A CFO with four master's degrees

Our recurring columnist Henk Tijms suggested that we should interview his alumnus Michel van de Coevering. Michel is currently CFO of Schuberg Philis, and he has had an interesting career ranging from consultancy to investment banking to teaching to being a CFO. One of Michel’s traits is that he never stops learning. This shows having obtained four master’s degrees. Even in his current position he makes sure to attend courses and symposiums and to take on challenging new responsibilities to keep developing himself. Luckily we had the opportunity to learn more about Michel.

It may sound a bit cliché, but I really enjoy learning. I think everyone should carry on developing themselves. You are not finished yet when you graduate from university!

We were very impressed to see that you have four degrees. What exactly have you studied?TRw3Fkq4kcfDapIofVGMAm8KT5uT30ahqbMyiLUguCrAl-V6IZWlStUJdGkjI8UrRWAqNgrcqL-KLoHLiUD4dIcEpYjO2hggH4edCmu3iXQANyANVwZGWCBOMVMTgg
I have a degree in econometrics with a focus on operations research. This was before the bachelor-master structure, so it was called a doctorandus in Dutch. After that I did a master in Operations Management at the University of Rochester. When I was already working for more than ten years, I  returned to the VU for a part-time master in Accounting and Control. Together with a master in education for teaching mathematics and business economics, you could count that as four degrees. I particularly enjoyed studying in Rochester for a year. That master was a lot more business-oriented than I was used to. After my formal studies, I continued learning throughout my working life - also by following both internal and external courses. It may sound a bit cliché, but I really enjoy learning. I think everyone should carry on developing yourself. You are not finished yet when you graduate from university! 

Can you explain a bit about the New CFO programme?
That is also a training that I followed alongside my work. It is a ten-day programme by the Erasmus University intended for people who have just started as CFO, or aspire to become one. I started following the training when I was already CFO - not at Schuberg Philis where I work currently, but at Kempen & Co. Each day of the programme has a specific theme with speakers and cases. There is also often a group meeting with an experienced executive or non-executive officer, often of large companies, to deepen your knowledge of the CFO profession. I really enjoyed doing it. 

The diploma is more like an admission ticket to be able to do other things.

What is still to learn if you are already a CFO?
There are always many things to learn! I’d say that for most disciplines, what you have learned in university is really just the basics. The diploma is more like an admission ticket to be able to do other things. What you learn after your studies is not so much more financial knowledge or techniques, but it is more about everything surrounding it. Topics in the New CFO programme include for example crises and crisis communication, ethical dilemmas, risk management, and strategy . Additionally I learned about board dynamics, because on the one hand you are a specialist in the field of finance, but on the other hand you are part of a board. What can happen in a team? What can happen in relation to shareholders or supervisory boards? These kinds of topics are not only about knowledge, but more about “adding” something to your database of experiences.

Your Rochester experience sounds a bit like the MBA programme at Harvard, which focuses on learning by cases and seeing what decision you would make in that particular situation.
Yes indeed. One of the benefits of studying at the University of Rochester was that it is truly a business school. I really had to get used to that, because when you study econometrics, you get a lot of information and data to work on your assignments. And most of the time, you know for sure whether you’re right or wrong. When I started out in Rochester, I was mainly concerned with finding the right answer to a particular question. However, like you just said, that was not the intention at all. The point is that you can relate to the case and that you learn to explore what is going on. How would you take care of this specific situation? There is never just a single correct answer. 

Studying at a business school taught me to think  inside-out as a company rather than outside-in as an object of scientific study. It is more about learning how to reach a decision. Still, a scientific study is very good to have as a foundation. My preferences did turn out to be more in business than in science or quantitative modelling, although I would always go for econometrics if I had to choose a study again.

Let’s return to the beginning of your time as a student, and also your time at Kraket. What was it like to become a board member at the time?
I think we had a group of about 50 first-year students, and we got along very well. Kraket regularly organised drinks at the VU, like they probably would also be doing now if it wasn’t for Covid. We often went to those drinks and other activities together as a group. As I was around a lot, I spoke to many people and at one point I was asked to join the board of Kraket. Back then you would typically be a board member for two years: the first year you were asked to join the board, and the second year you would choose a few new board members yourself. The intention was to always have some overlap between the current and the new board as a handover mechanism. I started off as secretary and then became chairman. 

The structure of being on the board for two years is certainly very different than it is now. 
Yes it is, but two years is not that long if you consider that it was a lot more informal than it seems now. There were only a few committees in my memory: a drinks committee, an excursion committee and the Ecotribune committee. We were not talking about “doing a board year”, as it was not considered a very big task. Organizing things however always seems easier from the outside than it is in practice. I started studying in the mid 80's. In the years following, econometrics started to gain in popularity. During the time that I was a board member, we added more activities such as study trips, ski trips and seminars to accommodate for the growth in members.

