People & Perspectives

BUSINESS CASUAL: Heather Dixon

A series getting to know the real people whose passions are shaping the future of Walgreens Boots Alliance.

By Josh Gaby

Heather Dixon
THE BASICS

Name: Heather Dixon
Role: Senior vice president, global controller and chief accounting officer, WBA
Been with WBA since: March 2019
Born in: New Jersey; grew up in Oklahoma and Texas
Office in: Deerfield, Ill.
Family: Husband Jeff; sons Ben, 13, and Josh, 11; dogs Holly and Leesi

BITS OF BACKGROUND
  • Dual citizen of the U.S. and the UK, having lived and worked in the UK from 2001 to 2013.
  • Previously held roles in accounting for Aetna, Pepsi, American Express and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
  • As WBA’s chief accounting officer, signs off on quarterly and annual earnings statements – summaries of the company’s financial performance that are reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and shared publicly; WBA released these statements last week for both the fourth quarter and entirety of fiscal year 2020.
     
So, Heather, it’s probably an understatement to say you’ve been busy lately.

Oh, definitely. The annual earnings release and filing with the SEC are what you’d call the Super Bowl for accountants and controllers at a publicly traded company. This represents the end of our fiscal year at WBA. A lot of companies have a Dec. 31 year end, whereas ours is Aug. 31. To get ready for something like this, there’s a very large effort that’s in play all year, with increasing effort at the end of the year. The “extra” part this year is that we had to pivot because of the pandemic. All the work to close the books, put our financial statements together, work with our external auditors – which is a huge part of this process – and put the messaging together happened, for the most part, with everyone working remotely. So it has been more of a challenge to get through the process this year compared to other years.

I’m fortunate to have a talented, hard-working team that applies well-designed controls and procedures so that we can be confident the final result is that the numbers are correctly reported, and the disclosures that go around those numbers are appropriately transparent and meaningful so that users of the report can actually understand what’s happening with our businesses. What we produce is information for investors, shareholders and analysts. We pull from multiple systems around the world – keeping in mind this isn’t just Walgreens, but all WBA global businesses – with a lot of working together across countries and with the external auditors. It’s quite an effort.

With a company of this size, how do we make sure it’s accurate?

We don’t separately audit every individual transaction, of course – there are too many across all our stores and businesses. But throughout the year, we’re constantly testing our systems, controls and procedures that capture sales, inventory and other transactions, so that when you get to the end of the quarter or the end of the year, you can be confident the numbers that come out of the systems are correct because you’ve been testing them along the way.

We did have a significant amount of work in the middle of the fiscal year because of COVID-19. It really changed the trajectory of what we do in accounting. Think about your own credit card statement. You look at the amount you spent this month and you go, “OK, that’s usually what I spend – that looks about right.” It’s your first impression of whether it’s right or if something may be wrong. With COVID-19, it was more challenging for us to get that first sense check. By definition, this year looks nothing like last year. Like most other companies, we had to rethink how to go about things and what we needed to do to make comparisons and complete the process.

In layperson’s terms, what does it mean to be a “controller”? It seems so mysterious …

[laughs] I’m going to take that as a compliment. “Controller” and “chief accounting officer” are sometimes interchangeable and often go together. Being a controller means I’m effectively the person responsible for validating the financial statements that we report, confirming that our systems and processes have worked. I also have to be sure the way we’ve calculated and reported the numbers and disclosed what has happened is in accordance with applicable rules and principles, including SEC rules.

How does WBA compare to some of the well-known companies you’ve worked at before?

It’s not extremely dissimilar, but the main difference is I absolutely love working in healthcare. I see it as both innovative and necessary to transform this industry, so I have a huge passion around it in general. If you think about what we do at WBA, we’re a healthcare company with pharmacies and healthcare products and services, but then we also have a retail footprint. It’s a unique combination of industries.

Did you sense when you were a kid that you’d have this kind of career?

I don’t think anyone says, “Gosh, I really want to be an accountant when I grow up.” But I did always love to play with calculators and adding machines and toy cash registers. I really thought I’d grow up to be a teacher or something involving children. I came across this career path quite by accident. For the first three years of college, my major was psychology, and accounting and business were my minor. Eventually I realized psychology wasn’t going to be my long-term life goal and I flipped my major and minor – but you’d be surprised how useful it is to have studied psychology for three years.

