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Alumni Stories · Sustainability - Finance - Leadership

Sustainability now: ‘CFOs must grab the chance to leave the world in a better place’

As chief financial officer for companies in the automotive, logistics and construction sectors, Carla De Geyseleer has had a bird’s eye view of how the ESG agenda has become a core business strategy.
November 2021

“We must take this historical opportunity to build sustainability into our organizations and affect the world positively,” said Carla De Geyseleer, a board member and Chair of the Audit Committee at construction services firm Hilti, and the former Chief Financial Officer of Volvo Car Group and German logistics company DHL Express Benelux.

Throughout her career, De Geyseleer has been at the forefront of a continuing mega trend: sustainability. Like many other CFOs she has witnessed the transition of the environmental, social, governance (ESG) agenda from a mere adjunct to the corporate strategy to a major driver. As such, in 2020 she launched Volvo’s first green bond, successfully raising €500 million to provide funds for its climate and electrification strategy, under a pioneering green finance framework.

“For Volvo the projects were related to R&D and innovation with respect to pure electric vehicles, and also the manufacturing processes and we had no expectations, only hopes when we issued the bond,” she recalled. “In fact, it was five times over-subscribed and it was so motivating to see capital markets moving so fast,” she said.

By finance steering the sustainability strategy, De Geyseleer believes that a corporation can ensure it becomes an integrated part of the business strategy. This, she said, is the only way to drive the strategy, engagement and execution through the organization and make a meaningful difference. For sectors such as construction, logistics and automotive – among the most polluting industries in the world – this is vital.

Hilti, for example, takes a very broad view of sustainability and ESG issues. They fund the Hilti foundation that is involved in a lot of social initiatives all over the world but they also take the environmental topic very seriously. They have a plan to be carbon neutral by 2023, and in the construction sector they aim to lead the industry in health and safety and in the circular economy,” she said.

Developing women finance leaders

Having spent 20 years building a considerable career as a woman in finance, De Geyseleer is engaged in projects to help other women join and rise within the field. Along with four other female CFOs, she founded NXT Gen Women in Finance, a non-profit community that aims to provide coaching and mentoring opportunities to the next generation of female finance leaders.

Describing the founding philosophy of the community, De Geyseleer said: “Although we had all reached a certain point in our careers in the financial community, we felt that we really had to go more than the extra mile to get there. And if we could contribute to the next generation and make it more digestible for them, so that they have more equal opportunities, that would be a good thing.”

Identifying and developing young female talent is, she said, something corporations should commit to both through policy and development strategies that factor in the differences in a woman’s career trajectory, rather than super imposing a male career model to a female candidate.

“If young women plan children, they will not be professionally active for a period and if your fast-track development processes don’t take that into consideration, you will lose a lot of female talent or you will exclude them. So these processes need to be reviewed.

Ultimately, for De Geyseleer – if proof were needed – the research is in: numerous studies have shown that diversity improves a team’s agility, adaptability and perspective taking; it also better represents a company’s client base as well as the societies they operate in

Sustainability and diversity continue to motivate De Geyseleer in her career and lie at the heart of her personal purpose, she said.

“It is rewarding and it gives me a lot of energy. I imagine telling my future grandchildren that I’ve not only built up a career but I have tried to have an impact on organizations and through that contribute to a better growth model,” she said.

One gets the impression that there is much more to come from De Geyseleer in the future.