Large events with sponsors and campus recruiters probably weren’t really a thing yet.
No. There were some inhouse days for economists in those days, but not yet for us. It did start out a little. I know that Gert Timmer, the founder of Ortec, eventually came to the VU to teach and also to recruit students for his company. When I joined the navy after college I did get in contact with some campus recruiters. All in all, the study was more relaxed back then. You calmly finished your studies and then just started applying for a job at some point.

Did you have obligatory military service right after high school?
No, you could postpone it if you went to college. So after my master's degree in Rochester, I entered military service; I was 24 at the time. At that time I didn't like it at all, because I wanted to work, but afterwards I am glad that I served in the navy. I had a great job. I could become a reserve officer, so I didn’t have to be deployed in the field. Instead I worked at the Royal Naval College, which is the university of the navy. I taught mathematics and operations research there and assisted with some research. I had a lot of freedom to discover all kinds of things in the navy. For example, I once flew in a helicopter and did several excursions to military bases inside and outside the Netherlands. Those kinds of things and the great group of people in Den Helder made my time there very enjoyable.

After your military service you entered McKinsey as a consultant 
Yes, in America I had already become acquainted with the business world and that really appealed to me. I think many econometricians really enjoy pure mathematics, but also like to apply their skills in economics or business. Otherwise you are more likely to pursue pure mathematics as a study or a study that focuses more on technological applications.

The strength of a consultant is that he or she is an outsider, and can therefore look much more independently at what is going than an employee of the company in question could.

Looking for a job, McKinsey came by. What appealed to me is that as a consultant you can see a lot of different companies in a relatively short time and see what problems they have and help solve them. I see this beginning of my career as an extension of my education. I was well guided at McKinsey and I had a lot of knowledge at my disposal. Because of this I learned a lot in a short time. The strength of a consultant is that he or she is an outsider, and can therefore look much more independently at what is going than an employee of the company in question. McKinsey has hired a lot of people with a quantitative background because they approach problems quite analytically. How can we make a recommendation based on facts? That suits econometricians very well. But you have to be able to handle going to a different company every three to six months. Then, you have to learn about a new problem again and meet new people. In the first few years I really liked that, it was one of the reasons why I wanted to be a consultant. But at a certain point I preferred to work in finance, on the one hand because I enjoyed entering the specialism more and on the other hand to work at a company myself to develop it further.

If as a young consultant you are not in a team and you are placed somewhere, how do you learn? An important tip for your first job is: from whom and how will I learn something here?

The model at McKinsey is that there’s a team of people who aren't necessarily experts beforehand, but who are very good at analyzing what the problem is. But you also have consultants who are already experts, for example like the company Zanders. They are already experts in a certain area, so you can ask them a question, and they will immediately have an answer for you so to speak. That too is consultancy, but much more as a specialism. If you want to become a consultant, make sure that you know what it entails, and what kind of characteristics suit you best.

Another thing to look at is: how am I being guided? The support of your development was excellent at McKinsey. However, that’s not the case at all consultancies. Suppose you are a young consultant, not part of a team and you are placed somewhere to perform a certain task, how do you learn? An important tip for your first job is to answer the question: from whom and how will I learn something here?

After McKinsey you started at Kempen & Co as director of corporate finance, that's quite a different game than consultancy.
As a corporate finance advisor you are not so much focused on advice, but more on a transaction. In my case it was on mergers and acquisitions. You guide companies in making such a transaction. Of course, you still give a lot of advice, but on the other hand, you are right in the middle of the action. It is a combination of financial knowledge, for example about valuation and financing structures, and project management: how do I achieve the goal in this complex field of stakeholders, like shareholders, supervisory board members and management. 

One of the things I enjoyed at Kempen is that I was able to contribute to the development of the company because it was not that big yet and in development.. At McKinsey , I considered this to be much more difficult, as they were already so big and well developed.

I made the conscious choice to work one day less so that I could do that training, to open the possibility to become CFO.

We now know that you became the CFO of Kempen & Co, how did this career move start?
It's a bit of intention, and a bit of luck. Of course, you can't force luck, but you can help it by creating options. That is one of the ways to think about your career: how do you ensure that you continue to create opportunities for yourself to do something different or to choose something different. That is why I believe you should keep developing yourself in the form of training, or in other ways; this is how you create options. If you can do more, know more, are up-to-date, have seen more things, you have more options to take the next step in your career than if you don't keep developing. 

I made an intermediate step by teaching for a year and a half. Then I came back to Kempen. I started in corporate finance, but at that time I already had the intention to move to internal operations in the long term, with the preference to become CFO. That position was not available at the time, but I expressed my intentions for the longer term. As I was not trained as a CFO, I decided I could use some extra education. I chose the part-time Accounting & Control degree at the VU, which I could follow alongside my work. Here, I learned about IFRS, risk management and I learned to speak the language of accountants and financials. I made the conscious choice to work one day less so that I could do that training, to open the possibility to become CFO, whether or not at Kempen. 