How did you end up living in the UK?

I was in my late 20s – young and single. I was working in Dallas, and my boss came to me on a Thursday afternoon and said, “Hey, do you have a passport?” I said yes. He said, “Want to go to the UK? You’ll have to leave Sunday, and you can’t come back for three months.” I’ve always liked adventures, so I thought, why not? After the three months, I returned to the U.S. for about six months, then went over again for what was meant to be a two-year rotation, and that turned into 12 years.

What has life during the pandemic been like?

It’s been interesting. In my household now, I’m a part-time teacher, full-time accountant, most-of-the-time chef and sort of everything in between from an administrative perspective. I very much appreciate the teachers who are managing the kids’ e-learning, and the ability of the kids to be a little autonomous. But I’ve also enjoyed the quality time with my family as we spend time at home together. I get to have an extra window into the kids’ lives. Most parents, pre-pandemic, didn’t get to see their kids in action at school – that bird’s-eye view of their interactions with teachers and classmates. It’s also really nice to see my boys growing closer to each other.

Are there any niche topics you know a lot about that would surprise people?

One of the things I do in the few minutes of spare time I have in a week [laughs] is read historical fiction – novels set in pre-war or wartime Europe, typically from a female point of view. So I know a lot of random facts about what women were doing in wartime in Europe. My other hobbies mostly involve travel. I have itchy feet at the best of times, so that’s one of the things during the pandemic that I really miss – the ability to see new places and do new things.

I also absolutely love to cook. I started when I was probably 3 or 4. My kids are guinea pigs and good sports about it. My younger son is on a restricted diet, so my challenge is to find things that will fill up an 11-year-old boy and keep him happy so he doesn’t feel he’s being punished. I managed to make him a cake the other day that didn’t have gluten, dairy, sugar or wheat in it. He was so hungry for anything that remotely resembled a dessert that there was a low bar for me. It looked like cake and smelled like cake, so he was happy.

Speaking of sweets, I’ve been told you’re a big fan of Hot Tamales.

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but yes, that is the one candy I do eat. I probably have some here in my office somewhere. I think I appreciate them more because in the UK, cinnamon-flavored candy is not a thing – or cinnamon-flavored toothpaste or gum. Hot Tamales were a sign of home, so I always stocked up when I was visiting the U.S. while I lived abroad.

Heather Dixon wearing her Wonder Woman face mask
Heather Dixon wears her Wonder Woman face mask while social-distancing.

Your assistant calls you Wonder Woman. We also heard you collect Wonder Woman memorabilia. How did that start?

When I first became a full-time working mom, someone on my team bought me a Wonder Woman doll as a gift. I put it on my desk, and it sort of just grew. People I worked with would walk through an airport and see, for example, a Wonder Woman keychain and bring it to me. It’s been going on for at least a decade. I keep it all in my home office now. Ironically, I don’t think I’ve ever bought myself a single Wonder Woman thing – it just appears on a regular basis. My kids are even into it. There’s no shortage of Star Wars and superhero stuff in my house, and I love the fact that two boys also love Wonder Woman in addition to Captain America, Iron Man and Spider-Man.

What’s the hardest you’ve laughed recently?

A few weeks ago, I was talking with three of my colleagues from the office, and we laughed so hard that we were in tears. Part of it was a much-needed release during a stressful period, and part of it is just the culture we have at WBA of people who enjoy each other’s company.

Outside of family, what’s something you absolutely cannot live without?

My Peloton bike! No doubt. It’s my absolute go-to. When I’m on it, it’s my time and only my time, early in the morning before everyone else is awake. It’s what gets me going for the day. Anyone will tell you I’m a bundle of energy in the office, and that’s one of the big reasons.

What’s another one?

I love what I do, and I think that’s the thing that motivates me the most.
 

FIVE PHOTOS FROM HEATHER DIXON'S PHONE
Heather Dixon photos of Red Nose Day, recent trips and her dogs
Clockwise from top left: Heather Dixon celebrating Red Nose Day digitally this past spring; Lake Michigan during a recent local trip during the pandemic; fall colors in her neighborhood; and her dogs, Leesi and Holly.