The coffee tastes best in Milan
One week you will find IT specialist Frank Rønsholt in the process of preparing the workstations in Helsinki. The following week he may be on his way to Tokyo to move an overheated and earthquake-threatened server into the shade. As part of the Atradius international IT team, respect for the cultural differences that naturally exist in an organisation with offices in 50 countries, is a core competency. The systems must work well for customers and colleagues from the time the sun rises in Shanghai, until it sets in Honolulu.
Milan, Istanbul, Stockholm, Tokyo - name a city and 44-year-old Frank Rønsholt has been there. There will most likely also to be a good story associated with it. It can be a breathless tale of an unforeseen problem that is solved in the eleventh hour. Or it could be the story of how wide the time indication, such as Thursday morning at 09:00 a.m. can be interpreted depending on the latitude we find ourselves in - and how fatal it can be if the interpretation of a local external supplier is "just before the weekend".
Being prepared for anything
Frank often doesn’t know what issue he’ll face until he arrives to solve it. But far from presenting a problem, it is this very unpredictability that he relishes. He says: "If everything just plays – then yes, you have done the job very well. But it really gets exciting those times when you stand on-site and must find a solution straight away, because we know that if we do not find the solution, we might as well go home again - so when things succeed, it is really great."
The fact that Frank succeeds is due to a good mix of stubbornness, overview and a sharp sense of where an error has occurred. To this is added the respect and understanding of the diversity of colleagues across borders.
Frank is a familiar face in the Atradius Group. The IT specialist from Copenhagen is well received and he will be offered coffee from automat machines from all around the world. Where is the coffee best? There is no doubt: according to Frank: “the espresso from the machine in Milan tastes of real coffee”.
Living a dream and travelling the world
For someone who wasn’t keen on languages at school, Bart Poublon’s linguistic capabilities are impressive. He speaks English, French, Dutch, German and some Japanese. Ask him about language, however, and he just shrugs modestly - the languages are incidental to something more important: travel.
“My first job was as an accountant near my home in Belgium. But after a while, I realised this wasn’t something I wanted to do until I was 65. I wanted to travel,” he admits.
After quitting accountancy, Bart joined the Risk Services team at Atradius and took up a position in Paris. He’s been with Atradius ever since, in a career that has so far taken him to France, the UK, Japan, Australia and Hong Kong.
Learning respect in Japan: Asia-Pacific Risk Team
Today Bart is based in Hong Kong and is Executive Manager for the Risk Team in Asia Pacific. He looks after about 60 credit analysts across the region, from Shanghai to Sydney. “I steer the team in making good, prompt, risk decisions for customers, while also remaining in control of risk for Atradius”, he explains.
He adds: “I oversee the high value cases that are put by the team to me for sign off. I also chair the Asia Pacific, Africa, India, and Middle East Local Credit Committee and the Atradius Country Committee that sets the country underwriting guidelines for each market we underwrite.”
Now that he has lived in so many countries, does he have a favourite? “I do love Japan”, he confesses, “It has mystique. It is very traditional but in other ways ultra-modern, it has taught me a lot about respect and it is where I met my wife.
“I first worked in Japan as a senior underwriter during the height of the financial crisis. We needed to reduce a credit limit on a particular account, so I visited in person to explain the position. The following week I was asked to return, as the customer had not accepted my explanation. This happened for three weeks in a row. On the fourth week, my boss came with me. Although he didn’t have anything new to add, his explanation was accepted. “A bit of grey hair made all the difference, my customer just needed to hear the news from someone more senior. A respect for hierarchy was a good lesson for a cocky young man to learn!”
Experiencing, exploring and respecting different cultures
Before taking up his position as Commercial Manager in the Dubai office of Atradius, Roeland Punt was careful to research the region’s social expectations. “I wanted to respect the local culture”, he explains. “One of the things I was told was - don’t try to shake hands with any Emirati female colleagues or customers, it’s just not done.
“Shortly after I arrived, I was invited to a meeting with an important customer. The main contact was an Emirati lady and she met me in the foyer in traditional dress with an outstretched hand and a warm smile. What was I to do? I shook her hand of course!”
For Roeland that meeting is representative of what it is like to work in one of Atradius’ worldwide network of offices. “It helps to be open and be able to respond quickly to any situation.” It’s also one of the things he enjoys. “I love learning new things and meeting new people from different cultures – it makes me feel really energised.”
Roeland’s love of learning can be seen throughout his career. Always interested in finance and global markets, he worked as a derivatives and forex trader before taking up a customer service role at Atradius in Amsterdam. His next step was in Risk Services and then he joined Special Products where he set up a new team in London before a new role in Dubai came onto his radar. Over the past 12 years at Atradius he has worked in five different roles and three different countries.
Open the door and go for it
“It’s not about the number of jobs, nor even the amount of travel that is important, for me” Roeland explains, “it’s about finding and taking opportunities. Starting new positions in different countries definitely pushed me beyond my comfort zone, but also really enriched my life.”
Roeland’s curiosity and thirst for learning is not confined to the office. “Dubai is fascinating, a place of extremes. There are big contrasts, such as between business life in the city and the serenity of the desert. I enjoy camping in the desert with my young family and also exploring the area. We have been to Oman and seen wadis, oases, mountains, dunes and wildlife. And although Dubai is a bit transitory, it is a very open, multicultural and welcoming culture. We enjoy the expat life of barbecues and afternoons on the beach, as well as the cultural opportunities such as the chance to see art beyond the European classical traditions.”
Roeland’s current role is Regional Commercial Manager, Middle East. “I am responsible for all commercial activities in the Middle Eastern region, where Atradius acts and supports as the reinsurer for our local partners. This includes managing our portfolio of existing clients, generating new business, establishing partnerships and developing the team. It’s an exciting region with many challenges but also plenty of opportunities..
Does he have any advice for people looking for the next step of their career? “Experiencing something new can be very rewarding for you and your colleagues as you can learn so much from each other. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Overseas jobs, in particular, can be such a rich learning experience. There are many on offer at Atradius, including at the smaller offices. I would encourage everyone to open the door and go for it.”
Climbing the career ladder from the first rung
When asked what he enjoys most about his work Paul Jenkins doesn’t even pause to think: “Learning.” And he adds: “I’m still learning new things every day. About developments in markets, how my customers’ businesses operate and, now that I’ve moved to Baltimore, learning about a new culture and way of doing business.”
Paul’s hunger for knowledge can be seen in his career development. “I started at Atradius in Cardiff at the age of 16 scanning documents”, he admits. “Not the most exciting of jobs, but everyone has to start somewhere and worked my way up from there. First moving into facilities management and later working in claims and, after that, for the UK domestic underwriting team”.
Following a career break that saw him travelling the world, Paul found his way back to Atradius, this time in Sydney, Australia. “Sydney was a great experience for me,” he says. “I was underwriting the South East Asia market. At that time the market was quite volatile (Thailand coup 2006) and I quickly had to build my knowledge of the region to understand the impact to our customers. This was a great learning curve and provided me with the opportunity to travel and meet customers and their buyers throughout South East Asia.
“It was also in Sydney that I took the biggest career leap of my life and moved into the (sales) commercial side of the business – it is the best thing I have ever done.
Although undeniably personable and engaging, there is a sense of modesty about Paul that hints at the enormity of this career step for him. He explains: “Sales is customer-facing. Up to this point, all of my work had been in the back office. I didn’t have the self-belief and confidence to step into the front line. But my managers did. I was encouraged by several people at different times to explore sales roles. And then one day I did. And everything just clicked.
Anything is possible with a little confidence and a lot of hard work
Moving into sales wasn’t the only encouragement Paul received from his Sydney managers, they also suggested he continued his studies. So, despite having had no college education, Paul enrolled onto an Executive Master of Business Administration (EMBA) degree at the University of Technology Sydney.
“My first essay was terrible!” he laughs looking back, “but I worked on improving and soon developed a taste for credits and distinctions”.
Today Paul is a Senior Sales Manager for Atradius Global, North America. “Although I had not worked with Fortune 500 companies and multinationals before, the role is no different to any other position at Atradius. Relationships are key. My job revolves around building and maintaining relationships with brokers and customers. And I think that is true for all of Atradius, regardless of whether in Global, Risk, Commercial, Claims or Collections.”
Does he have any advice for someone starting, or developing their career? “Go out of your comfort zone and listen to those closest to you. And if you’re looking for a football team to support, it has to be Liverpool FC.”
Sophie van Assen
Researching and problem solving for unusual projects
Sophie van Assen is a Manager in Special Products. Her remit covers the Netherlands, Belgium and Nordics, which she runs from her base at Atradius HQ in Amsterdam. “Special Products creates solutions that provide protection for specific risks and are complementary to our traditional whole turnover product,” she explained.
“We look at single risk situations such as one particular buyer or project, alongside many different other products. It involves a much deeper lever of research and, as a policy underwriter, I conduct deep dives and look in detail at what we are asked to insure. This is fascinating as I get the opportunity to gain an in depth understanding of each customer’s business, their contracts, their market and how they interact and, ultimately, how they get paid.
“It is a really exciting department to work for as we are often asked to insure specific structures, usually on a non-cancellable basis and with long tenors.”
Sophie works with a small team whose focus is entirely on Special Products. “We’re a department with colleagues from different parts of the world. We have a wide skill set and an exciting buzz of cultural diversity. We have our own risk analyst teams and have the opportunity to do our own investigations and employ our own risk and policy underwriting knowledge.”
The ‘problem-solving’ aspect of the role is the part she likes most. “I really enjoy listening to our customers’ needs and then working with departments across Atradius to create a tailored solution.”
Finding your own career path, moving sideways as well as up
Sophie’s career path has taken her around the world, both for Atradius and other organisations, including non-profit organisations. She has lived in Indonesia and worked in the Dominican Republic and Hong Kong, as well as the Netherlands.
“I think it is important to be in charge of your own career – and personal – development and to follow a path that could be up, but also could be sideways.
“Before I rejoined Atradius in 2018, I worked with a well known non profit organisation that focused on educating girls and on helping women to secure employment. My knowledge of international organisations and relations (from my degree) and corporate insight (from my experience at Atradius) really helped me in this role. With the reality of the day to day life in Asia this role has been a very valuable experience.
“But I always kept in touch with Atradius colleagues and I was delighted to be able to find a new role at Atradius. I feel my experiences working in different cultures have helped my wider understanding of international business. I definitely bring this experience to my new role.
“It feels good to return to Atradius. I like the way I have been supported throughout my career. And I think there is something about like-minded people finding each other. I guess it is our common denominator.”
Taking a leading role in Asia
As the Country Manager of Atradius Singapore, Heike Gerdes heads the office and leads the Commercial Team. Her responsibilities include managing the sales and account management team, assuring cross-department collaboration and training. She is also responsible for meeting revenue, sales and other key performance indicators while implementing structures to support growth and expansion. Her role involves visiting clients and prospects, and liaising with the local regulator, as well as internal and external auditors to ensure legal compliance. Under Heike’s leadership Atradius Singapore has experienced exceptional growth, where the client base has quadrupled over the past five years and the number of office staff and locations have expanded.
Yet despite this focus on commercial business, Heike admits: “I very much enjoy the fact that no day is like the other and that my work is a people-centred business. The dynamic of business across this region is very positive and fast-paced. A lot of businesses and people see opportunities rather than challenges.
“Overall, Atradius’ presence in Asia is growing rapidly and I am interested in trying to link the Asian offices closer to each other through the sharing of information and other initiatives such as joint training. Openness and the support of new ideas is something that I think works very well in the so-called ‘new markets’. Together with the South East Asian Leadership team, we expanded the number of offices and increased our presence across the region to five locations in ASEAN.
“Each of the Asian markets has a distinct way of doing business. For example in a customer meeting in Singapore, you would talk about business right away and meetings tend to be ad hoc with not much lead time. In Malaysia, it’s important to have frequent meetings and to work on creating an atmosphere of trust, before even considering talking about business. In Thailand it is the custom to bring a little gift – such as a cake – to meetings. In general, food is an important subject over here.
“Working in Asia also presents other contrasts to working in Europe. For example, in just a short time horizon we might be faced with the economic consequences of a volcanic eruption, a coup d’état, smog, a blast and/or demonstrations. That’s not to say that volcanoes don’t exist in Europe, it’s just that such events happen more often here.”
Tips for developing a career like Heike’s
We asked Heike for any tips she had for anyone who might want to build a career like hers. “My advice would be to remember that life is a journey, not a guided tour. Focus on what you like doing and learn in this area. You will always excel if you like what you are doing. Don’t wait for things to happen, or for your manager to find out what you are interested in, but put up a development plan for yourself. I didn’t know that this was my career path when I started but I knew I wanted to develop and learn and be challenged.
“My first job was developing new business in Frankfurt, Germany without knowledge of the product beforehand. That’s a good way to learn about the clients as well as how Atradius works internally. From there I moved into a working for the Global Unit in Switzerland and, at times, working with complex projects and partners in a range of countries including Russia. This allowed me to take a managerial role within Global later on combining four countries.
“Atradius supported me with my career development, providing management training including Stepping Forward 1, ALP (the Atradius Leadership Programme which I would say is the Asian version of Stepping Forward). All these programmes have helped me understand the overall picture and impact of what I’m doing within the wider Atradius company. And of course, they have helped me expand my network of contacts, which is particularly valuable in terms of collaboration and also just knowing who to contact if I need help working out a particular solution.
“I would especially encourage everyone to try new things. This can be so rewarding, although it is a good idea to know your limits. I was once given cold, fried worms to try from Myanmar. That was one step beyond my personal limit!”