Christos Assimakopoulos– Director of International Accounting / Managing Director, Covidien Ag (part of Medtronic)

Based on your own experience what career advice would you provide junior candidates looking to pursue a career in finance?
I will go beyond the typical answer which is to love the profession and be passionate; if a career in finance is your genuine career choice, you should embrace the culture of adding value every single day. The first job is not a trophy for the studies, it is an opportunity that someone has given you in order to contribute to a mission and you have to prove that you really deserve this opportunity. From then on you need to show character and learn from opportunities and in order to do that it will not help to just have a 9-5 job.  You need to get involved in these difficult projects, that may look scary from the beginning, but you need to jump into the unknown and embrace change.

Follow the opportunities, we are living in a globalized world, so the opportunities may not always be in the place where you are. Be a role model when it comes to achieving and when it comes to business ethics, this is always something we have to have in mind. You bring value through cooperation, no-one can afford to work and live in a silo, so you need to take opportunities in order to cooperate with other functions and come as close as possible to the company’s customer.

Finally, this applies to everyone not just those in finance, we need to manage our careers and make sure we update and have marketable skills. Have a good professional network, that first you actively support, and you can reach out for help with your challenges and also to advance your career.

 

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your current role?
Having the opportunity to come to Switzerland with my family has definitely been one of the highlights!  However, moving to the role itself, this was something that was completely new for me and it took me out of my comfort zone. Untill then I was dealing with country, business and regional finance, so when I moved to this role in December 2012 I started managing entities in Switzerland and Luxembourg, including a principal and an in-house bank, with a global footprint, significant turnover and assets to manage, putting together structures to support spin-offs, dealing with cash mobilization, and trying to find efficient structures to move cash throughout the chain. Working with business leaders, taking their ideas and trying to make them compatible with the group business model, not only in Europe, but in Latin America, Asia and Africa.  All this bought new challenges, I was completely out of my comfort zone so big successes definitely helped my self-confidence. 

Having to manage and grow a team where several of my team members were points of reference in their field was a big responsibility and a great opportunity to grow my managerial skills.

My role is also chairing the Board of Directors of 5 Swiss entities. Serving a Board consisting of an EMEA Group Vice President, the Corporate Treasurer, and the Group Tax Leader has given me a valuable opportunity, getting more comfortable with higher management and managing these relationships, and I do not think this is something I would have gained in another role. In my role in Schaffhausen as a Managing Director of these companies, I have the opportunity to interact with the wider business community here, which is very international and very active. This gives me a different perspective, I get to know people here in the cantonal Government and the local authorities, and exchange ideas with other business leaders from international companies. Without this role, this would be hard to achieve.

 

Medtronic acquired Covidien in 2015, what have you found to be the main challenges from a finance perspective integrating into the new structure?
This project brought together two great companies, both leaders in their fields. This is the biggest purely medical devices company in the world and this acquisition gives rise to a new mission, which is to transform healthcare, so this of course is full of challenges. No-one from the two legacies had faced such a challenge, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. 
The main challenge was to deliver on the strategic imperatives of the integration as set by the leadership. These are “Preserve, Optimize, Accelerate, Transform”. Finance had to execute the integration that involved initiatives ranging from harmonizing policies and procedures to reshape its structure, and implement a common ERP platform while the service level to the business should stay at the same high level that both companies had. The cornerstone for the success was the engagement of the finance teams, which allowed them to do the extra miles this demanding project required. The focus of the leadership was to bring the 2 legacy teams together to build the rapport that would ensure high level of cooperation, and this helped us guiding our teams to embrace the change.

Medtronic’s long-standing mission statement has helped as a real motivating factor. This has stood since the 1950’s and the statement is to “alleviate pain, restore health and extend life”. This was something that really motivated people and gave them a sense of purpose to the work they were doing. Having this sense of purpose and involvement in a historical project has helped to deliver the project without too much disruption.  The acquisition took place in January 2015 and by June 2016 we went live with the new ERP, we had consolidated the commercial entities in the countries and we had integrated the supply chain.

 

How attractive do you feel Switzerland remains as a location for multi-national businesses?
This is the one million dollar question! I want to start by saying that I am very impressed by how business friendly Switzerland is, having worked in difficult environments in the past, such as emerging markets like Eastern Europe & Middle East. It is amazing how supportive the local authorities are. The political and economic stability of the country and the transparent regulatory framework are indeed all aspects that attract international companies, but also talent. Looking at Schaffhausen for example, I consider it as an ideal place to manage your business from and enjoy a very supportive network. 

Like the rest of the world, Switzerland is coping with a huge amount of change at the moment. Switzerland has a modus operandi when it comes to multi-national companies and in the past this has been challenged. I think that multi-national businesses contribute a lot to the Swiss economy by among others, creating high quality jobs, investing in trainning that improve skills, and bringing business to local players. Obviously we are currenly in the middle of a transformation and the level of uncertainty looks higher than usual, at least for the Swiss standards. Multinational businesses are modelling how the future will look, balancing cost and benefits from operating here in the light of local (Swiss tax reform) and global (BEPS) initiatives. Everyone right now is looking at what we call the ‘value chain analysis’, reviewing the whole business model and where activities are located considering also the vast opportunities digitalization brings. Maybe we will see a change of what activities are in Switzerland, but overall it will still be a reference point for multinational headquarter activities.

