Stefan Spiegel - CFO - SBB Cargo

If you could go back and give your younger (graduate) self some career advice, what would it be?

I originally studied Physics and Mathematics and at that time I didn’t know to become CFO at a company like SBB Cargo. To give advice from that point of view is therefore a little bit difficult, but what I see today is that there is not a specific CV or personality type in finance, there are always different pathways. The key is that everything you do, you should do it with enthusiasm, fun, passion and curiosity. When we are in discussions to promote a person within our company, we do not discuss whether this person has announced its aspiration, we discuss ‘what does the person do’, ‘what are the results the person has delivered’ and ‘what is the standing this person has’. These are the points on which we can decide whether somebody should be promoted. 

What attributes do you think make a good leader in finance?

It is twofold, on the one hand you have compliance issues and you must be able to handle them with 100% accuracy. For example, internal controls, accounting standards and tax issues. You must be very precise, honest, exact and persistent. On the other hand, coming from a physics perspective where you describe nature using mathematical models, a good finance leader is capable to describe business with its financial models. Not only describing what is happening, but overtaking the role of a performance leader showing the way to profitability and growth. Here you need a holistic approach, creativity and analytical thinking, so quite different to compliance issues.

What are the most common mistakes you see more junior candidates make at interview and what advice would you give for preparation?

I am not sure ‘mistakes’ is the right word. I think it is all about preparation for the interview. So first a candidate should study the annual report of a company, he should understand the business and develop his ideas about the challenges of the company. Second the candidate should understand what he is looking for, how he likes to work and what he does not like to do. He should describe his idea of the job role and be able to define goals he would like to reach within this role. And last  everyone should be able to describe what he achieved in his previous roles and what was the impact he made on the company’s development. 

How important was it for you to develop relationships outside of finance for career development?

It is always good to have relationships, they usually help, not always, but could have potential. However, I always say that no-one would recommend you if you are not doing a good job, so this is the base requirement. 

What excites you about working for SBB Cargo?

First of all it is the business itself, logistics is like the blood of the economy, without logistics nothing moves! A big portion of well-known Swiss companies are clients of SBB Cargo and also within Europe. We have a very high level of competition, also competing against road. The logistics volumes react very quickly on economic switches, so the business is very fast paced and changes from month to month. Another point, from a strategic perspective, is, that if you look at rail freight the production of the business has been done the same way for the last 100 years. Actually, regarding for example developments of self-driving vehicles on the road we stand at the beginning of an innovation boost. So over the next 20-30 years the way that rail freight business is done must change fundamentally.  Being part of these changes is a very exciting perspective.

Second, concerning the finance function of the SBB, the possibilities to develop and follow your own ideas are very high. You are attached as a division in a big company, where we get the support of a big company, but often we can act like a mid-sized company and decide relatively independently as SBB Cargo. 

SBB Cargo saw its first two years in profit in 2013 & 2014.  What challenges await the business in 2015 and how do you hope to overcome them?

The company was for 40 years producing negative figures, but since 2013 we show positive results. Now the downturn of the Euro will hit the profitability of our business quite seriously. In addition, oil prices are also going down improving cost advantages of road trucks, and raffineries in Switzerland are shutting down reducing our freight volume. Certainly the start to 2015  could have been better! Fortunately we already have set up a good portion of efficiency and innovation programs, which are now becoming much more important than before. 

What do you find are the main challenges attracting finance talent to SBB and what do you see as the key selling points you can offer candidates?

If you join SBB you can get a very high level of variety and complexity. For example if you make investments in power plants or rail infrastructure you discuss over periods of 80 years or more. If you buy new rolling stock, such as the new trains for the intercity tracks, these are investments for the next 40 years. On the other hand at Cargo, we are deciding from week to week about new relations or closing down non-profitable ones – and all such decisions are depending on each other as the production processes are linked together.

Another point is that hierarchies are pretty flat and you can move within SBB very easily. So for example, if you are a younger finance talent you have the opportunity to gain experience across many different branches and finance functions in a short time: Real estate, energy, construction, industry production, transportation, retail, tourism and logistics.

For senior people that already have greater knowledge and experience, SBB offers a lot of transformation projects within the finance function across the whole company. This allows you to develop your ideas, to change processes in a significant way and to leave your footprint within one of the most regarded companies within Switzerland.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your role?

The success and impact we achieved with SBB Cargo. When you can change that much in a company and you can observe the success you have, then I believe this is the really rewarding aspect of the role. Besides, the actual role is very favourable concerning flexibility and self-determination.

Switzerland's economy showed limited growth in 2014, what do you think are the major challenges that lie ahead for Switzerland’s growth?

Switzerland’s economy is very dependent on international relations. With the downturn of the Euro Swiss economy, mainly export industry, will even more be forced to follow the next level of efficiency programs. Automation, innovation, research towards products with high value-added will get more and more important to overcome the disadvanteges of high production costs. 

Looking back through your established career, what would you identify as a personal highlight?

The turnaround of SBB Cargo.A lot of people inside and outside thought that with this business model it would be impossible to get positive figures. But we not only managed the financial turnaround, at the same time we reduced our finance department by more than 30% to gain efficiencies, whilst introducing on a green field basis a fully new SAP ERP system. Due to the added workload and risks, normally you wouldn’t do such changes at the same time. To overcome such obstacles gives you a deep satisfaction.

 

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

 
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