for their support and the opportunity to play with them as Spartans.
“When I think of my contributions to the program, I can’t think of any other individuals like Gary and Kenny who assisted me in having such a memorable experience. I have always treasured the two of them as my teammates. Their friendship is what made my time at MSU a joy.”
During his business career, Finn has held many different titles, managed a wide variety of responsibilities, and has never been afraid to learn new industries. How’s this for change and a challenge:
After 13 years with PepsiCo, Finn left the soft drink/snack industry to work with Shell Oil as vice president, general manager of Consumer Lubricants Europe, based in London. Finn enjoyed learning a new industry while bringing his commercial leadership skills to Shell.
After several years of living in Europe, commuting back and forth to the U.S., Finn and his wife decided it was time to settle back where it had all begun, in the Midwest. They moved to Chicago where Frank took a position with McCain Foods, first as Senior Vice President of Commercial Operations in 2007, then Chief Operating Officer in 2010, and President in 2011. He is currently responsible for commercial operations, sales, marketing and corporate communications in the U.S.
“I went from working for a big integrated oil company, to a family owned business at McCain,’’ Finn said. “It is a private company that cherishes the ‘can-do’ spirit. They go by the saying, ‘Trying and failing is OK, but failing to try is not.’ McCain takes great pride in being a family business, and after spending so many years with larger blue chip companies, the smaller environment was just what I wanted.’’
For sure, Finn is a great leader who has been successful in contributing to the financial success of many companies. But he is most proud of his ability to impact and better people’s lives.
“Throughout the years, I am most proud of the people that I’ve been able to develop and work with. When I was in Prague, I was able to turn the keys over to local management, after helping them learn how to run the business. This concept was the same at Shell, and I hope it will be my legacy at McCain.
“There’s great fulfillment in watching people develop, watching them flourish, moving diverse candidates into leadership positions, taking risks on up-and-coming employees and watching them take off. To me, that’s fulfilling. That keeps me going and energized.’’
Finn has four sons – Brett, 33, who lives in Denver; Ryan, 29, and Neil, 25, who both live in San Diego; and Liam, 7. Finn and his wife, Shannon, a management consultant and university professor, reside with Liam in Naperville, Illinois.
Finn said he was thrilled and “truly humbled” by being honored at the MSU Awards Program with the Distinguished Spartan Award.
“In my wildest imagination, I was not anticipating it,’’ he said. “I’ve re-engaged with the program, reaching out to the hockey alumni community, and rallying behind the Munn Transformation project.
“It’s time for me to pause and realize that I got so much out of this program. I’m honored to be recognized and I can only hope I can continue to provide back to the school that, as a student-athlete, gave so much to me.”