Axel Benjaminson is the Group Controller at Scania Group in Sweden. He started his career at Scania as a Global Champion Trainee, before becoming a Financial Controller. He now manages his own team of Junior Controllers.
What was the last thing that made you smile?
I smile a lot every day and when I am working. On my way here via the metro, there was a young child in a stroller pulling funny faces and that made me genuinely smile - children always help.
Why did you decide to take your career in the direction of Finance?
In high school, I was always interested in Business and Finance, but I didn’t know what I wanted to study or work with. I was sure that I wanted to go to university and get a career, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I was 100% sure I didn’t want to work in Finance, as my dad works in Finance, and I wanted to break out and do something else. I thought about Psychology and working in Law or something similar.
After I graduated high school, I started working and I moved to Norway - like a lot of Swedes do - to earn some money for a year. As a lot of young people do, once I started to earn some cash, I started to think about investing and I did that with my friends and read some books about it. Then I realised that maybe this Finance thing wasn’t so bad.
Also, I shared a flat with a friend in Oslo who started to study after our year in Norway and I had a few conversations with him, and he loved it.
A year later, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I applied to different schools and to Law school. I had a Finance school as my first choice and Law school as my second. I got into my first choice at Gothenburg and that was that. When I got in, I knew it was what I wanted to do.
Luckily, when you study Business, you do some courses in Law, as well, and I found that it wasn’t for me; I am better with numbers, and I was really happy with putting Finance education as my number one choice instead of Law.
In high school, there was a teacher who said it doesn’t matter what you study - whatever you study, you will become an expert in it, you’ll become interested in it, and you’ll enjoy it. I think that is true for a lot of people.
What does your father think about all this now?
We talk a lot about work and Finance. It is a good way to stay in touch, as well; if I studied Psychology, I probably wouldn’t have much to talk about with him.
What does it feel like in your role as Group Controller at Scania?
It feels good. I have been in my role for three years. My whole professional career so far has been at Scania, and I really like it – I wouldn’t stay in a company or in this position for three years if I didn’t enjoy it.
But, for me, Group Controller is a vague description of what you do, and it can mean what you want it to mean. What I work with mainly is M&A (merger & acquisition) activities at Scania, investment decisions, divestment, and more strategic Finance-related questions, like how the capital structure should look in certain entities and how much we will pay out as dividends.
It’s very interesting and you get to see a lot of different business cases. In order to do the acquisition and the evaluation of the company you are going to acquire, you need to really understand the business and understand the financials and accounting at a very detailed level.
For example, Scania made a number of investments into the battery company Northvolt in Sweden. We also have small workshops we acquire – so it’s very broad and different.
The main thing I find so interesting is you get to dig down on the details and get a totally different understanding of the business. You learn to think like an owner – that I really enjoy.
What was the reason for the quick move into this position where you’re seen as a strong business partner?
I started at Scania as part of the graduate programme, so as a trainee. For the first 18 months, I didn’t have a fixed position. I worked in four different positions, both at HQ, subsidiaries within Scania, the sister company in Munich, I also worked in the Netherlands in our Sales organisation for three months, so I got to see a large part of the organisation.
I got an insight into the issues those locally were focused on. When working in HQ, you always have the view from the HQ perspective and make decisions based on a broad sense. But, once you get out to the local entities, they have a much more practical view of things, such as how we handle taxes or the local authorities.
We have subsidiaries in Asia and Africa, and it’s much more difficult to handle administration and the authorities, etc. So, I got a broader view that doesn’t just reflect the view given at HQ.
The reason I made the step into this current position is mostly down to luck. I was maybe too inexperienced to take on the role at first, but - during COVID - there was a vacancy and there were limits on recruiting externally. I had a talk with my previous manager about moving positions and this chance came up. It probably wouldn’t have gone that way if it wasn’t for COVID, so, career-wise, I have something to thank COVID for.
What is your advice for people starting a career in Finance and emulating what you have achieved?
