INSEAD Participant Interview

Making Sense of Finance

Sven Abend

CEO, Kolb Distribution,
February 2013

"I was stunned by the depth Finance for Executives went into in just 10 days. I just wasn’t expecting it."

Could you please start by introducing yourself?

I am CEO of KOLB Distribution, a Swiss specialty chemical company in the oleo-chemical world. I’ve been in the role since October 2012. I’m a chemist by training and I have a PhD. So my background is not really in finance. I started in R&D and then moved into marketing and then into operations.

How would describe your knowledge of finance?

Before the course it was basic. Prior to joining, I had gained all of my knowledge by teaching myself finance in my spare time. I didn’t have any training, or any in-depth understanding. But, I’ve always been curious about numbers so I taught myself the basics.

Why did you decide to enroll on the Finance for Executives programme?

As soon as I was appointed CEO, I knew that it was essential for me to have a greater understanding of finance. I took on much greater responsibility and I need to have a good overall view of my company’s operations. Without finance, this would be harder to achieve.

I’ve always known how to read a balance sheet and a financial statement; I could talk figures with my business unit, but I always was lacking the confidence to make statements based on my interpretation of the figures. I needed to feel confident when it came to talking finance. I needed to feel comfortable when talking to my shareholders and board of directors. So, I decided it was important to have some sound training in the fundamentals of finance on my CV. I knew this would give me confidence I was looking for when talking to my stakeholders. 

Did the programme meet your expectations?

Definitely. In fact, the course exceeded them. I was stunned by the depth Finance for Executives went into in just 10 days. I just wasn’t expecting it.

Would you say that gaining confidence is your key take away from the programme?

Absolutely. I knew that what I learnt on my own gave me 90 to 95% of what I needed to know. But I learnt so much more on the course. One of the key takeaways of the programme has been able to make sense of what I read on income statements and balance sheets; Being able to see the value behind the figures. And so, the programme has really had a major impact. It gave me new ideas and a good sense of how to apply finance on a daily basis in my company.

Will it help you meet challenges in the workplace?

Of course! I am technical guy, a scientist. I’ve worked through several technical job functions. At some point you realize you really lack that financial understanding, something that anyone needs when they reach a certain level in their company. I didn’t do an MBA. I did a PhD so I missed out on that training at the beginning of my career. Finance For Executives gave me the opportunity to fill the gap in a very short, intensive, but effective way. It has provided me with the knowledge tools and capabilities to run my job in the way I am supposed to. It gives me sufficient knowledge to have an impact on my role and my company.

Has Finance for Executives helped you deepen your financial knowledge?

Of course. It has helped me become more effective. Now I can challenge my peers in the workplace when engaged in finance conversations and discussions.

Do you feel that the programme has helped you to better understand value-based judgement?

What the course has enabled me to do is to understand if the projects we are working on in my company are adding value to our business. Understanding how to read the numbers has given me a new perspective on our projects. I can now see them from a different angle. I can now judge which projects really create value and ones which are not worth it. In the past, I may have failed to make that differentiation because I was unable to fully understand the financial value of projects. I can now bring numbers into my discussions to demonstrate the value that a given project is bringing, or going to bring. Finance For Executives has helped me understand value and has helped me incorporate value based judgment into my decision-making process.

And has the programme helped with your personal development?

A course like Finance for Executives will have an impact on your personal development. You gain new insights, new horizons and you are capable of applying the principles you learn in the workplace. It’s about gaining confidence.

How would you describe a typical day on the programme?

Every day involves a very early start. You always have a lot of information to digest, but both programme directors are able to recap what you’ve learnt the day before and push you along, helping you to not feel lost. There’s an atmosphere that captures your attention. You are sucked into the topics of the day. We did case studies and group work which gave us the time to reflect and discuss. This allowed us to take all the theory from the lectures and apply it to real-world examples. The discussions were great because all of the participants are of a high calibre. We learn from their experiences and backgrounds. You get tremendous insights into different industries thanks to the involvement of other participants. 

So, they are busy days, but stimulating ones. You meet interesting people with whom you can share your experiences. By the end of the day you are exhausted and ready for sleep!

Were you able to learn from others on the programme with you?

This is a very important part of the course. The diversity of the group means you can network beyond your industry. I could talk to someone from the tourism industry, the shipping industry, etc… and this was extremely beneficial. You can see how similar the challenges are regardless of industry. The networking was definitely an added value of the course.

What would you say to someone who is thinking of doing Finance for Executives?

If you have little financial knowledge, but you know that finance will become an important part of your job, then the programme is perfect. It’s a very time efficient way of gathering good, in-depth knowledge of finance whilst having fun. One of the programme directors told me that when compared to an MBA, you learn in eight days what an MBA student learns throughout their entire course. If you want to learn about finance, and gain practical experience of finance, in a stimulating environment, this is the perfect course. You don’t get bored. It’s intense, but it’s fun. If you plan ahead the course is manageable. You have to take measures to not be distracted and focus 100%. For me, the two weeks were a worthwhile investment.

Interested in INSEAD's Finance for Executives programme? Have a look at the Finance for Executives web page and download the brochure.

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