Not too long after I arrived, there was interest from Van Lanschot to take over Kempen. I got involved in that project quite early on to help. The second bit of luck was that the CFO left after the takeover, so that position became available. I was able to get that position, because I expressed the intention, followed training, was involved in the takeover and had a little luck. In the beginning, such a position is not always easy, but that does not matter when you consider that you cannot do everything at the same time. But I knew I had help around me, and that it would take some time to structure everything.

When you first entered the office, was that difficult? I guess there isn’t a manual on being CFO.
Hahaha, no there is no manual. You spend a week with the old CFO, you ask some questions, and then you are on your own. The analytical thinking that you learn from a study such as econometrics is very important. What has to happen? What do I understand and what not? What do I want to ask and to whom? It's important to ask the right questions and use your analytical skills to help the people you work with.

It is an art to ask the right questions and to listen carefully; that is much more important than knowing everything yourself.

The areas under my responsibility as CFO all had their own leadership. Finance & Control, IT, back office and more. In the beginning, you are also just going to talk a lot with the different departments to see where and how you can help. As a leader you don't always have to figure out what exactly needs to be done. Above all, you have to understand what is happening, what is going well and what is going wrong. Only then you can contribute. It is an art to ask the right questions and to listen carefully; that is much more important than knowing everything yourself. Colleagues appreciate it when you ask critical questions, as long as it is done in a positive way. In the beginning it was quite difficult, because I still thought that I had to understand and know everything. You can go too far in that, and you will run out of time. Knowing too little about something is of course also not good, but you have to find a balance. People don't like it when a decision is made for them without you having spoken to them about what's going on. That went easier as time progressed, but it was difficult at the beginning.

The world is not just analytical. It takes some time getting used to that for most betas.

There must also be times when you have to be tough and bite the bullet whether everybody agrees or not.
That is a matter of experience and human knowledge that you build up over time. I think most econometricians focus on content first; do I understand what is happening? Do I like the idea? Is this a good solution? In addition, you must learn to ‘read’ people. Can I trust someone or not and why? How can I find out? Finally, you must learn to add your intuition to your "arsenal". The world is not just analytical. It takes some time getting used to that for most betas. We all have experienced situations where in hindsight we thought: I knew it, why didn't I listen to my gut feeling?

The movement is more important than the goal itself.

So an econometrician might not necessarily make a good CFO?
Every econometrician has a good basis to become a CFO because of his or her analytical skills. But whether you like it and whether you can do it depends on other skills, which you can develop by creating options. So it is not that you need to have all those skills by the time you leave the VU. The way to become a CFO isn’t set in stone; it isn’t the same route for all. 

If you just listen to what you like and also think about how you create options, you can't go wrong.

So the most important thing is to keep developing yourself and not to dwell in one place?
The movement is more important than the goal itself. I've never made a career plan or anything like that. If you just listen to what you like and also think about how you create options, you can't go wrong. Consider the gradient descent method: if you choose the movement towards the optimum, you will get closer and closer. If you don't, you will “stand still”, which can also be a conscious choice. And sometimes you have to choose another direction to reach a new optimum, like I did when I chose for teaching. 

I have always just enjoyed learning new things, but I also thought it was crucial to create multiple options to allow for a less convenient or obvious choice. I think it is important to be all-round, although that also has disadvantages. At home I sometimes say it as a joke: if only I had learned a trade; now I only have my common sense. But of course, I like applying my common sense to new problems, even though it is tempting sometimes to just wanting to know the expert answer. Sometimes it seems easier to be specialized, like a consultant at Zanders. 

What was it like to work at Schuberg Philis after Kempen? 
When I was still director of corporate finance at Kempen & Co, the three founders-to-be of Schuberg Philis were already in touch with me about setting up their company. I have always kept in contact with them. After I left Kempen, they soon offered me the CFO position. I thought about that offer carefully. I spoke to many people, both inside and outside Schuberg, to eventually conclude that it would be a good idea. Schuberg Philis is a mid-sized IT company with about 350 employees that provides mission-critical IT-services to its customers. What I really like about Schuberg Philis is how they put customer satisfaction first. Teams of IT-experts get all the space they need to serve the customer well. Teams determine themselves what their promise to the customer should be. That causes a tremendous power in the team. If you promise to deliver something together, you will do everything in your power to make it happen. Then, you don't need a manager who says: you should do this and you should do that. 

In addition, I like that my role is not contained the role of CFO. I am also working on strategy and organization, among other things. In a larger organization, everything is a lot more boxed off. This certainly has its advantages - it might provide clarity - but for me it is more important to engage in more different areas. That is what makes my role fun and varied to this date, and allows me to keep on learning.

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