Solveig Menard-Galli studied Applied Business Administration at AAU and is now the CFO of the Clay Building Materials Europe business unit at Wienerberger AG. In an interview with ad astra, she explains how the world of work has changed in Controlling, why she values knowledge sharing with students so highly and what differences there are between the corporate cultures in Austria and the Netherlands.
What first comes to mind when you think back to your student days?
Radical change. Excel wasn’t around yet when I was a student, and now it’s the bread and butter of every controller and financier around the world. It’s very exciting how things have developed through digitalisation in the last few years and how hugely that has changed the way we work. Artificial intelligence, machine learning – they may still be in their very early stages, but the potential applications in the world of business are developing rapidly. It’s interesting to look back: where was Controlling 20 years ago, how has everything changed and what does that mean for today’s students who will be starting their careers soon?
What advice would you give to students for the future?
Be open to new things, be open to continuing education and development. Programmes of study give you a good basis, but they aren’t enough on their own. There are so many topics where new things crop up continually that you have to get to grips with. Passing on my knowledge and working on business cases jointly with students and discussing new tools with them is something I find really exciting and valuable. That’s also the reason why I’m so pleased to be in teaching. You get a lot back, and I can take a lot back to my job too.
How do you manage it time-wise?
I do it in my free time; I take a few days off work so that I can offer a course. But it pays off because it really energises me personally, and I just enjoy it as well.
How did you start your career?
After my programme of study, I started out as a PreDoc Scientist alongside Professor Kropfberger at the Department of Controlling & Strategic Management Science. That allowed me to learn all about the working life of an academic, always with the full support of the professors. When you hit your mid-twenties, you go through a phase where you find yourself properly for the first time and have to think about what you really want to do in your career. I became more and more certain then that I wanted to go into the business world and started to look properly outside academia. I was given a lot of encouragement in this too, which was fantastic.
Where did you move to then?
I started working as a Controller at Pago International in Klagenfurt. Pago was a subsidiary of Brau Union at the time, and over the course of ten years I held various finance positions until I became CFO. Then Brau Union was taken over by the Heineken Group. For me personally, it was extremely exciting to see how a takeover – which I learned about in theory in my programme of study – by a global group was actually implemented in practice. Above all, Heineken’s approach to HR was very different, with a lot more international opportunities. They looked more for employees who wanted to work internationally and had the potential to take on more responsibility. In this context, I was given the opportunity to move from my role at Pago to the Heineken holding company in Amsterdam. There, I worked firstly in Corporate Controlling and then as the CFO in the local Heineken Netherlands organisation.
Are there differences in corporate culture between the Netherlands and Austria?
What I valued very highly in the Netherlands was the flat hierarchies in the organisations. Employees freely go up to the CFO and say “That’s occurred to me” or “I don’t think this is very good”. You have direct feedback and can approach things openly. But that also means a large number of employees are included in discussions and decisions, which can take up a lot of time. In Austria, we are very diplomatic, which has its advantages. But sometimes it’s not very efficient – particularly in an international environment, it’s often important to give out a clear message and not to be too vague in the language you use. In my experience, Austria is very focussed on employee development in general and ensures that every person works in the role where they can best develop their strengths. Today you are CFO of a business unit at Wienerberger AG, the world’s largest brick manufacturer with 200 production sites in over 30 countries.
What does a CFO do?
The thing I find most important is ensuring a company’s results are financially transparent both internally and externally. Externally, of course, companies are bound to international financial standards. But internal transparency is even more important, as it allows you to manage the business better and to know quickly where there are problem areas, where we need to take action, what we want to achieve in the future and what investments make the most sense. In this respect, it is essential to take decisions jointly with colleagues on the management team based on facts. Then there’s risk and compliance management, in other words ensuring that risks are made transparent and kept to a minimum and that policies and rules are adhered to. In this context, leadership and integrity above all, besides the relevant skills and business understanding, are highly important rudiments for the position of CFO.
Do you take time out?
You have to make sure you don’t allow yourself to be completely submerged by email, social media and your phone, which are available to you all the time. You have to make the effort to take some digital downtime and say: “I’m going skiing now, leave the phone at home and spend a few hours out on the snowy slopes.”
What slopes would they be and what else do you enjoy doing most in your free time?
We have a house on Gerlitzen and we often meet up there as a family. We spend a lot of time skiing, mountain biking or hiking in the mountains. In summer, we also like going down the Adriatic coast in our sailing boat. Sport and nature are very close to my heart.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I really enjoy my job; finance is a topic that goes right through my life and I want to keep working in this strategic area.
ad astra: Theresa Kaaden