Cornell University

March 29 2011

"Perfect for Me"

Alpern Award winner Scelfo '79 talks about ILR, career, family

John Scelfo '79When he was five, John Scelfo knew that he wanted to be a lawyer.

Or, so he thought.

On March 31, the ILR School celebrates Scelfo's distinguished career. Not as a lawyer, but as a major player in the world of corporate finance.  

He's being honored with the Jerome Alpern Award, given to an ILR alumnus whose professional achievements "have been primarily outside the field of industrial and labor relations."

After earning his degree from ILR in 1979 and completing his MBA at the Johnson School one year later, Scelfo was recruited to work for Mobil Oil in its international finance department in New York City -- a position for which he had not applied.  

"I got this letter from them a year after applying for a summer internship," Scelfo said. "I had never even taken an international finance course."

Two years later, Mobil Oil transferred Scelfo, then 24, to its $8 billion-sales subsidiary in Japan as the "assistant to the assistant treasurer."

Scelfo worked his way up to assistant treasurer, then acting treasurer and, finally, treasurer during a five-year period. Scelfo worked and lived in Asia – Japan, Singapore and Indonesia – for 15 years as a result of this "two-year developmental assignment."

While in Japan, Scelfo took the required law school entrance exams and was accepted at Harvard and Stanford law schools. He decided, however, not to matriculate since he preferred international finance and working and living overseas.

After 20 years with Mobil and two years as chief financial officer of Dell Computer Asia Pacific, Scelfo made his way back to New York City, his hometown.

He worked for Sirius Satellite Radio as its executive vice president and chief financial officer when the company was getting started, and landed at Hess Corporation two years later. At Hess, where he has been for eight years, he is senior vice president of finance and corporate development and a member of Hess' eight-person Leadership Team, its executive committee.  

Most people, Scelfo says, probably think of Hess as a company that just sells gasoline and toy trucks during the holiday season. But, its primary focus is the exploration, development and production of crude oil and natural gas. His primary role is to size up risks and rewards and ask the question, "Do we think we're getting an adequate return given the financial risks we're taking?"

ILR, he adds, set him up to be successful in this current role, and throughout his career, by giving him a solid foundation upon which to build his negotiating, people management and problem-solving skills.

"ILR helped build my confidence and made me realize I could excel at anything, especially at things outside my comfort zone," he said.

When he attended ILR, Scelfo says he "nerded out" and spent most of his time studying and working as he paid for his education. To make money, he scooped ice cream at the Noyes Center, worked at the information desk at Catherwood Library and as a teaching assistant for Financial Accounting and Statistics, tutored the hockey team and ushered at football games. "My girlfriend went to ILR, my roommate was at ILR. I ate, drank and slept ILR."

These days, he feels that it's important to continue giving back to the school and to support its students. He is a member of the Cornell University Council and served on the ILR Alumni Advisory Board. He visits campus to meet students and offer career advice. ILR students, including one currently interning in the compensation department, have international and domestic internship opportunities at Hess.

Each year since 2006, Hess has participated in the ILR Externship Program and has donated Hess toy trucks and gas cards at student events sponsored by the ILR Alumni Association. And, there are two ILR graduates working full-time at Hess.

Scelfo also established the Erika Scelfo International Credit Internship Fund at ILR in his daughter's name to provide funds for students who want to study overseas. "I didn’t have that kind of money and I could have really used the help," he said.

Scelfo is very appreciative that Hess Corporation has generously and consistently donated to ILR and Cornell during the years he has worked for John Hess, chairman and CEO.

Some day, Scelfo says, he might enjoy teaching. Whatever he does, one person will always be guiding him on his way -- his 83-year-old dad.

"My mom passed away suddenly when she was 59. My eldest brother passed away at 37. Through it all, I've never seen someone who's had such a positive outlook on life as my father," he said.

"He never really cared about money. He just cared about being a good person. He's someone whose glass isn't just half full, it's full." No matter the decision he faces, Scelfo says, he always asks, "what would my dad have done?"

Winning the Alpern Award, he says, is clearly an honor, especially since he's included with such a prominent group of alums who have been recognized before him.

The award is special to Scelfo, too, because of the person who nominated him.

On behalf of the late Professor Clete Daniel, with whom Scelfo had worked to establish several overseas internships at Hess, Brigid Beachler of ILR's Credit Internship Program nominated him for the Alpern award.

"Clete was very good to me," he said. "To know he thought that highly of me means a great deal."

Even though Scelfo never did get that law degree, he doesn’t have any regrets about where he's at today, many decades later. "What did I know at five years old?"

And, he definitely has no regrets about his college choice.

"ILR was perfect for me. I never worked as hard as I did there and I'm not sure I've been challenged more by anything since."