From an office high-rise to an industrial plant?
"Yes, that was a change! In 2012, I made my exit and became Manager Finance & Control of an AkzoNobel chlorine plant in Rotterdam. Our main products are caustic soda and chlorine and the latter we pipe to our clients - other factories that produce products like PUR-foam, PVC and many other industrial base products that you'll find everywhere."
What’s your job?
"My team (11 FTE) at Finance & Control monitors all financial aspects of our business. There is bookkeeping involved but also a lot of strategic and operational planning, change management and compliance reporting. I’m the independent referee when there’s a choice between allocating resources like money, people and materials between projects and departments. The management team needs factual information on which to base their decisions. These are provided by my team, for local management as well as for our head office. I review the insights with upper and operational management."
Do you also manage operational teams?
"Yes, up to the level of individual teams in the production plant. We'll filter the information to make sure we present what’s most relevant to them. I’m not giving them illegible data dumps from SAP or Excel but synthezise the most important parts and guide them through it, illustrating the important aspects. For instance, maintenance crews use a lot of small items of material. We show them the aggregated costs and their rate of efficiency. This cooperation with operations is something that really energizes me, because you can create substantial efficiency improvements by tapping into the resourcefulness of hands-on employees."
How does that work out?
"We are currently preparing a major turn-around. Our complete factory will be disassembled into bits and pieces for maintenance and repair for which we need to purchase a large quantity of tools. One of the shift supervisors who orders tools made the suggestion to make some changes so they could be used for a wider range of applications. This kind of practical intelligence can save a lot of money when aggregated over a large group. Encouraging this by providing the relevant feedback is a great job. The results make me really proud of what a group can accomplish."
What is it like to work with people with less ambition than you?
"They don’t have less ambition, it’s just of a different nature. They are much more focused on their own tasks and responsibilities. My role is to supervize this and provide the (financial) helicopter view. Being so close to the business has taught me a lot of things I never touched upon as a strategy consultant. Dealing with operators, for instance, or the stressful situation of a factory that has to temporarily shut down for safety reasons. You would not notice this in a corporate or business development position at a head office. On the other hand, it wouldn’t limit you either."
This exit requires a passion for numbers.
"My choice for econometrics wasn’t a random one; since I was young I’ve had a fascination for numbers and math. But when I graduated, I couldn’t create a financial report or manage an audit. That’s something to be aware of: these essential practical skills are a building block that you’ll need in a corporate financial career. Large companies will have more resources to educate you in this process than a small company could afford. I’m looking forward to sticking with finance for a while, but AkzoNobel is an organization that stimulates to try your hand also at other disciplines. For a General Management career, it’s a prerequisite and financial experience is a big plus in this capital-intensive industry."