With 32 years, 11 national and international employers, and 17 roles under his belt to date, Tom Garssen has enjoyed a richly diverse Finance career – one he continues to build on as Netherlands CFO for global market research brand, Ipsos.
We caught up with Tom in Amsterdam to reflect on the pivotal personalities and decisions that have shaped his journey, from the leaders that made an impact on him to the time he took an overnight promotion halfway across the world.
What strategies do you use for developing innovative, diverse teams?
In this tight job market, you have to be creative. The most important thing is getting multi-disciplinary, multi-gender people from different cultural backgrounds – not only focusing on candidates with an economic qualification, but also looking at those from non-Finance fields, such as Psychology or Engineering.
It’s important to get people thinking in different directions. If you only employ individuals from a Finance background, they tend to focus on risks and costs – and that’s not necessarily the best way to encourage innovation or thinking outside the box.
The difficulty is that a lot of the compliance and reporting work is very repetitive, especially in the corporate world, so it can be difficult to find people from a non-Finance background who are truly attracted to that, whether that’s because it’s out of their comfort zone or simply because they see it as a bit boring.
When I’m looking for Finance Controller roles, in particular, I’ll keep an eye out for people who might not have the ideal financial background, but who I think have a broader understanding of the business as a whole. I’ll also look out for talent in those important soft skills – people who’ll be able to make calls, write emails, and chase payments or receipts in a way that reflects well on our brand.
In my experience, if a person is motivated, willing, and analytical, they’ll always be able to learn. And, ultimately, they’ll be more successful too.
Think back to the best manager you’ve ever worked for. What was it you liked about their management style?
Going right back to the late ‘90s when I started at Douwe Egberts, I worked for the CFO of the coffee and tea division. He was so open-minded. Despite having a huge workload with 60 countries to manage, he genuinely wanted to take the time to educate me about the business, how to make financial predictions and, importantly, he allowed me to make my own mistakes.
You learn so much from those kinds of experiences. Even though I was relatively young at the time, he put a lot of trust in me to do things my way and gave me a great balance of coaching and genuine autonomy. It was through him, his teaching, and his belief, that I eventually became a CFO.
What’s the secret to building a strong network?
Number one: you have to be unbiased and meet with people not just from the financial world, but from a huge range of backgrounds. It’s important to be open-minded and humble, too. Not everyone’s going to be interested in your stories – sometimes it’s more useful to stand back and listen to others.
Being socially active in your personal life can be hugely valuable, too – you never know who you’ll meet and where those connections will take you.
What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened in your career?
There have been a few surprises. The most memorable was, again, when I was at Douwe Egberts. They’d acquired a company over in Sao Paulo, so I’d been working on the M&A calculations.
It was late on a Friday afternoon when I got a call from the CFO I mentioned earlier. He said: “Tom, I really want to ask you something. On Monday, I want you to go to Sao Paulo and become the Finance Manager there.” I’d be working alongside their CFO, he told me, and reporting into the Dutch MD.
It probably goes without saying that I needed a minute to think about it – his question came totally out of the blue, a complete surprise. I’d have to get myself a plane ticket and fly out Sunday night – the last thing I’d envisaged as I made my weekend plans earlier that day!
In the end, I said yes, bought my plane ticket, and what started out as a few weeks turned into three months, and three months became a year working in Brazil. The company we acquired had bought a market-leading coffee operation from a large corporation out there, but there was no Finance department, so I had to plan and set up a Budgeting department, then hire and train someone from the local area to take over my role.
It was a huge challenge for me, a great learning experience, and ultimately earned me my first CFO role. Thankfully, my girlfriend at the time (now wife) was very understanding.
How would you define the role of the CFO?
I don’t use the term business partner, rather business coach. You’re a financial sounding board as much as a scorekeeper; you have to be innovative, strategic, and open to new ideas for growth, not always thinking about risk.
On the other hand, you have to be quite strict. It’s up to you to ensure that new ideas are robust enough to add value to the company and, ultimately, to make money. That’s always a challenge, because ideas usually start out quite vague. The skill is being able to make everything more concrete and coach team members to think outside the box, so you can innovate strategically.
Who owns sustainability in the business and how do you involve employees in your vision?
Sustainability is something we take very seriously at Ipsos. We have a board member dedicated to Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG), and she’s supported by an executive committee.
We also have local representatives who are responsible for rolling out ESG in the 20 biggest countries. ESG forms part of the strategy for every one of our service lines, too, and we’ll produce regular reports to ensure we’re continually measuring up against our ambitious sustainability goals.
What is it that makes the Netherlands such a great place to live?
Well, we can agree it’s not the climate! I think it has to be the fact that you can truly be yourself – no matter what your gender identity, sexual orientation, etc., it’s a very free, open-minded, and friendly place to live.
We’re also pretty well organised. And, even though the Netherlands is a small country, we’ve always traded internationally, so it’s a really diverse and inclusive place. Everyone is made to feel welcome – from the cities to the smaller neighbourhoods – and that’s a huge advantage to everyone.
Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment.