Executive Interviews

Our Executive Interviews feature top leaders from across the disciplines that we specialise in, sharing their career advice and experience with candidates seeking success in those sectors.

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Colin Delahay - Chief Financial Officer at Banijay Benelux

Colin Delahay is the Chief Financial Officer at Banijay Benelux in Amsterdam, where he’s been for over three years. He spent the first 20 years of his career with PwC, before joining VEON, LafargeHolcim, and Endemol Shine Group.

What excites you about working for Banijay Benelux?

Banijay Benelux is part of Banijay Group, an independent global media house, mainly focused on the development, production, and distribution of TV-related content. In Benelux, we have 12 production companies and develop content for all linear channels and streamer platforms. We make interesting and exciting content with a highly motivated and diverse team.

On the strategic and operational side, we have a great deal of freedom to implement change, experiment with new ideas, and broaden our scope.

Also, the media industry is changing fast; there's a declining trend in linear viewing rates, viewing behaviour is changing, and also the content needs and the talent market is changing. On top of that, we have the impact of artificial intelligence and fast-changing technologies. This makes my role within Banijay Benelux and the broader media industry exciting, diverse, and interesting.

Given the fast-moving environment both from a customer and a technology side, it is an industry that never has a dull moment.

What changes have you seen to the employment market in the Netherlands over the years? What, in your opinion, have been the drivers for these changes?

Generically, in the Dutch market, you see a big change compared to the early stages of my career. The drivers of the talents/employees have clearly shifted. Elements such as the purpose of the company, sustainability, work-life balance, and flexibility are now far more relevant decision criteria than they used to be – a generational shift we do not only see in viewing behaviour, but also in employer choice.

We spend a lot of effort in creating a good working environment to facilitate the needs of our employees and try to keep up with the current drivers. For example, we do a broad annual survey amongst all our employees, both permanent and temporary, via Great Place to Work (GPTW) to see where we do well and what we can improve. I’m proud that we – as the first media company - have the official certification as an excellent workplace.

Next to this is the media industry, an industry where a lot of freelancers work; we are very project-based, specifically on tv-productions. So, at Banijay, it is important to create ambassadors for our organisation to keep our access to the best talent.

All production companies are targeting production-related talent. Creating a pool of highly qualified, good people was of the greatest importance. So, focusing on retraining and training people became more relevant than before.

Also since COVID, there has been a shift towards working from home, and COVID proved it works. Some had to do a mindset shift and manage on output rather than availability. You skip the commute, and it gives you freedom. In my view, output is increasing.

Also now, when the market is back to - let’s say - normal, the relevance of retaining the best talent remains, as we are a project organisation with, to a certain extent, a seasonal pattern and a changing demand pattern during the year. One of the advantages of Banijay Benelux is our diverse array of production companies, each specializing in various genres. This allows talent the flexibility to transition between different companies within our organization without leaving the company.

What is a memorable moment from your career and why?

There have been several memorable moments during my career. However, the common denominator is change, and working with people from different cultures and in different cultures. I started at PwC as a Consultant and worked there for 20 years. Throughout my time at PwC, other than becoming a partner, I had international experiences and worked abroad in different cultures, which is a memorable element.

Then I switched to corporate work. During my time with VEON and LafargeHolcim, we initiated and implemented large transformational projects, with a focus on efficiency (work smarter, not harder), effectiveness (increasing the relevance of Finance), and attractiveness of the Finance function (proud to be part of Finance).

Revamping those Finance organisations on a global and local scale, getting people on board, changing mindsets, and seeing the transformational impact in the positive sense of the word are moments that made me proud.

Specifically, on the transformational journeys, I had quite a steep learning curve. I learned the impact of good communication and stakeholder management, which gave me great insights and learnings on a personal level. Good communication and stakeholder management are the key drivers of creating change and embracing change.

If you could change one thing in your career, what would it be?

I take life and career as it comes; regret is a meaningless emotion from that perspective. It’s the learning you take from events or situations that, with hindsight, you would have done differently.

Of course, there are several situations that, with hindsight, I would have done differently today, so if I need to name one thing, it would be to act faster on what my feelings tell me. Don’t stall difficult situations too long; if the chemistry is not there, make a decision, and act on it.

Overall, I’m happy with the career path I have taken.

What is the most surprising thing that has happened during your career?

It is not so much one event, but more about what I have noticed during my career: How people work together in corporate environments.

I’ve been an auditor for the first 20 years of my career, which was very project-driven, after which I went to large, corporate organisations. The role and impact you have in the corporate environment are very different; you are directly confronted with the impact and the consequences of decisions you make – you are more in the driver’s seat. That took a while to get used to.

What surprised me in some of the organisations I have worked in is the siloed way of working, where different functions work next to each other instead of with each other. Also, within a function, you sometimes see this siloed working.

In every company I worked for, I tried to implement structures in which all relevant functions take combined ownership of important decisions. For example, a refinancing or a legal restructuring does not only require an Accounting and Reporting impact analysis, but also an analysis from a Tax, Treasury, Legal and Operational perspective.

Getting these functions together, discussing the risks and consequences, challenging each other, and deciding on the best way forward together brings you not only to the likely best possible solution, but also towards a solution that is supported by a broader scope.

Furthermore, I’m a strong believer in giving people end-to-end process ownership and giving them insight into the relevance of their role within the bigger picture, so people feel included and talk to each other. That is still the Consultant in me.  

Who are the main stakeholders that you deal with internally?

Within Banijay Benelux, we have a small managing board in which we make most decisions together or at least in mutual consultation. I am involved in most areas of the business.

From a direct stakeholder perspective, key stakeholders are obviously our employees, the management teams of our production companies, operations (we have several production studios), my colleagues on the management board, and our shareholders at Banijay Group.

What are the key challenges your business faces regarding sustainability?

Within the media industry, sustainability and Environmental, Social and Governance had - compared to production industries - a rather late start. Social and governance have been top priorities over the last years, specifically after certain MeToo affairs in the Dutch media industry, which was one of the turning points when it comes to subjects such as safety and integrity.

On the environmental sustainability side, the industry is still in a rather early stage. We have a growing, clear focus on sustainability, which is broader than measuring the carbon footprint of our productions, not because we have to (being part of a global group), as a reporting obligation, but because we intrinsically feel that we have to make it an integral part of our DNA.

That is because I see it as a strategic necessity towards our partners, clients and, above all, our people. Our people look for purpose; you see slowly but surely a change from profit-driven to a more purpose-driven mindset. You also see that in the content we make and the requirements of our employees and other stakeholders.

On ESG the challenge for us, like most companies, is to find a balance between fulfilling the limited European and local regulations currently available, which are subject to change and not yet set in stone, incorporating these and our requirements throughout the whole chain from suppliers to customers, as well as keep this a priority within our broad employee base – ensuring it is incorporated into everything they do.

That is a journey that will take time, but it is a must for us and future generations to survive in this world. Also, from an economic perspective, I think it can be a strategic benefit to be on the front end of this era.

What are the three challenges ahead for you as a CFO?

As mentioned, the media industry is changing fast, specifically in the last few years, and will continue changing in the years to come. Viewing behaviour is changing and new business models are required to sustain our profitability. Further, we see an accelerated impact from new technologies and AI, which brings us both threats and opportunities.

We then have the paradigm shifts within our society that are happening, which lead to the necessity to keep and build value in different ways. One example is integrating sustainability in all we do, as well as the shift from a profit-driven business environment to a more purpose-driven environment. All with the right balance in mind. This all interacts with the challenges ahead.

One is retention, keeping hold of and attracting talent in our team. The changing environment requires also a change mindset from our teams so retaining, training, and maintaining the team is key.

Another challenge is daring to develop and implement new business models - stepping out of the old-fashioned way and walking new paths. Some of them will fail and some will be successful, so we have to dare to do that. Also, incorporating AI into our processes and way of working, and looking for new and different cooperation models. Changing markets incorporate risks, but also opportunities.

The other big challenge from a CFO perspective is the shift we make from the financial to the non-financial space - not only in reporting, but in everything we do. That is still rather new for us - value-based reporting and sustainability reporting; it is not only numbers. Value creation is broader.

These are all good challenges to have though, and as with any change, we’ll learn, we’ll adapt, and we’ll become stronger for doing so.

Thank you to Colin for speaking to Emma Marshall, Senior Consultant, in our Finance & Accountancy recruitment team in the Netherlands.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment

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Axel Benjaminson - Group Controller at Scania Group

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

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Holger Ruckstuhl - Head Group Corporate Finance at Sulzer

Holger Ruckstuhl is the Head Group Corporate Finance at Sulzer in Zurich, where he’s worked in various roles for 15 years. He started his career as a Tax Manager at Arthur Andersen & Co., before moving to EY and Siemens.

What excites you about working for Sulzer?

On one side, Sulzer is a company with a long history, a lot of legacy, and I have known of the company since my youth. It is an industrial company with tangible products that are highly engineering driven.

On the other side, it's a company that has always reinvented itself.

Our focus has been on traditional industrial products - quite strongly in the oil and gas business - whereas now we are trying to turn the business into a more renewable business that is CO2 capturing and so on. What we are trying to use is the technology we have developed for more traditional applications, so that they can be applied in the new applications, which is slightly more economically friendly – for the environment, as well.

As an example, the recycling of clothes is one of the biggest and most challenging topics you can imagine. Sulzer is working with other companies from the fashion industry to make efficient recycling of clothes happen.

We are building a plant here in Switzerland to scale up what is currently working in other laboratories, so that we can show it to our stakeholders and to the customers; the recycling of clothes makes sense.

This is an area that I think could enable a lot of change to the environment, because the fashion industry has the most negative footprint on Earth.

The other thing is CO2 capturing. We have developed a technology where we can take out the CO2 when it is produced in a coal-fired or gas-fired powerplant. Bringing this to the market and convincing the customer that they should use it is the challenge we have.

The next challenge is we have to develop the technology. If you have captured the CO2, it has to be stored. We have developed the technology to store the CO2 in limestone. Here, we are currently working with another Swiss multi-national to scale it up and bring it to the market.

Limestone can be reused for other applications. Otherwise, currently, when you capture the CO2, one of the ideas is to put it into the ground - especially where we have taken out the oil - and to fill the holes in the ground with CO2.

This is one option that might become a dangerous one. But, if you put it into limestone, it will not disappear anymore; it will then become trapped and become part of the limestone.

Sulzer is an engineering company with a lot of technology and very tangible products, and that's what I like to work with.

Then, it's the cultural aspect. We are a Swiss-headquartered company, but we have a very international culture, with a little bit of Swiss-ness in it; we are active in about 60 countries.

What are the aspects that will protect the future of the company?

It's the way we think in Switzerland. I'm Swiss, so therefore it's not so easy to talk about our own culture.  

It's really thinking in longer-term cycles to value people and their different aspects. Switzerland is one country, but we are divided into 26 cantons and we speak four different languages - if you now take English in addition, then we have five different languages that most people in Switzerland speak. These are also different cultures in Switzerland. I would say this is what you're bringing into other international companies headquartered in Switzerland.

What changes have you seen to the employment market?

Especially when we're interviewing younger people, more or less coming from university or having only two or three years of working experience, the demands they have towards an employer have increased, in terms of value, flexibility, compensation, having teams composed by different genders, cultures, people coming from different countries…

Also, especially in current times, it's clearly an employee market for the time being. We are looking for talent and the talent is limited. Even if I think that Switzerland is an attractive country for foreigners, we have to fight for talent – and, clearly, they know it.

On the other side, I have no problem with younger people saying, “I want to have this, this and this…” I think it's good when younger people are clear on what they want.

However, if they are demanding, from time to time, they should also accept that the employer is demanding on flexibility - how they have to work, that you cannot only work from the home office, but you have to be present in office, as well. Also, there might be occasions where you have to work longer hours in the evening and so on. From time to time, I see a certain disconnect of what people are demanding and what they are willing to give to the employer. I think this needs to be bridged and they have to be fair.

Since we have more home office working - and I think this is a very good development - I personally like to be in the office, I have to say. Everybody has a computer, everybody has an iPhone or something; you can work from wherever you want to work, but you are reachable, as well.

However, there is a bad development in what is expected from an employer, because of the flexibility. The demand is 24/7 - independent of if you’re on holiday or not, you can be reached.  

The employer thinks, we give the employees more flexibility to do what they want, but they have to accept our flexibility that you are always reachable and available in case someone needs you. I think managing this is a big challenge for the future.

Can you think of any ideas that could help that?

As a manager, you have to accept that your employee is on holiday and that you really distinguish what is super urgent - maybe you desperately need feedback from your team member, but can it wait another couple of days?

It is easy to send an email or a WhatsApp message. As a manager, you have to limit the easy means of communication that can bother your team members when they're on holiday, or if they have taken off a couple of days or even over a weekend.

Also, you should not send out emails over the weekend saying, “By the way, I only need this information on Monday morning,” because most employees then feel pressured that they have to feed back to you on Sunday evening. As a manager, you have to accept the privacy of your team members and colleagues.

Have you always been like that or have you developed because you know what works and what doesn’t?

I try to be like this, but - in the last 12-18 months - there have been so many occasions where I have had to call my colleagues during holidays. I even once asked one of my team members to move holidays and they have been willing to do so, but this must be extraordinary. I feel myself - and even if I look into my company - that this has become standard, and I think this is not the right development.

On the other side, the higher you are in the hierarchy, the less this is respected - maybe this is becoming part of your job, but even the CEO or CFO cannot work 24/7, 365 days a year. I see this becoming a new culture that is going in this direction.

I have good breaks. Nevertheless, I always have my computer with me and I regularly read my emails.

Do you have particular things that drain your energy and then, on the other side, particular things that allow you to focus?

Firstly, I have a family. For me, my family is a source of energy, even if it's not always easy. My two daughters are 16 and 14; they are at a good age and most of the time we get along well.

On the other side, I focus the bad energy that I have from time to time on doing sports, like cycling, mountain biking, things like this. They are more long-distance activities, so I’m away from the family, but this helps me stay fit and clean up my mental situation. It gives me more back in the end and makes me feel much better when I’ve done it. This is how I try to cope with the stress and pressure you get as a senior manager in a multi-national organisation.

What makes life difficult is managing quite a big team. Therefore, you have to be structured, and most of my days are structured by meetings. What really sucks away my energy is when the CFO arrives unannounced, completely flipping my daily schedules without any warning.

When that happens, you feel stressed that you have to do something for your CFO, and all the topics you planned for the day, you have to now do in the evening – or even in the night - or you have to move it to the next day, but the next day is also partially booked.  

How you organise your days and your interaction with your team members needs to be structured. What I do not like is the bottleneck and this happens when someone takes away your time unexpectedly, and you end up becoming the bottleneck for many other people. I don't like it; you can also see your team members become stressed, because they cannot execute all their activities, because they have a tight schedule, as well.

It's how you organise the massive load of work you have in a particular manner. Clearly, from a manager point of view, I cannot be a micro-manager, otherwise I would need more than 24 hours a day.

What is your management style and how do you feel that works for your team?

I have a collaborative working style. I'm trying to be the primus inter pares; I respect my team members in such a manner and I encourage my team members that they take responsibility for their own areas.

My team members have defined areas. For me, they are the specialist or the manager in the area, and they have to manage these areas independently. They have clear targets, they have clear goals, they have clear objectives, and - as long as they are able to manage the objectives according to my expectations - I give them a lot of freedom. I don't care how they achieve their objectives, as long as they reach the objectives. This is also how I want to be managed.

Also, I try to help my people and coach them if I think they could do it better, or they could organise themselves better, but I’m not a person that says, “You have to do it this and you have to do it like this.” For me, it's more that you achieve your objectives in the given timeframe, but how you achieve the objectives is up to you and it’s individual.

Additionally, I'm a team player. I like to have a team. But, in the end, if a decision needs to be taken, I will take the decision and I will take responsibility for the decision I've taken.

I like the collaborative work style, giving freedom to my people to develop themselves, because - in the end - I would like to see that people are developing in their current function, so that once they become a better leader, or if they are specialists, they can grow in a particular area.

We have a good level of openness and trust with my current team, so I think they come to me whenever they need support or help.

I also criticise my team members. But I think you can criticise someone, it's just how you criticise someone. For me, it's important. Clearly, I'm not completely new in my current role and my team knows me. I also have a new team member now and I was extremely open with him, as well.

He came from a bank, and he said he was not used to working like this; the bank was much more hierarchical. I said, “This is the working style I have, and it’s always going to be different compared to a bank, but we are working as a team,” and I said that he has clear objectives, targets, and he knows about the way he has to do work.

I review our progress on targets, but as long as I have the feeling the other person is doing their job right, I think there is no intervention needed from my side.

For me, the personal objectives or goals I have for the year are some of the objectives of my employees, and, therefore, we are completely aligned from that perspective.

How many people do you have in your team?

I have 12 direct reports. I'm leading a couple of teams. I have a full Treasury team - we have seven here in Switzerland, but then we also have direct reports in the UK and in the US, and we have a bunch of people in India, not directly led by shared service.

I am also leading the headquarter’s Accounting team - there’s about 20 people. They are not all reporting to me; I have the Chief Accountants reporting to me. On this floor, we have the Treasury and Accounting team, then I'm also managing Financial Services on a global scale. This is a team of about ten people in house, and some people are outsourced to an outsource provider in India.  Indirect Procurement is now currently also under my leadership share.

For the time being, I would be happy if my team was not growing, I have to say. But my full focus currently is really on the Treasury team, because we had to reshape the team.

How did you find the market for Treasury when you were going through that process?

We have hired in quite a special way; we hired a colleague of another colleague who had already been with us. Therefore, we have taken the shorter route, but we knew who we had hired. This was not really a real recruitment process - we just saw the profile, we knew the person was available and therefore we have recruited him. He was a perfect match. We also had a meeting in the team and then we recruited one real new member.

Also, it was quite a special role we looked for. We had about 80 CVs coming in - most of them were not according to our expectations, and then we had a couple of interviews. In the end, we had two or three suitable candidates. This was not the standard recruiting process.

What risks have you taken throughout your career and how did they help you get to the level that you’re at now?

It’s not a risk, but for me it was always important to be your own personality. Do not change too much. From my point of view, you have to stay as you are. A risk could be that you're not adopting a certain style.

On the other side, from a risk perspective, I try to be honest with my superiors, and I have been successful in providing critical feedback to my superiors and they have accepted this. Over time, that has improved my standing, because they know that I'm a critical, independent person. But this is not always easy, that's clear.

I think you have to sense when it's the right time to come up with criticism against your superior. Nevertheless, if you're brave enough, this is something I would always recommend doing. It’s more how you do it, and this is important.

One the other hand, last year, I took an important decision for myself. Within my Finance background, I'm a tax lawyer, and I was leading the Tax department for more than 14 years of this group. The last time I took an important decision was when I handed over the responsibility for my Tax team and instead took over group Corporate Finance - mainly Treasury. I'm not a Treasury specialist, but this was an easy decision for me. I had to more or less leave my home turf and focus on a different position with different skillsets within Finance.

I had worked for more than 20 years in Tax and had 14 years’ experience within the same organisation. In 2021, we went into a spin-off activity with one of our divisions.

I had to ask myself if this was a job that could challenge me for the next ten to 15 years. I had the opinion that this job would also become slightly boring, with not too many challenges.

Then, I had only two options: to look for a similar job within another organisation, or to do something completely different within Sulzer. I was in a lucky position that the CFO left, the Group Treasurer became the CFO, and I took over the position from the current CFO.

Do you think your love of mountain biking – quite a risky sport - helps you within the workplace to overcome things that you might not otherwise do?

That could be the case. I do quite intensive mountain biking here in Switzerland. It is sometimes dangerous, and you always have to take a decision and assessment - challenging yourself to a certain level, but not over challenging yourself so that you might fall.

It is a very physical sport, it's quite technical. You have to overcome the fear you have.

Especially when you are going downhill, you have to take decisions very fast and it's better to take the right decision. Maybe this also helps to take decisions in business, but it was also clear to take over this particular position with so many different teams. To do the same with a completely new organisation would have been much more challenging.

With Sulzer, I more or less knew all the people. I knew the culture, the senior management, and the people knew me, as well. Therefore, even if it's a completely new Finance function, new department, with new skillsets - especially technical skillsets - I think it was doable and it was a very good challenge.

It was a hefty one in the beginning; I worked long hours, but it was the challenge I was looking for.

From time to time, you have to challenge yourself, deciding whether to take over something new or similar within the same organisation, or look for a challenge in another organisation.

Clearly, if you're passionate about a company, I think it's easier to go through these slightly more difficult times than with a new company.

Do you read or listen to podcasts in your spare time?

I do not listen to podcasts too often, but there is one particular Swiss podcast from the Swiss radio, between six and eight in the evening. Very often, I listen to this podcast when I’m driving home. It’s in German. It's extremely good, I have to say.

I read books, but more when I'm on holiday and relaxing. I do not read self-development books, such as how to become a better manager. When I read, it is just to relax, to enjoy, so normally it's when I'm on holiday.

During summer holidays, I'm normally in France, in the Britannia, and therefore I like to read crimes from the Britannia, because then you can really feel where it is; it could be just next door and it’s like you’re in the story. You can see yourself in the story, as well.

Obviously, a lot of companies are looking at sustainability at the moment. Tell me about what that looks like in your sector or industry.

For Sulzer, it's crucial that we are developing away from the current oil and gas business to more sustainable business activities. To grow the business in a more sustainable way is a growing market force and we are one of the first movers or technology leaders, so we see a quite a lot of market potential there. Whereas the oil and gas business is actually a dying business over time - not today, not tomorrow, but in the mid/longer term.

On the other side, to be seen as an oil and gas company ten years ago was an asset. Today, it is not, also from an investor’s perspective. That is because more and more investors, banks, pension schemes have a clear ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) and sustainability agenda, as well. At some point in time, they will not be allowed to invest in a company like us if we do not change our business model or the focus area where we want to grow.

Therefore, it's a combination of what we see in CO2 carbon capturing and recycling, and we are very strong in the water business - especially in the waste water treatment business, which is a mega-trend.  

Currently, we have a lot of waste water treatment in Switzerland and America, but you'll see it in India, as well. You’ll see it in China and, at some point, also in Africa or other Asian countries. Therefore, it goes hand in hand.

You have to focus on more of a sustainable business and leave behind the traditional old oil and gas business - even if you’re not only an oil and gas business, but it has formed a big part of us. Many investors still see us as an oil and gas company, even if we’ve been trying for a couple of years to explain that it is part of our legacy, but is not our future. We are moving into other areas; we want to further grow into more sustainable environments.

On the other side, the banks are also asking, “What is your sustainability strategy?” We have already seen, for a bigger job we have executed in the oil and gas business, a particular bank was not willing to provide the bank guarantee, because they have a clear internal guideline that they are not supporting that kind of business anymore. Therefore, this might limit your business over time. It requires a refocus and a consideration for sustainability.

We clearly have it as part of our long-term strategy: to become a fully sustainable company.

What have you put in place to ease that conversation and the image of the company?

On one side, you have a current portfolio of businesses and resources. Then, the strategy is in which business to invest most of your cash into. Would it be by internal growth, organic growth or by acquisitions? It is clear that you will mainly focus on a sustainable area, which is the water business for us.

It's also the business of our kinetic division, where we see more green technologies - recycling the production of fuels, CO2 neutral fuels… really modern technology and moving away from the traditional industry we have.

We have started the journey that the focus will be on sustainable business.

For the time being, we are not willing to sell the gas businesses; we still believe it's an important industry to offer. Obviously, it would be nice if everybody only had electric cars and maybe would not heat their houses with gas or oil, but - in Switzerland - the majority of homes are still heated with oil or gas.

This will probably be the case for the next ten to 20 years, until we are producing enough electricity for everybody to only have electric cars and to heat with electricity. But, for the time being, this is wishful thinking. Additionally, we see it as our duty to help bridge the time until we are able to live without fossil, oil and gas - that’s how we are currently doing it.

How will digital transformation change the role of Corporate Finance?

A huge topic is that we are collecting more and more data from our source systems. We are using more technology, which is becoming more difficult, but the technology or the tools are more connected, so you have to become an IT specialist.

On the other side, because we are managing our own tools, I have IT people that have an education in IT, as well as Finance, so we can manage our own tools and develop our own ideas about where we want to develop.

When it comes to our Treasury management system, it’s about what we want to connect. For example, we are onboarding a new bank in a particular country with new bank accounts. This is a traditional Treasury topic, but this account now needs to be automatically linked to our ERP system.

In this case, there are three different pieces - two SAP and one is Microsoft Dynamics. Now, you have to bridge the know-how from the bank. They have the IT guys say, “We have this kind of technology - the information which flows from the bank to the ERP system must be in this kind of format.”

Now, you have to talk to IT, they have to program on your side, and you can see it’s not only you who can say, I have a bank account, I have an ERP system, and therefore you have to help and guide.

That means you need to have a better understanding of technology, as well - even of SAP, in this particular case. This is one sense.

On the other side, since we are pooling more and more data in an automated way, in the past, this required a big part of the team to bring together the information. Now, you have more time to analyse, or you have a massive amount of information and data, but now you have to be in a position to pull the right information and make the information visible to others for decision making.

Normally, you have too much information in the meantime, so you have to say what is the right one you’re looking for.

Also, in the past, you had the silos - you have the Finance people, the Treasury people, the IT people, the SAP people, etc., and everybody was working in silos. In the meantime, we have to overcome the silos so that the Finance people and the Treasury people can speak with the relevant IT people on the outside.

The IT people need to understand our processes, how we are thinking, whereas we need to understand how the technology works on the other side. Therefore, yes, technology has already changed and will change the profile of the candidate even further; what they need to learn, what they need to bring to be a valuable member of a highly-dedicated Finance environment or team.

Are you quite flexible when you’re hiring someone for the team if they lack a little bit in the IT side? Are you willing to train them on that?

Sure. In the end, it’s quite specific technology you are using in your company; even if you hire a Treasury person from another industrial company, they are not using the Treasury management system we are using and the same consultation tool. Therefore, they only need to have the capability to adapt themselves in a certain period of time to the new environment.

I even have a team member who is 64 and they are very good with technology; they have really learnt and developed. It’s the same for the younger ones who are digital natives compared to the older colleagues, but - in the end - it’s a team effort; everybody supports each other.

For sure, our official IT guy within the team is one of the younger colleagues we have. But to keep up to speed on technology is not easy.

Even in discussions with the CFO and CEO - in the past, we discussed figures; now, we’re talking about processes. To get an understanding of processes, you need a lot of technology know-how and digitalisation. You also need to be aware of the type of technologies coming in the future. Technology and digitalisation are moving so fast - it doesn’t sleep. I think it’s the right development; it will help to free up time of the team members, but it is not making our life less complex.

The expectation of certain senior management, when all the information is there, is that finding the right information to connect the dots is just an easy walk in the park. In the past - and this is also common somehow with cloud solutions - you always had the need to have everything within your own IT department. Therefore, they had to keep up with your technology, as well.

Whereas, in the meantime, if you buy a software you’re using and the software is maintained in a cloud, there is hardly any connection to your IT department. The maintenance, the updates and the software are handled by the outsourcing partner. You make yourself more independent and it might cost less than having your own IT department.

You are also not dependent on the resources and constraints you might have within IT. This also gives more flexibility, and the integration of new software and new technologies is easier with this. It is a wide range of various aspects, but clearly it is coming in more and more.

Thank you to Holger for speaking to Lauren Eagar, Senior Consultant in our Finance & Accoutancy recruitment team in Switzerland.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment

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Laura Rytkölä - Global Director P&M at Cloetta

Laura Rytkölä is the Global Director P&M at Cloetta in Stockholm, Sweden. She has been with the business for over ten years, having previously spent a decade at Henkel Norden. Laura started her career in Accounting.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your role at Cloetta?

I really like what I do, so it’s a hard choice, but I would probably say being able to drive change both in business and in people. It’s really exciting.

Also, things are always changing and there are new challenges to tackle, so the variation between the challenges we are working on and ongoing projects is probably the most rewarding part.

Which internal stakeholders do you deal with most?

The most frequent ones would be those in my team and my colleagues in the local markets that we have a very close collaboration with within the Pick & Mix category.

On top of that, there’s the executive management team, as well as my Supply Chain colleagues – so entirely covering the flow of the business model.

I know you lead four different teams. What does communication and the structure look like in those teams?

Everything in the business model links together; the teams are working on different aspects and focus areas of the same business model. The key is to make sure that everything is connected and makes sense.

We try to structure the targets for the team in a way so that everyone has the same general headline. So, when we are talking about driving different priorities, everyone will recognise what is going on.

There are projects where some parts of the team are working together more closely and we need to make sure the rest of the team is aware of what is happening – it’s keeping tabs on the whole communication flow, knowing who needs to know, who needs to be involved, and then ensuring everything is progressing nicely.

You have a background in Finance. How are you finding it being more involved in business development, strategy and so on?

I would see a Finance background as a clear plus, because it can give you a very nice overview of what is happening from a financial transaction point of view.

It also gives you a strong foundation of understanding profitability and how things are, what we do, and how it is impacting profitability.

I see it as an added benefit and something that has been a definite help for me.

Do you ever want to go back to the Finance side of things or are you quite happy with your current role?

I am very happy with my current role, but it is something I have thought about - maybe in the right circumstances. However, for the moment, I am definitely having the time of my life, so I’m not looking to switch back.

You’ve been at Cloetta for ten years now and you were at Henkel Norden for ten years, too. If you reflect back over your career so far, if there was one thing you could change, what would that be?

That is a hard question, because I don’t think I would change anything. I’ve been trying to make conscious choices in terms of what roles I apply to, and which roles I take on, so everything has built up to where I am today. I wouldn’t go back and change anything career wise.

The only advice I have is to worry less about the small things and not sweat about it too much, as it will work out in the end. But I wouldn’t change anything.

If you were to think about the three to five key drivers to success that you might look for in employees or team members in general, what would you say those are?

Especially when recruiting people into the team – and we’ve recruited quite a few over the past few years while we’ve been building the core structure – I am looking for collaborators and people who are generally interested in working with others.

I am also looking for people who are curious. I want them to be curious about how things work, how things are interconnected, and how it will affect not only the short term, but also the long term. That type of genuine curiosity to get things and just purely being eager to look for solutions.

I would say those are the key elements: collaborators, being curious, and always looking for solutions.

In terms of high-potential employees and high achievers in general, how do you aim to retain those employees?

It depends on what works for that specific person. Generally, great leadership has worked for me. I have had the benefit of working with fantastic leaders who have seen potential in me; otherwise, I probably wouldn’t still be at Cloetta.

But, in general, I think recognising strengths in people, guiding them in the right way, and then providing opportunities to grow.

In my own team, we try to get everyone involved as much as possible in different elements of the business, so that they will get a very broad understanding of what it is we are doing. We’re not fine with people just understanding their own part; they will need to understand the broader scope, and especially our high potentials - then we will keep feeding them with challenges to grow further.

How do you identify those high-potential employees?

At Cloetta, we have a process and a nice, structured way of working with the staff, both assessments and development plans.

For example, in day-to-day business, we look at what is working, and for example we see someone who has a fantastic ability to find the essentials in a huge amount of data and present it in a fantastic way, or someone who is very good at manoeuvring in a complex team environment and being able to deal with conflicts in a constructive way. It’s looking for those types of people and what is coming through on a daily basis.

From there, it’s trying to paint a bigger picture and have a discussion around the faith we have in them, how they see their future, and their plans. Hopefully, we’ll find a sweet spot where we can meet on a common interest.

I can imagine there's a good degree of risk-taking that needs to be had. Is that quite prevalent and do you feel you take a lot of risks, as well?

Yes and no. Sometimes, in business, you’ll need to take risks. Looking back into the past three years, there’s been a huge amount of uncertainty.

You just need to do your best at identifying the pieces of data that you’ll need to evaluate and base your judgements on, and get people aligned and on board with it.

In the end, what might have felt risky really isn’t risky anymore, because you’ve done your homework and assessments. From the outside, it may look risky, but it’s about analysing the consequences of potential areas of risk and creating a plan to mitigate those, then we go ahead.

What do you see as the challenges that await Cloetta and how do you plan to overcome them as we step into the New Year soon?

The inflation situation and the development of consumer spending power is a situation that I believe many companies are facing, along with trying to estimate its impact. 

Also, the development of raw material input price and what level that will stabilise on. I think those are the bigger question marks that the industry at large is currently dealing with. 

What does the hiring and onboarding process look like at Cloetta?

Starting on the hiring side, the first key success factor is the job advert and conveying the joy of doing what we do, and the challenges that come with it, to attract the right candidate base.

We also try to go quite broad in the beginning to have very brief discussions with multiple candidates to get a feel about what we are dealing with, then potentially tweaking profiles or backgrounds that we are looking at depending on the role and the specific area that we’re looking for; we filter the process step by step.

We have four or five steps in the whole recruitment process, and we involve the primary person running the process, which is the recruiting manager. The recruiting manager can then get a better feel for the candidate, and potentially discuss changes over time in the interview touchpoints.

In addition to that, we also involve close team members; they could be from another team, a manager, or a close colleague who will be working with the person we are looking to recruit, as well as HR.

We try to make sure that we get different aspects and viewpoints into the evaluation and decision process, so that it is not coloured by one person, and we get multiple angles. When I run the process, it’s very helpful to get someone else’s opinion, compare thoughts, discuss the candidates, and plan for the best mutual fit at the end.

What are some key measures that are actively taken to reduce bias in the recruitment process?

I would probably say going broad in the beginning to get a broader candidate base. Also, Pick & Mix as a business model is a bit of an odd one out; a limited number of people work with P&M, so when we recruit people, almost no one has any past experience of the business model. It’s very rare we’ll find someone who has. So, people are coming in cold, which means that we need to be open minded in terms of the backgrounds we are looking for.

A person who would be a fantastic fit for packaged FMCG brands might not be the right fit in the P&M business. So, from the get-go, we need to challenge what it is we are looking for and what competencies are important. 

Also, when getting more viewpoints into the recruitment process, you can sometimes get very attached to a candidate. Then, someone else comes into the evaluation process, or we use case studies to get a more objective view of what the candidate is able to deliver, which helps reduce bias in the decision-making process. 

What are the current recruitment challenges that you face, not only finding the right person, but with the market?

I am not sure I see any huge challenges. We’ve been lucky or at least worked hard to make sure we have the best possible starting points. We have been listening to other companies or other teams recruiting, and you hear sometimes it’s difficult getting candidates.

We get plenty of candidates and generally have a good base to evaluate from. I think it’s a combination of a really nice business we are working with, and candy/snacks is an ideal category, too. I think most people are intrigued and we get a nice amount of attention.

What could a job seeker do to stand out in the current market?

Pay attention to the vacancy, because you can tell when someone has spent time thinking about it and addressing their application. I understand from an applicant’s point of view, if you’re applying to several of jobs, it can get tiring over time. But you can split out the people who are not paying attention, and those ones immediately get cut, because it’s not a good starting point.

Also, read up on the company and, when you land the interview, be prepared with questions, because that is going to show your interest. The best scenario is when I get eager candidates who come prepared with a lot of questions - most of them will probably be answered during the discussion, but make sure you have a couple of extra ones, as it shows you really thought about it and are interested. 

We had one candidate who came in with a quiz. It was part of a case presentation, and he took the opportunity to have me and my colleague compete against each other in recognising different sound bites. That was something new and fresh that I hadn’t seen before. He also got the job in the end.

What’s your secret to building a strong network?

For me - and the people who are in my closest network - there is generally a common interest and a general desire to be of service, to help out and support.

Often, it comes into a type of common interest in the beginning and then builds further.

If you could go back and give yourself some career advice, what would that be?

I think it goes into progress and not perfection. Mistakes happen and it’s not the end of the world; you don’t need to land everything perfectly every single time. Take a moment when something unexpected happens or when you feel as if something has failed. Take the time to analyse it, take the learnings and try again, because there will be a lot of times when things don’t work out correctly the first time.

How do you deal differently with failures now compared to when you were younger?

I wouldn’t say I take them lightly; I take them in a different way. I’ve had to learn to take a step back and analyse.

There are a lot of things that we are trying for the first time and there is no instruction manual, so there is going to be trial and error. There’s going to be a lot of testing and evaluating, adjusting, and testing again.

I think it’s more the mentality and the curiosity of it – why did it fail or why did it not work the way we wanted it to? Can we change it or is it a complete failure and not even worth trying again? Can we do something else? When things don’t work out, at least you learn more. You need to be curious about it and take that with you. You’ll now know what works and what doesn’t and try something else instead.

Don’t dwell too much on your mistakes, because that’s probably the worst thing you can do. Give yourself a moment to be sad or disappointed, but then shake that off and do something constructive.

What advice would you give to aspiring leaders?

I’ve learned over time and in discussions with my boss - who has been a great support in my journey - about creating the best possible circumstances for your team to succeed. That’s the type of mindset that I try to apply with my team and managers in my team, to see what they need to do the best possible job. Then, in a sense, get out of their way or see where you can support them.

It's about creating the platform for your team to succeed. It’s not so much about you knowing everything; it’s really enabling your team to do the best they can.

What about junior members? How can they impress their bosses?

To get in my good books, you need to be curious, and you should be open to understand and learn, and ask a lot of questions. Often, what I see in junior members is that they are a bit cautious in the beginning and they think their opinion isn’t important – it is always important.

If you have a question, you need to ask it, because I want you to understand it, I want you to grow, challenge, be more, and learn more.

Don’t be afraid to speak up, because your voice and your opinion are important, and you may be able to see things that others don’t. Every voice is important.

Why do you think junior members are more afraid to voice their opinion?

It may partly come from feeling inexperienced compared to the people around them. They may think, if other people haven’t asked a certain question, it is a stupid question, because - if it was good - someone would have already asked it.

Also, sometimes part of the environment doesn’t necessarily allow for it. So, in my team and in general, we are trying to create an environment where people feel safe to ask questions and actively participate in building the plans, which takes effort from everyone to make that happen.

Is that something that's encouraged daily? To speak up, ask more questions, and be more curious?

It is and we spend a lot of effort on it. We have a joke in my team that the answer to every question is, “It depends.” It depends on the market, the customer, and other circumstances, etc., so you have to spend a lot of time thinking, analysing, and evaluating things, otherwise you will miss half of the important things.

That is something we try to instil into the team and then joke about it, because it is always a bit more complicated than you thought in the beginning. But then you just need to go figure it out, because again there is no manual on how to do this; you need to figure it out as you go.

Sustainability is an important topic right now. What are the key challenges your business is facing?

I’m not sure I would phrase it as challenges. We have fantastic colleagues in Cloetta working on our sustainability journey and - looking back a few years ago - it is more broadly ingrained into the entire business.

We have different people working on different aspects of it; Procurement on raw material sourcing, etc., and everything is tapping into the overall sweeter future agenda we are driving.

From a Pick & Mix perspective, which is closest to hand from my daily life, it’s around assortment and making sure we are increasing the share of products with non-artificial flavours and colours, and making sure the ingredients we have are of a good quality, if not better.

In addition to that, we are working on vegan alternatives and ensuring there is a nice offering in the portfolio. A lot of things have happened in the last couple of years. Vegan was a bit of a polarising factor and people were afraid of it - some people are afraid it’s not going to taste as nice, but the key is to really create nice tasting products and there as so many good options right now. We are happy with driving that agenda and we can benefit from that.

Also, we work closely with our suppliers to offer different types of alternatives. With Pick & Mix, you choose exactly what you want, so there is room to make your choice and we want to be part of offering that.

Additionally, we are working on reducing hard plastics in the outer cases we transfer our products in, and we have a high ambition level on reducing everything both from our own factories and our third-party supplier portfolio. We contribute in that way, as well.  

Thank you to Laura for speaking to Hanna Gibson, Senior Consultant in our Nordics division. 

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment

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Philipp Fahrni - Group CFO at IDAK Food Group

Philipp Fahrni is the Group CFO at IDAK Food Group, a growing group manufacturing premium frozen convenience products in Switzerland and Italy for the global market, headquartered in Zurich.

Philipp joined the business as the Head of Group Finance in 2022. Previously, he worked for Credit Suisse and PostFinance, before spending more than five years at KPMG as an engagement manager and CPA. 

What were the major learning experiences that you encountered transitioning from the Big 4 into industry?

One of the biggest learning experiences and one of the biggest changes is, in the Big 4, you have almost unlimited access to know-how knowledge, resources, and network. Then you come into a company that's very much in the building phase and not a big organisation - at least not on the group level - and you find yourself quite alone sometimes.

So, for me, the learning experience there showed the importance of having a good network within the company, but also outside the company. Whenever there was a topic that came up where I felt that I needed additional input, it was very important to reach out quickly to some experts within my network.

I think the other learning experience, which the Big 4 prepares you for quite well, is to really apply problem-solving skills, and to be creative and find creative solutions to tackle the gaps that are there in terms of know-how, processes, and structure.

Another learning experience for me was that I had previously worked for a company where the product was the people and the services - an intangible product that you deliver. Here, I work for a company that produces premium frozen food items.

It's very enriching to have a product where you can go to a convenience store in Switzerland and buy the product that comes from you and the factory that you work in, or that has been developed in an innovation process that you may have enabled through some projects. So, this is very enriching and a learning experience, in a way.

The third part that was really a change and an experience was the whole topic of stakeholder management, which in my current role has much more emphasis. Of course, you have stakeholders as a consultant or as a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) in one of the Big 4, but here it's on a different level; you have to really understand the dynamics and the different expectations and motivations of investors versus management, subsidiary management versus group management, and so on. Although we are often very aligned, that is really something that I'm still learning to manage every day from a Finance perspective.

I would imagine when you're in the Big 4 your contacts are within Finance; you're probably not having as much interaction with Marketing or Operations. Is that the case?

Yes and no. Yes, the primary counterparts are in the Finance function. But I think the preparation in Big 4 is quite good in the way that you still get to interact with different people in the organisation.

For example, if you are doing a good job at auditing companies, then you will have to talk to the Sales Director, you will talk to the Purchase Officer, and you will also talk frequently to the board. So, you still get some understanding of the different dynamics in an organisation.

However, you don't really experience that first hand, because you just see it in the organisation - that’s the change or the difference.

You've ascended swiftly in your career over recent years, recently moving into your current role as CFO at IDAK. How have you navigated this rapid progression and the transition into your new position?

One thing that really helps me is that I've always had an entrepreneurial mindset and try to have a 360-degree view. I also applied that in the Big 4 and it helped tremendously, because you understand a lot of the underlying forces, the business model, the processes, where the money comes from and where it goes, and so on.

That has definitely helped me to understand the organisation that I came into very quickly: Who are the decision makers? What is the business model? What are the key products and key clients? What are the key differentiating success factors, etc.? So, this is one thing that has really helped me in this transition to start quickly and progress in IDAK.

Also, it was very important - because I came into a role that hadn't existed before – that there was no comprehensive financial management done at Group level. Finance was basically managed only at the subsidiary level, so there was a lot of blank space.

I'm glad that I’m quite good at developing from scratch and leveraging what I had seen before in different companies, so I could take that all in and decide for myself what I liked or what I didn't like in previous experiences, and then find effective solutions that are tailor-made to the situation.

The third characteristic that I'm quite good at is people skills - even as a Finance person. Yes, it's important that you are good with numbers, but it's even more vital that you can talk to people and interact well on a personal level.

The role I came into was newly created, so it was also important to get the buy-in from the decision makers, above and below the CEOs of our subsidiaries, etc., so that they can understand your role and see this new function as an added value - not just an additional person requesting financial information every month. Looking back, this ability to connect easily with people was also a key success factor in my past year-and-a-half with the company.

Could you share some positive aspects you've observed while working in a private equity-backed environment?

Personally, what's very enriching is that private equity has growth and value creation in its DNA; the mindset of constantly developing, constantly evolving, and growing as a company. This fits me and is very enriching.

That also brings about an entrepreneurial mindset. You're constantly striving to be better and create more value in a monetary way, but also to really grow as a company, develop products, develop clients, win new clients, etc. This is a very enriching aspect, which I don't think you get as much with other investment models.

I work in a company now that has also done quite a bit of M&A (merger and acquisition), and I don't think this would have been possible without private equity-backed investors. There's an appetite to develop. Lastly, I think the other aspect about private equity that is a little underestimated is the vast amount of resources, knowledge, and network that private equity investors bring into a company.

I didn't have that much experience in this Finance function before, which brings me to the point before about whenever I felt like, “OK, this I have never seen this before,” I have a network of private equity investors; I can call them and ask them, “What do you do in your other companies with that topic? What are your experiences?”

Our board is composed of very experienced people from the PE fund, and they have such a large amount of knowledge and network, which allows me to get valuable insights and have not only a governing oversight function in our board, but also effective sparring partners.

What insights might you offer to someone contemplating whether a private equity setting is the right fit for them?

It's important that you feel that it’s a fit, otherwise it doesn't make sense. There are people who are a better fit for a big corporate organisation, stock listed company, or a family-owned company, where it's maybe more about long-term development at a slower, but constant, pace.

But, if you go into a private equity-backed company, it's good if you are an open-minded and dynamic person; you certainly should not be against growth, be it personal, professional, or organisational growth. You really have to be interested in developing and constantly evolving.

What I found very valuable was, before I started this job, I informed myself quite well about who the private equity owners are behind the current company. You will find that in the private equity environment; there are a ton of differences between PE companies.

So, you find out about the culture and business model of this private equity owner: How do they manage their portfolio companies? Do they primarily invest in growth companies, in successful companies? Do they invest in turnaround cases? This can also tell you a little bit about what you're getting into.

I don't want to say private equity is for everybody, but if you believe it's a good fit and you believe that the owner is a good fit, then it’s definitely a great place to advance quickly and grow.

The other thing is that private equity is not forever. Usually - unless it's an evergreen fund - the owners might change, so you have to be wary of that and embrace that as a chance, rather than a risk.

Finally, talk to people with experience in the field - they will tell you a lot more than anything you see while doing desktop research. In my case, that helped a lot.

IDAK has been significantly active in acquisitions. From your perspective, what are the paramount challenges in integrating new businesses?

First, I will tell you how to prevent the challenges. For me, it really starts with the phase prior to closing the deal. If you do solid due diligence and ensure that there is a good strategic and cultural fit between your business and the business you’re trying to acquire, then a lot of what happens afterwards, even if there are challenges, can be overcome more easily. A good preparation and diligence work is critical and that's what I've experienced in the past 12 months doing two M&A deals.

Once the acquisition has been done or once it's in the finalisation stage, having an open and transparent communication can make a difference between successful or failed acquisition. A lot of the challenges can come from not having communicated openly - be it internally or externally - to really set the expectations.

Even though there might be some negative messages to tell, be open, don't hesitate, and don't hold back, because that drives the willingness of people to embrace the transformation as a positive. It's about sensing how people might react and proactively address these feelings with a good communication strategy.

For Finance specifically, it’s important to set expectations, but also be open to learning from the organisation you’re acquiring. Especially in our case, that's quite important, because we are not a fully developed group organisation; we can be open to new inputs that come from an acquired business.

They might do a process differently than us, so we can also look at it and be open and say, “Hey, show us what you're doing, maybe it's better than what we currently have.” We don't need to put our stamp on everything that they are currently doing and change the processes by 180 degrees. In my opinion, some of the resistance to change typically observed in the M&A process is because people are afraid that everything that they have worked for over many years will change, and it doesn't necessarily have to.

A big objective of any M&A process is usually that you want to achieve synergies. Our philosophy here is that yes, we do embrace synergies and we want to create them, but usually when you try to force synergetic measures upon an organisation and tell people, “Now you have to generate synergies,” it leads to more resistance than actual synergy.

The key success factor is if you bring people together and get people to talk and generate ideas on their own; in the end, the results will most likely be better.

Finally, in the Finance department, the post-merger integration might be less challenging when compared to other parts of the business. That is because, in Finance, it's more accepted that there is some integration effort needed and that some processes and reporting lines need to be established based on a common group approach. Once an acquisition happens, everyone in Finance instantly knows that they might have to adopt the reporting tool for the group, etc., so it's a little bit easier there.

But, as I said, it's important to respect what has been done, be open-minded, and not make too sudden changes. In the end, it’s just people, so talk to people, understand their motivations, and try to find a solution together and not barely by instructing them to adopt via a top-down approach.

I think the point you mentioned earlier about the cultural fit initially does seem to be a real key factor in success.

In the end, it depends on who makes the decision to do a merger and if these people are aware of these challenges.

For us, all the acquisitions have been driven not only by the board, but also by the management, who know the company better than the board, the dynamics in the company. And, in the end, the management has to integrate the newly acquired business – thus, I suspect management puts even more emphasis on the cultural fit. I think that is definitely helpful.

In addition to your other responsibilities, you manage teams in both Italy and Switzerland. Are there any notable distinctions in your managerial approach between the two?

I try to always stay authentic in the way that I am and how I communicate. However, in Switzerland, our leadership culture is a bit more consensus-oriented, so you try to bring in the entire team and make a team decision, and this usually leads to a better solution than doing it top-down or leading the people to make the decision that you would have made anyways.

In Italy, it’s more of a top-down culture and a bit more hierarchical. It's much more of an experience-based culture where you gradually work your way up. This determines how I manage the Finance department, interact with our local CFO and the team there. In Italy, and given my position as a young non-Italian CFO, I feel that it’s also important to be respectful, explain your motivations and why you or the group are doing something - this really prevents misunderstandings and helps to get alignment on key topics.

Overall, although I do manage the Italian Finance team a little bit differently, what helps a lot is that I speak Italian. This really gives a great sense of understanding to the team there. It's very much appreciated. Even though everybody speaks English, I get a lot of goodwill for that. They are more understanding, even if I make a mistake, which can happen, of course.

It's interesting that you mentioned the consensus aspect in Switzerland, because I see that very much from the recruitment perspective.

That’s something that people can struggle with if they come from outside of Switzerland. A lot of senior managers in Switzerland are not from here originally. In my opinion, it could be a challenge, as they could lose the followership of their people quite easily if they don't understand and embrace to a certain degree the locally accepted style of leadership.

What advice would you extend to those embarking on a Finance career, especially those aspiring to reach your level of accomplishment?

Looking back, I would still highly recommend a start in consultancy or in a Big 4 company. That is because it permits you to see a lot of different things in various organisational settings, and gives you a lot of different challenges to experience. You can collect those experiences in a short amount of time, which prepares you well for the next phase.

In the Big 4, what really helped me was not just staying for two to three years, but almost six years. The first two to three years allow you to shape your technical abilities, analytical skills. But then, after four to five years, when you advance to the manager level, you get board-level exposure and you’re very close to the decision makers; you start to understand the dynamics that are happening behind closed doors and the conversations that are taking place in these rooms. In this way, my previous experience has allowed me to quickly step into this role here and manage our board and stakeholders.

Also, it's very important to be open and interested and to have this constant drive to learn and be eager to get to know new things. If that's a constant in your life, then you're automatically going to advance.

Besides that, I think it's also important, as I said, in the first two to three years after university to really try to understand the fundamentals of Finance and Accounting - and even beyond that. Understand the business model of the company you're working for, the business model of the customers, understand key processes and other organisational aspects. Try to make the most of the career start and develop that holistic view of an organisation.

Last, but not least, you have to have fun. You have to be happy where you work and happy with the people you work with, because that gives you the energy and motivation to keep thriving in a good environment.

How do you, as a CFO, stay abreast of emerging developments and technological advancements within the Finance domain?

Given that I work in a growing, evolving company, not a very mature company with vast internal resources, staying up to date on such topics can be a challenge. Frankly, given our industry and company lifecycle, we are not a first mover in a lot of areas of digitalisation.

Nevertheless, it's important to stay updated. I try to stay connected to people who are close to these developments and keep a network back at the Big 4, but also with other professionals.

I often listen to podcasts about Finance and management. In these podcasts and through blogs, you pick up on a lot of interesting things in that realm. Then you have to be open. Even if for your company digitalisation is not the number one priority, you can grab some low-hanging fruits in the area of digitalisation - for example, ChatGPT for your personal benefit or to encourage your team to automate Excel sheets, and so on.

If you're an open-minded person, constantly trying to optimise, then you also use these technological advancements anyway in your daily work. You can then easily pick up on things that could be interesting for your function or for your organisation.

But I think it's important - even though these are very important subjects, digitalisation, artificial intelligence, and so on - to keep complexity low. That is because, at least in our organisation, we cannot afford to spend large numbers on a big-scale digitalisation project that takes up so many resources with typically quite uncertain outcomes. Any project in the realm has to have a good and quite an immediate benefit.

Regarding data, you have to be aware of the challenges to manage the data, you have to structure the data and update the data, using more resources in the beginning. So, you must think it through quite well before jumping to any conclusions.

But, as I said, there are a lot of things that you can do without doing much harm. Even if everybody on a personal level uses ChatGPT occasionally for a personal challenge - there are already a lot of benefits with that. In the end, you can really just encourage people to be open and try new technology and not be too hesitant about it.

