Power and Light: Former NV Energy CEO Michael Yackira, ’72, Shares His Lehman Story and His Legacy
on August 16, 2019
Some may say that Michael Yackira (B.A. Accounting, ’72) has led a storybook life; if they do, they may also say that story began in earnest at Lehman College. That’s where a favorite accounting professor set Yackira on a path that ultimately led him to become CEO of Nevada’s biggest electric utility, NV Energy.
But before that, Yackira’s story began as most Lehman College students’ do: in the Bronx. He spent his early years living near the old Yankee Stadium, where he played sports and loved watching them. He and his dad would go to the roof of his 8-story apartment building to watch the New York Giants play their home games in Yankee Stadium.
“It cost only 50 cents for a bleacher seat to a Yankee game so that wasn’t a big deal,” Yackira said. “But it was a big deal to watch a football game from the roof since back then home games weren’t broadcast on TV.”
Yackira went to DeWitt Clinton High School, not far from Lehman, and in his senior year he developed a penchant for accounting when he took bookkeeping as an elective.
“There was something about it that clicked with me,” he said. “Once I realized how much I liked it, I did some research into an accounting career and it was of interest to me.”
When Yackira started looking at colleges, a newly established school caught his eye: Lehman College, previously known as Hunter-in-the-Bronx.
“Lehman made sense,” he said. “Going there fit my family’s financial situation; I knew I could afford it.”
Tuition at the time was $60 a semester.
Along with the new name, Lehman was offering for the first time a degreed accounting program. Yackira was a member of its first class, which graduated 13 students, and he remains friends with of them.
“When I was registering for school, standing behind me was a guy named Tom Papini. Tom was from Yonkers and also was majoring in accounting,” he said. “We met in September of 1968 and that friendship continues to this day.”
Professor Itzhak Sharav, Mentor
Itzhak Sharav was the accounting professor who inspired Yackira to become a CPA and set him on a career path that took him to six states, landing finally in Nevada where he fulfilled his dream of becoming a CEO.
“Dr. Sharav got me excited about accounting,” he said. “I enrolled in every class he taught because he made courses fascinating; that’s hard to do in accounting. He’s the one who convinced me to go into public accounting and become a CPA. He said, ‘You have an opportunity to do well for yourself in your career. I see it in you and public accounting should be your path.’”
With that advice, Yackira began interviewing with the “Big 8” accounting firms. His first interview was with Haskins & Sells (now Deloitte) and it was a disaster. “I was nervous. I didn’t feel prepared. I learned a lot from the mistakes of that interview.”
While it may be easy to look at a successful person’s career and only see a positive trajectory, setbacks and disappointments, while temporarily shaking the strongest confidence, can provide great opportunities to learn and grow, Yackira said.
“After that first failed interview, I learned how to present myself in a confident but not cocky way and as a result, I got job offers from all the other firms,” he said.
When it came time to decide which offer to take, his thought process showcases the strategic approach Yackira applied to other career decisions he made. Instead of taking the highest paying job offer, he chose the firm with the best training program, which was at that time Arthur Andersen, and Andersen’s offer happened to be the lowest salary.
This decision to opt for a lower paying job led him to provide this advice for college grads: Being paid fairly is important, but the person you work for and the people you work with provides far more satisfaction than pay. Some additional advice: “Find a person to be your mentor; someone who is straightforward with you, who tells you the good and the bad,” he said.
Meeting His Mentor
For Yackira, that mentor was Jim Broadhead, who he met after leaving Andersen for an accounting position at St. Joe Petroleum Corp. For 25 years thereafter, Yackira either worked for or with Broadhead, through multiple career moves. At each new stop, Broadhead provided him with more responsibility, growing his skill set in areas not related to finance. While Professor Sharav provided the initial direction, it is Broadhead he credits with having the greatest influence over his career.
“He kept giving me opportunities to grow my capabilities,” he said. Business development, marketing, strategic planning; every time Yackira was given an opportunity to acquire professional experience outside of accounting and finance, he took it, with Broadhead’s urging.
“Jim said, ‘I’m doing this because I see a path for you in general management and perhaps as a CEO one day,’” Yackira said. “I felt I was on the right path.” That was until a new job opportunity at FPL Group (now NextEra) appeared to change Yackira’s trajectory and, as a result, his confidence took a nosedive.
“Many at FPL were saying, ‘You’re going to be the next president; Broadhead has been mentoring you,’” Yackira remembered.
When the opportunity arose to be brought into the C-Suite, Broadhead offered Yackira the position of Chief Financial Officer, not president.
“I asked Jim, ‘Why are you putting me back in finance?’ I was crushed. I saw what I believed to be my next step being taken off the table and I was back on a finance track. I wondered if I’d ever be CEO,” he said.
But as the CFO, Yackira expanded his skill set further, experience Broadhead felt he needed in order to ever be considered for a CEO position.
“As the CFO of a public company, you deal with Wall Street, you are responsible for raising capital and talking with investor analysts, and you work more closely with the board of directors,” he said. “It was a great job and provided great experience.”
Finding His Own Path
A couple years after leaving FPL, another opportunity presented itself to Yackira: an electric company in Nevada was looking for a CFO. That company had many challenges, including its financial solvency and its reputation. He was unsure about the magnitude of those issues, and was also nervous since, if he took this job, it would be the first time in 25 years that Broadhead wouldn’t be there to guide his success.
“I wondered how I would do without my mentor and my safety net,” he said. “But I also realized that this is what he had been preparing me for throughout my career.”
After a lot of hard work with a great team of people, his fears turned into joys as the company got back its financial footing and greatly improved its reputation. The company provided him an opportunity to finally reach his ultimate goal.
Within a few years, he was elected president and soon afterwards, became CEO. Having been in that role for nearly 7 years, Yackira retired after NV Energy was acquired by a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary for about $10 billion. Since he retired, he has been working with non-profits in Las Vegas and was on the board of a public company for three years until the company was sold.
He and his wife, Renee, still live in Las Vegas and have four children and two grandchildren. While he loves Las Vegas, he still has a soft spot for the city that raised him, and he and Renee return frequently to New York.
“I feel very blessed to have had a successful and rewarding career,” he said. “More important is the love of our family and the support I have felt from them throughout my life.”
Leaving a Legacy
While Renee and Michael have been philanthropic in their community, it was important to him to give back to his alma mater in the Bronx. The recently established Michael and Renee Endowed Accounting Scholarship Fund will provide $7,500 annually in scholarships for students pursuing an accounting degree at Lehman College.
“We wanted to do something that would be enduring for those who couldn’t afford an education and I wanted it to be related to the profession that was so foundational in my career,” he said.
Scholarships will be awarded to defray school expenses, including tuition, fees, books and supplies and exigent living expenses representing a barrier to the pursuit of a degree from CUNY, Lehman College, in the Department of Economics and Business.
“This is a legacy gift to provide opportunities for others to have the same experience as I did at Lehman,” he said.