I manage a small team of Junior Controllers and have this discussion with them regularly. My advice in some sense is a bit controversial, but I think a lot of people today want to work in consulting, strategy, investment banking, etc.
My recommendation that I give to the people I manage here is, early on in your career, you shouldn’t neglect Accounting. That is because, if you were to go to Japan, live in Japan and want to understand Japan, you need to learn Japanese – it’s the same if you want to really understand business; you need to learn the language, and that is Accounting.
Accounting can be quite dry - I understand that and agree in some sense – but, to lay the foundation for your future career, it’s really good to build up that fundamental Accounting understanding, because it’s difficult to build that knowledge up at a later stage.
You can always go from working in Finance to strategy, but it’s really difficult to build that knowledge at a later stage. I took that route, but I think with all the discussions I am having now, it’s super crucial to understand Accounting.
You need to understand if an acquisition is a good or bad one, you need to understand the figures and not just look at the financial statements, and, if you see profit, you need to understand what is generating those profits. There are a lot of different quirks in Accounting, which is why you need to build that knowledge early on.
Secondly, as my second tip, a lot of people focus on building a network, adding people on LinkedIn, etc. The main priority, once you start working, should be to do really good work, because the networking will come, and people will want to work with you and recommend you.
If you focus on the network, you may miss out on the work that you have the potential to do, and I think some people do it the wrong way round; you should put 95% into doing really good work and building up your knowledge, and 5% to the network.
I can make a comparison to learning the piano. You can go down two routes. You can either practise songs, and you’ll be good at playing those songs and be able to impress people early on, or you learn the theory and basics, and build on that. One way is more efficient in the short term, but - in the long term - the one who practised the theory will be the better player.
When you start a career, it’s the same way. You can know a lot of things, but - if you understand it - you can build on it for the future. You shouldn’t be happy about just knowing the answer; focus on understanding it.
What’s it like working for Scania?
It’s really good with one of the strongest cultures in Sweden. When I started, I had four weeks of introductions and lectures. They drill the culture into you, showing you the values and how strong the culture is. When you have meetings in international settings, they share the same values and that makes the organisation function much better.
People also stay for a long time. When I talk with people at meetings, a lot of people introduce themselves with, “I have only been at Scania for ten years and I’m still new.” When people leave externally, we usually say, “We know people are going to leave, but we also know you’re going to come back,” and people do.
It helps with the company being so large. We have 55,000 people all over the world. You can be in a lot of different positions, do a lot of different things, and see a lot of different things. I think that would be much more difficult in a smaller company, where you can’t take the next step.
What was the best decision you have made during your career?
I would have to say joining Scania, because it was a good choice. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know what my best decision would be. My current position was by chance. I applied to a lot of different companies and was offered a chance at Scania.
I knew I wanted to be part of a large, international Swedish company, but it was by chance. It was never a question of accept or not – just being lucky and getting the job done.
What advice would you give to the 18-year-old Axel?
My 18-year-old self was probably more confident and knew more answers than I do today. I would go back and ask him for some recommendations and life-changing advice, rather than give him some.
Any tips for starting university and what to study?
When I went to university, I had a discussion with a family friend, who graduated five to ten years prior; he had a really good job after he finished university and he did Finance, as well, so I asked him for tips.
He said there are two different ways to go about it. One is to study on the school side of things and get good grades, as that’s a way to land a really good job. Or focus on doing things outside of school, at the students’ union, or doing things that build up your CV.
I took the second option and tried to be really active. I was part of the student union board, and I did one of the biggest student fairs in Sweden, which was a one-year project – I basically worked full time, which took time from studying. I also started a company with a friend and ran that for two years outside of school, as well. I probably learned more from those two experiences than from the course.
Once you start going to interviews, you can show what you have done and built, instead of just a list of grades. I was able to show that I built this and was driven to start my own company, etc. So, I think that is good advice for people starting university.
Thank you to Axel for speaking to Paul Toms, Founder and head of our Nordics recruitment division.
Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment.