Lessons of Christina Åqvist, CEO of a Billion Dollar Company

  • Christina Åqvist
  • Based in Stockholm, Sweden
  • CEO of Distrelec Group
  • Experience from board membership of listed companies in Sweden
  • Background from business law and strategy consulting

I am the CEO of the Distrelec Group

My name is Christina Åqvist, I am 39 years old and live in Stockholm, Sweden. I am the CEO of the Distrelec Group, with presence in 15 countries all over Europe, employing nearly 500 people and with a net revenue over 200 million Euro.

I am married to Peter, we have three lovely children, Alexander, 15, Isabelle, 11, William 2,5 years old. I love adventures and I have ran ultra marathons, 100 k run race, Iron man… I look for anything that stands out as exciting and challenging.

I actually started my career as a commercial lawyer. Growing up I loved math and technology but chose to go to Law School as I found law really fascinating. I found that so much was so dependent on your ability to argue and structure your arguments. During summer vacations, I worked for an investment bank, a criminal law firm, a business law firm… I took the chance to explore as many different career paths as possible during my years at University and I was therefore certain of my priorities after graduating – I wanted to become I business lawyer!

I worked hard and often extremely long hours but I absolutely loved it

I joined the top tier law firm in Sweden and worked mainly with mergers and acquisitions. I worked hard and often extremely long hours but I absolutely loved it. I loved the pulse, the professionalism and the excitement around it all. After some time though I found the role as a lawyer being quite limited as I wanted to understand more about the strategy and the way forward. Most of all I wanted to sit in the driver’s seat when forming the strategy. I therefore joined the Boston Consulting Group as I wanted to get closer to strategy and execution. At BCG I had a couple of fantastic years advising companies and enabling them through turnarounds, increasing profitability and driving growth. I also worked a lot for private equity companies in their search for new opportunities. The more I learned, the more I wanted to be out there myself. To own the challenge and take full responsibility for the result…

Not the sexiest of businesses and I feared it would be traditional and boring

As a consultant at BCG you are frequently contacted by headhunters. Many offerings were at well-known brands but for some reason I found those less fascinating. One opportunity that eventually really caught my attention was a role responsible for international expansion for a listed B2B company focusing on tools and protective equipment. Not the sexiest of businesses and I feared it would be traditional and boring. But as I learned more I found that it was the most exciting job I had ever had. I set up a new business in China, we planned our first greenfield stores in Poland and so many things were happening. That is when I realized that these “traditional industries” are so exciting because there is so much left to be done! I quickly got promoted to Head of Retail but even if I had a great responsibility, I didn´t own the result which frustrated me.  So when Elfa Distrelec offered me a role as country sales manager, with my own P&L for Sweden, I joined. I now found myself with a big turn around challenge in the industry of electronics, test and measurement and tools. Elfa Distrelec is a subsidiary of the Swiss Distrelec Group and after having increased sales, cut costs, increased profitability, efficiency and on top of that employee satisfaction I was promoted to CEO of the Swedish subsidiary.

Focus so that everyone knows how we are doing and what our key priorities are

In 2015 I was pregnant with our son and when telling the Head of our Division that I was about to leave for parental leave, I was positively surprised when he said. “That´s great. But let´s continue discussing your career so that this does not slow either you or the company down”. In an international context like ours I was not sure how me being away on parental leave would be perceived why I felt encouraged that more opportunities were offered. When William turned 8 months, my husband, who himself runs one of the most successful strategy firms in the Nordics, took a six months paternity leave so that I could come back and take on the new role as CEO of the whole Distrelec Group.

I now lead a management team with members from the Nordics, Eastern Europe, Germany and the UK. I travel a lot but try to keep the balance and a close dialogue with my team by using technology when I cannot travel. This way I can also ensure focus so that everyone knows how we are doing and what our key priorities are. We have moved from underperformance with red numbers to growth and profit, and we are now on a good strong path. Last year we also carried through a huge transformation by setting up a completely new office in Manchester while around a hundred colleagues were impacted in Europe. We still managed to grow throughout that transition.

My learnings?

Dare to break the norms

I am one of very few women at this level in this industry. I work with colleagues with older children, no children, or who have someone at home who takes care of the household… I cannot compete with that. I cannot act like a man in his fifties, I cannot travel like someone with no family, I cannot behave like someone from another country…and most of all I don’t want to do that! I am me and I have to be authentic. When I joined in this new role I tried to be like the previous CEOs. More Swiss, more corporate, less me… My husband said to me, “If they had wanted that they would have employed yet another middle aged Swiss CEO. They chose you for who you are so be you!” The more I have been myself, the more I have been able to inspire others and to build the culture I believe in. It is not always easy to break the norms, but you have to. You have to for yourself and you have to for future generations. Otherwise we will never be able to attract more women to senior positions.

Dare to try

There have been so many times when I have accepted new challenges without being sure whether I could do it. Moving away from law, being a manager for the first time, taking on the Group CEO role, my first board assignment. But you will make it. IF you want it. It will always be down to whether you are passionate about the challenge. But if you are – you can do it. I see many women saying no to opportunities because they think that they can´t. What a waste! How will we ever be able to change the structure in the business world if we don´t dare to say yes. I encourage you. Say yes!

Dare to be you

Coming back to my first point. You are you. You have your strengths and you have your weaknesses. We all do. No one is perfect. You therefore need to surround yourself with people who can help you where you are less strong. Are you good at building the vision but less analytical? Well find an analytical person to help you. Are you good at numbers but not very structured or planned? …find someone who can own the planning. So many, especially women, require too much of themselves. Being a leader is all about team work and leveraging the team. In the beginning I thought I had to know it all. You don´t need to. You can´t. Key is that you surround yourself with people that can form part of your strong team.

I love my job and I am glad that I dared to move to a very “traditional” industry. I also feel encouraged by seeing how much you can achieve if you dare to. Ignore your age. Ignore your gender. Focus on what you believe in and be you. All opportunities are out there!

 

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