Sean O’Brien | The master of growth
The son of a military officer, Sean O’Brien knew from a young age that the army was not his destiny. “I was entrepreneurial and business-focused from the start,” says the 48-year-old O’Brien, who went on to study at Georgian College’s Automotive Business School of Canada. O’Brien’s entrepreneurial side developed into a veritable passion for growing businesses, which led him to become President of iA Auto Finance in 2017.
O’Brien has literally spent his whole career growing businesses. He spent a decade building up the auto finance company VFC before selling it to TD Bank in 2006. In 2013, he Joined CTL Auto Finance and grew it as well, then sold it to iA. “It was like déjà vu. I have basically had two jobs in my life and in both cases, we sold a company, then I ended up running the new company’s auto finance business!”
The military childhood that took O’Brien all over the country turned out to be a distinct advantage for him. iA Auto Finance deals with some 4000 dealers spread across the country. “I know Canada really well. There are incredible differences in dealerships from province to province.” O’Brien recalls a dealer in Grand Falls, Newfoundland who invited him home to share a bowl of soup for lunch. “In this small Newfoundland town they close the shop at lunch. The pace is entirely different than in Toronto where you can’t afford to be a minute late with a dealer!”
O’Brien attributes his success to the leadership style he honed growing companies over the years. “I’m really open and frank. However I think I’m intuitive and sensitive to how people are doing. That really helps make a team hum.”
iA’s President of Auto Finance loves the feeling of working for a company with such long history and tremendous depth. “I’ve managed to pull some people who have been with iA for over 20 years into my team. They have tons of expertise and make an amazing group.” O’Brien credits employees’ openness to listening to helping him modernize operations. “When I arrived there was still a lot of paper, files, folders and binders. We removed literally thousands of pieces of paper and made processes much more efficient. People are looking for change.”
An avid sailor who likes to ski and travel with his three children, O’Brien says his proudest personal moment came when he took a one-year hiatus to sail to the Caribbean with his children who were 5, 7 and 9 at the time. “We did a 1500 mile offshore passage from Norfolk, Virginia, to the Caribbean in ten days. I studied and researched a lot to prepare for it and it was amazing to wake up the morning after our arrival and smell the warm air and realize that we had done it!”
O’Brien will certainly be making full use of the leadership skills he’s developed over his career for future family adventures. His latest plan is to drive 1600 km to the Arctic Circle with his children in an RV. “We read an article about the opening of the first road to the Arctic Sea in the Yukon and we thought, wow, wouldn’t it be fun to drive up there?”