Thank you to Philipp for speaking to Meriel Graham, Director in our Finance & Accoutancy recruitment team in Switzerland.

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment

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Sébastien Scharl - Human Resources Director at Conextivity Group (Fischer Connectors and Wearin’)

Sébastien Scharl is the Human Resources Director at Conextivity Group (Fischer Connectors and Wearin’) in Switzerland. He started his career in Law, while being a First Lieutenant in the Swiss Armed Forces. Sébastien’s first HR role was as an interim CHRO in the company back in 2021.

What has been your career highlight to date?

I would say the fact of coming from a totally different activity; I was in Law, representing clients in courts of justice. Having the privilege to be asked to replace an HR Director position was a highlight, because it meant that, even if you do not yet have the right skills, the Group trusted me to keep running the business.

After 18 months in that position, the Group proposed the function to me, along with training. This recognition of my involvement for the Group was a highlight, to feel the trust of the Fischer family, and a real honour, when you know that trust is one of the founding values of family-run companies like ours.

I know that you were a company commander in the military at quite an early age. Do you think that experience plays a part in how you approach HR and life in general today, particularly focusing on the CHRO level?

Yes. Switzerland offers you the possibility to have that responsibility, because the country’s system is designed to empower young and motivated people.

I would raise three different elements to answer your question.

Firstly, the military structure, as a corporate company, is an organisation composed of people. Therefore, you need to understand how people behave, what their tasks and their worries are - that’s essential. Even if you are a commander, before making a decision, you really need to understand the reality of your people.

HR also plays a strategic role in understanding people, their roles and responsibilities, and what concerns them. This step back is needed to decide with a pragmatic approach – for me, that’s the first step.

The second element is to be consistent – meaning, doing what you said you’d do. This is very important, so that people can rely on your word. As a young commander or a young lead, your people need to rely on what you state, and you should commit to what you set as a goal, purpose, or action.

The third one would be exemplarity. Of course, when you do what you said you’d do, you need to follow that for others and be an example. This is of course at the heart of any management practice.

You studied Law at university and passed the bar in 2018. How have you found moving from legal counsel to HR to becoming the leader you are today?

It was an interesting transition, because one popular belief is that HR is Legal and that it's easy to switch from one to the other.

That isn’t totally wrong, because there is a legal aspect to HR. But the legal aspects are only a small part of it. Limiting HR activity to the law would be inaccurate.

Legal studies are not the usual route taken by HR professionals. Certainly, studying Law makes you understand the globality of HR compliance quicker, but definitely not the rest: recruitment, people development, compensation and benefits, succession planning, HR strategy, partnership to the business, etc.

For me, moving from Legal to HR in an industrial group was a great experience, because my Legal activity was quite local. Entering into a global business was for me a tremendous change.

Also, by going into HR in Conextivity Group, I’ve been given managerial responsibilities and the opportunity to work with a wide range of people, which I am grateful for. I also experienced that during my military career, and I wanted to repeat this happy experience in a professional environment.

Tell me about Conextivity. The technology group comprises two business activities, Fischer Connectors and Wearin’: What do they do? Who are they? And what growth have you seen over the years?

Conextivity has its roots in Fischer Connectors, a family-owned business founded in 1954. Our nearly 70-year success story began with our founder, an expert in vacuum technology, who invented the world’s first high-quality sealed and hermetic connectors.

Conextivity is the name of the holding company created in 2021 to comprise Fischer Connectors and Wearin’, a start-up created in 2019 to provide IoT (internet of things) solutions that enhance the safety and efficiency of field intervention personnel, such as firefighters, first responders, and lone workers.

So, with the third generation of the family at the helm of the group – Jonathan Brossard as CEO since 2016 and Sabrina Brossard, the granddaughter of the founder, as President of the Board of Directors since 2023 – we envision the future of connectivity with high-performance solutions at the crossroads of micromechanics, electronics, embedded software, cloud and AI.

This new dynamic is proving a success, and growth is the order of the day. Over the last seven years, we have doubled both our revenue and our workforce – today, nearly 700 professionals globally. This speaks volumes about the Human Resources challenges we face, both in terms of attracting and retaining talent with various business expertise.

We’ll come to this specific HR challenge later. You mentioned family in there – what's it like to work for a family-run organisation?

I would say trust, sustainability, and longevity would be the three words that describe working for a family business.

It also means we can personify the family to the organisation. You have access to the family, to the CEO and the Board of Directors, and you can talk very easily to the big decision-makers. That’s not common in big multi-nationals. In our organisation, everyone can reach the CEO and the President at the canteen or during coffee breaks to propose something. Entrepreneurship lies at the centre of our culture.

Can you describe the culture and the values?

Being a community of talented, motivated, and entrepreneurial-orientated people is part of our DNA. We are entrepreneurs in an entrepreneurial company that is family owned. That is key, because our people have the possibility to grow and take responsibility.

For example, this means that if you want to take on more responsibility and you have the skills, the Group develops you, bets on you, and supports you to reach success or to grow. It is essential for us to first promote our people in the company, especially those who have proven their worth over time. The average length of service, which is good in our company, is by the way a revealing indicator of this.

The culture and values here are related to what we’ve been doing for such a long time, with the quality that has made us well-known among the worldwide engineering community. As a full-service provider of connectivity solutions for demanding environments, we cover the entire value chain of connectivity, and that’s where our real values, innovation, and entrepreneurship lie – and our profound sense of responsibility, too. Everybody in our company knows what and who we work for – and is very proud about it.

Our products are both innovative and ultra reliable. That is why they are used in such a variety of rugged applications, in high-reliability organisations and ecosystems, such as hospitals and nuclear power plants, and in high-risk environments, such as military battlefields and crisis zones.

How do you attract people to work for Conextivity and what challenges do you face?

This is an interesting question, because – in the B2B (business to business) market – attracting talented people is harder than in the B2C (business to consumer) market. Firstly, we need to be very clear in making our activity perimeter known. At first sight, it’s not very appealing when you say you’re working in the connectors industry, but when you think about it, connectors are everywhere – and they are critical to make our hyperconnected world and our everyday life work.

So, if you manage to show to your targeted audience of talent how wide the variety of our customer applications and operating environments is, how fascinating the technologies we harness to design and manufacture our products are, and how essential the type of connectivity we deliver is, then you have their attention to explain what kind of purpose they will find in joining us.

We also attract and retain talent by setting an example of promoting people, developing responsibility, and showing the professional evolution of those who contribute to our business. For example, we recently nominated two motivated and talented colleagues for the positions of Finance Director and Marketing & Sales Operations Director. This promotion motivates all of our colleagues and the world outside our company, who can see how we enable our talent to move up the ladder of management responsibility.

Another way to attract talent is simply to demonstrate the dynamic growth that our Group has been experiencing for several years. One of our recruiters' key selling points is that working for us means being part of a successful entrepreneurial adventure, and that we're a family-owned business whose aim is precisely to perpetuate this success.

Who is the most inspiring person in the business world for you?

The most inspiring people doing business would be Michelin star kitchen chefs, because they are first and foremost taste entrepreneurs. They reach excellence and become the best in an activity that humanity shares. Having this capacity to achieve the same level of excellence and inspire their brigade every day is an example for me.  

Even more inspiring, the vast majority of chefs have started out by washing the dishes and worked hard for many years before becoming Michelin star chefs – what an exemplary success story!

Are you a good cook in the kitchen?

I love to cook, and I hope my guests enjoy my food. To date, I haven't yet received a negative review on TripAdvisor, but I suspect my guests are being far too polite.

Thank you to Sébastien for speaking to Keely Straw, who manages our Human Resources recruitment team in Switzerland. 

Views and opinions contained within our Executive Interviews are those of the interviewee and not views shared by EMEA Recruitment

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