The Swiss are very pragmatic in the way they approach things so I am confident that Switzerland will implement all those policies that will maintain its attractiveness.I think the key here is to always remember that we can only move forward otherwise we will go backwards. Standing still is not an option.

 
What recruitment challenges do you face in the business?
I am managing a knowledge-based organisation in a fast paced environment, so people are a key asset. It is an international environment where we cooperate on a global basis with colleagues and customers. Looking at the requirements and the profile of the people that are excelling in the company, I think this already gives an indication of what the recruitment challenges are. When it comes to recruitment it is about “attitude”, The candidates’ attitude towards change and cooperation. Many times I am coming across candidates who are great from a technical point of view, fully competent accountants, but when it comes to coping with changes, ambiguity, or building rapport with someone who is not in the same building, then you see challenges. This is something you can not always identify in an interview process.

At the same time, this is also an organisation that is changing, having 27 nationalities in the same building means these are people that have left their country because they are career minded, so they want to grow and they will not compromise with a routine. They want to acquire skills and knowledge and take the next step in their careers, so we need to recruit people who can step in and be up to the challenge. Obviously we put a lot of focus on growing people from within, but it is also good to have new ideas and new blood coming in to the organisation. Language skills can also be a challenge, particularly as we grow in a lot of emerging markets and those languages are not always so easy to find. What is critical in this case is to be able to work with competent recruiters that are able to first spend time understanding the company culture and the needs of the hiring manager. What I definitely can not afford is to work with a recruiter that just has a pool of CV’s and only the job description. We consider the recruiter as someone that we work with and is part of the culture of the company and has good relationships with the hiring managers to understand what is really required. Sometimes it is difficult for the hiring manager to describe what is required, which is why it is important that the recruiter has invested time to get behind the scenes.

 

What advice would you give to future aspiring leaders, and why?
You become a leader because you want to and nobody is forcing you to do so. Being a leader is hard, but at the same time rewarding and not just financially. Becoming a leader, it is your own responsibility and you need to keep this in mind when you are dealing with crazy hours, difficult bosses, demotivated employees, unrealistic targets, unrealistic deadlines, acquisitions, integrations etc. To define some key features I would start with execution and delivering results. Just being a great people person, communication and producing great PowerPoint slides only will not get you far. You need to be able to put plans in action, execute them and make decisions at the right time. The right time is not necessarily when you are sure about the decision but when the decision is needed. You may make a decision and at the back of your mind you are still questioning ‘is this the right decision or not’, but you need to feel comfortable doing this on a daily basis.

You also need to be a role model, for you team and for your peers. People will act the way you are acting, so you need to give guidance and behave the way you would like your team to behave. Managing is managing 360 degrees, so you have to manage your team, your peers, other functions, your bosses expectations and as this is the daily routine you need to be comfortable with it.

When it comes to people, which can make or break you, you need to hire the best, in fact they should be better than you! Then you need to fight for them so that they have the better tools, the better environment and conditions. Finally, you need to have a network around you, both inside and outside your company that can help you with challenges. You can reach out to them for their opinions which can help you in the decision-making process. Being a leader is a way of living, it is no longer just a job so you need family and friends that are supporting you, which will allow you to focus on leading your team. I like a statement that Jack Welch (General Electric former CEO) once made and I consider the epitome of the leader “Before becoming a leader it is all about growing yourself, but once you become a leader it is all about growing others”, It is not anymore about only yourself so you need to have a general interest in people to be an effective leader.

 

As someone who leads a large team, what do you feel are the key attributes for an effective people manager?
Picking up from the last question you need to have a genuine interest in people. Your team is a key factor in your own success. You need to be a role model when it comes to decision making and be a high achiever yourself before asking others to become high achievers. You need to communicate the mission and the strategy continously and clearly, then empower your team to make decisions and support them. At the end of the day we need to manage our people to get things done and to contribute to a company mission by having our teams aligned with that. Provide clear and constructive feedback continuously and at the same time celebrate successes as much as possible. 

Saying thank you is really important, it shows that you are taking an interest in your people.  You need to be empathetic and set realistic yet challenging targets. You need to be available, have your eyes and your ears open to your team and spend time with them. I personally spend a lot of time in their work space, I will organise meetings in their offices or at their desks instead of asking them to come to my office to get a feel for how things are working there. This gives me a better sense of what is going on.

 

Who is your most inspirational person in business and why?
This is a great and hard to answer question. There are so many business leaders that you can gain inspiration from. For example, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg created new industries or new approaches to existing markets. I admire leaders like Jack Ma (founder of Ali Baba) who went through very difficult times before he became who he is. Thinking about this recent Medtronic acquisition, the Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken is retired now and living in Hawaii, but back in 1950’s this guy gave birth to a new industry of, medical technology by creating Medtronic. He established an inspiring mission statement that is there since the 50’s, and he put this together when the company was about to go bankrupt. So before he went to the banks with business plans etc. he put down a mission of what he wanted to achieve and even today when it comes to new acquisitions or projects the first question every board has to answer is ‘is this in line with the mission’ and if there is not a clear ‘yes’ then it will not go anywhere. I was really impressed when I looked into this, so I will add Earl to the list of people who give me inspiration. Even our current CEO, Omar Ishrak said that one of the reasons why he joined the company is because he was inspired by this mission statement. This is the first time I have come across where a mission statement has had such an impact on people.

 

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

 

 
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