Albert G. Horvath succeeded Thomas Connelly as CEO of the American Chemical Society on Jan. 1, 2023, after serving almost 4 years as ACS’s treasurer and chief financial officer (ACS publishes C&EN). Horvath previously worked at the Smithsonian Institution, several universities, and Mellon Bank. Known for his self-deprecating humor, optimism, and warmth, he recently spoke with Sophie Rovner about his transition from accountant to servant leader, as well as his philosophy about the underpinnings for organizational success. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What piqued your interest in accounting?
When I went to Pennsylvania State University, I was trying to decide between economics or science. I went with economics in the business school. Many business students at Penn State ended up going into accounting because it was a practical thing to do, and I came from a practical family. I enjoyed accounting. I liked the fact that there was some rigor to it but also some creativity.
Tell me more about that.
I particularly liked auditing. You have to know all the business and accounting principles, but there’s also a lot of judgment involved. When you look at a financial statement, you ask whether it tells the story in a reasonable way. Have the accountants interpreted the rules effectively? Do their estimates make sense? Is there an angle that somebody’s trying to work? That really attracted me.
After I graduated, I went into internal auditing at Mellon Bank rather than going into public accounting. That meant I got to use those skills within the context of an organization, as opposed to coming in from the outside and seeing whether or not they passed muster.
▸ Hometown: Homestead, Pennsylvania
▸ Education: BS, accounting, Pennsylvania State University, 1981; MBA, Duquesne University, 1985
▸ Your job before ACS: Chief operating officer, undersecretary for finance and administration, and acting secretary, Smithsonian Institution
▸ Favorite teams: Pittsburgh Steelers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Yankees, Arsenal Football Club, Pennsylvania State University teams, and University of California, Los Angeles, teams
Then you moved to academe. What led to that transition?
During my time at Mellon Bank I earned an MBA. One of the faculty members encouraged me to think about an academic career. I was attracted to that, but I had a little kid, and I didn’t want to disrupt my family’s life that much. I had the opportunity to take a position at Carnegie Mellon University, and I thought that would be another way to scratch that academic itch. When I got there, I realized it was where I was meant to be. I could see the impact I was going to have, and that impact was really positive. It wasn’t maximizing a bottom line for shareholders; it was helping Carnegie Mellon do great work on behalf of students and in research. Over time, I’ve become less of an accountant and more of a leader who helps support groups doing great work.
After working at a number of universities, you moved to the Smithsonian. What are some of your favorite memories?
The Smithsonian is a special place. I got to meet people like Sting, Aretha Franklin, US Supreme Court chief justice John G. Roberts Jr., and members of Congress. The experience that still gives me chills was giving the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal to Ellsworth Kelly. This was somebody whose art I was awed by, and I got to meet him and give him something he really cherished.
I’m most proud of the work I did, in concert with many other people, to help open the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a challenging project. It was tough to get the funding secured. There were lots of challenges in terms of getting final designs approved. It was hard to build the building and to figure out how to staff it. But the day it opened in September 2016 was joyous. Something that people had worked on for decades was being realized, and its importance at that moment can’t be overstated.
What prompted your move to ACS?
I’d been at the Smithsonian about 8 years, and I thought it was time for a different leader. And at the Smithsonian I oversaw an organization of more than 3,000 people. It was hard to see how what I did ultimately impacted the organization. I wanted to be able to guide in a more direct way. I knew one of the people leading the search for ACS’s next treasurer and chief financial officer. At first blush, it wasn’t an obvious move, but ACS is a big, complex, interesting organization. It’s a large nonprofit that most everybody knows as a scientific membership organization, but it is also a major publisher and provider of information services that operate in very complex environments. That really appealed to me. And I was very impressed with the people I met. People love it here, they love their association with ACS, and it’s great to be among them.
In the few months since your appointment as CEO, how have you been spending your time?
Trying to figure out when to sneak lunch in! It’s been a whirlwind, and I would chalk that up to two things: one, just getting used to a different job with different expectations. I have to reset my own expectations to ensure that I’m doing things the way this job requires. I’ve also been spending time with a lot of different people, including board members, committee chairs, stakeholders and supporters of ACS, and staff. Beyond those two things, the first quarter of the year is just a really busy time from a governance standpoint. I’m trying to carve out enough time to think about where we’re headed and to create a 1-, 2-, and 3-year plan, using our strategic plan as a guidepost. I want to leverage all of the things we’ve done over the last couple of years and continue them while looking for other opportunities to allow ACS to expand its reach and impact.
Do you have a sense of what you would like to accomplish in the coming year?
Not fully. I have the advantage of having been at ACS almost 4 years before I moved into this role, so I’m not coming in cold. And I’ve got teammates who are great at what they do. So it’s important for me to get a number of perspectives before I make decisions about where to push, where I can make a difference, and where I can add value.
How would you describe your management philosophy?
I’m a proponent of servant leadership. My role is to make sure that everybody has what they need to be successful and that we’re all swimming in the same direction. I’m also a big proponent of communication. Nine times out of 10, if there is a problem, if something falls apart, if something doesn’t get done, it comes back to communication not being as effective as it needs to be. And I believe that we should have fun.
Who are the significant people in your life?
My wife, Charmaine, and our son, Gregory. Charmaine and I were married in 2001 in a castle in Scotland. She’s an incredible person and incredibly talented in the work she does as a speech-language pathologist. Gregory, who lives in Brooklyn, is an IT [information technology] guy.
What do you do in your time off?
My wife and I love to travel, particularly to parts of the world we haven’t seen before. So later this year we’re going to Mauritius. We also like theater and the arts. I try to cook 1 day a week. And I run every day because it clears my head.
What is an unusual fact or experience that readers might be intrigued to know about you?
In high school I was an extemporaneous-speaking champion. At these events you’d pick a topic and have 20 min to develop a 5–7 min speech. I still rely on that skill today.
As for an interesting experience, when my wife and I lived in State College, Pennsylvania, we took musical theater singing lessons with a faculty member at Penn State. It was our Sunday date.
Sophie Rovner is a senior science writer at ACS.