Preparing an Internal Successor Requires ‘Looking to the Future’

A case study on internal CIO succession, with Carol Tusch replacing Bob Hunkeler at International Paper.

Art by Katherine Streeter

Bob Hunkeler joined International Paper in 1997 as vice president of investments, directing the $16 billion defined contribution and defined benefit plans of the company and heading its investment office. More than 25 years later, at the turn of the year in 2023, he announced his intention to retire from CIO duties at the end of the first quarter, leaving International Paper’s investment office of six employees without a head.

Reflecting on his 26 years leading the firm’s pension system, Hunkeler tells CIO, “As Rusty Olson from Eastman Kodak once said, ‘It’s the best job in corporate America,’ and I agree with that.” Hunkeler articulated that he always had 65 as a target retirement age in his head, though he quipped, “I might have actually misunderstood the company’s policy: I had thought that officers had to retire at age 65, but that’s not the case; it’s only the CEO who must retire at 65.”

Nonetheless, Hunkeler joked that the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, working from home, provided him the opportunity to preview what a retired lifestyle might entail; more importantly for International Paper, the pandemic allotted Hunkeler the opportunity to formalize his retirement plans and enact a hopefully seamless transition to the company’s forthcoming vice president of investments, current Deputy CIO Carol Tusch.

According to George Wilbanks, founding partner of financial executive recruitment firm Wilbanks Partners, the landscape in staffing an investment office sees the bigger fish in the ponds—larger asset managers and asset owners—poach talent from smaller asset managers and asset owners.

“Promoting from within can be less traumatic and is always an aspirational goal,” Wilbanks says. “But in a smaller organization, it’s hard to bear the cost of having a really strong No. 2, who is easily promotable in the top job.”

However, in the case of the smaller team at the Fairfield, Connecticut-based investment office of The International Paper Company (headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee), keeping a small, close-knit investment office unit allowed the company to easily identify Hunkeler’s replacement internally. Tusch joined the investment office in 1999 as one of Hunkeler’s first hires.

“A couple years ago now, I started signaling to my boss that I wasn’t going to be working past 65, ” Hunkeler says. “Even before that, I started bringing Carol along with me to important meetings, joining me at our investment committee meetings, attending board meetings. We would do our annual report on the pension fund, and at first, we would both present the report, and eventually I turned it over to her completely, and now, basically, I just sit there and watch.”

“Carol could have been a CIO at many other firms, many years ago, if she wanted to,” Hunkeler continues, expressing excitement for his colleague. “I’m glad that she stayed on as long as she did with me. … Something I really appreciate about our company is that they look to promote people from within. On my end, I would say I just adopted the culture of the company and continued what the company already does, and that is look to the future and see who’s going to be my replacement, who will be the replacement for Carol and so on.”

Hunkeler explains that an investment office should already be prepared to function without a hitch if something happened suddenly to the CIO. Accomplishing this at International Paper, Hunkeler points to the strength of the support staff within the investment office: “All of our people play a very important role in our small team; if I didn’t show up, the operation should work perfectly fine.”

Hunkeler says even as he journeys away from the Connecticut office more and more, he will still be available as a resource for Tusch, but he expects work-related calls to be rare.

“I told Carol that she can call on me as much as she wants, but that she doesn’t have to call on me at all,” Hunkeler says. “One of the great things about being a CIO is that you get to put your fingerprint on the pension and savings plan operation that you oversee. I expect that she’ll do things differently, and that will be okay with me. I had my time, and I had a great time, and now it’s her time.”


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