As Seen in CFO Studio Magazine Q1/Q2 2016 IssueScreenshot (3)




As CFO of Morristown, NJ–based Schindler Elevator Corporation— the largest legal entity of the Schindler Group, a 54,000-employee, Swiss-based global mobility provider with about $9 billion ($US) in annual sales — Michael Bickel has responsibility for U.S. strategy and other initiatives, in addition to budgeting and financing. But Bickel sees himself as a weatherman.

“Being a weatherman involves studying the global corporate climate, from the economy to competitors to politics,” Bickel explains. “Then you relate this awareness to your company, and determine how it may impact your business and what proactive steps you can take to keep your company on top.”

He says that an effective CFO focuses on six core areas. Bickel’s Six Core Components of Effectiveness include:

1. Watching the weather

2. Fulfilling a leadership role

3. Seeking marginal profit opportunities

4. Signing on as a “front-line player” who supports front-line staff

5. Acting as “copilot” to business unit leaders

6. Embracing the role of internal ambassador.

As a leader, a CFO has to drive strategy and chart a course, even as he or she solicits and considers advice from other team members. “It’s also very important to identify, challenge, and overcome obstacles,” Bickel says. “You cannot be effective by standing behind others and simply following them.”

Instead, an effective CFO will get all the key players involved in the business processes, helping them to see how their individual contributions will help the entire enterprise to move ahead. Bickel says this copilot approach calls for a willingness to share responsibility when appropriate, a method that is 180 degrees removed from a “silo” mindset, where the CFO hordes information and hinders a company’s ability to operate effectively.

An engaged CFO also seeks out new data, and is willing and able to understand and translate it into meaningful information, he adds. “All six Components of Effectiveness should be considered as integral parts of a comprehensive approach that yields efficiency and results.”

A Solid Foundation

Before a CFO can mount that kind of six-pronged management approach, he or she needs a good foundation that includes a bottom-to-top understanding of the enterprise. In Bickel’s case, a unique background was extremely valuable.

“I literally learned about Schindler from the ground up, beginning by helping to install an elevator in my first month working for Schindler Switzerland, where I was very close to the branch, as well as factory shop floor operations, throughout my daily work as internal auditor,” he recalls. “It’s a very practical way to gain experience.”

A Swiss native, Bickel holds a Master of Economics from the University of Berne, is a Certified Financial Analyst, and graduated from the Advanced Executive Program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He got his first work experience in a pump engineering company, cofounded with his brother, Thomas.

“But I wanted to learn more, so in 1997 I joined the management training program at Baloise Insurance, where I got involved in strategic project management, M&A, and other activities,” he says. “Later, I went to Ernst & Young’s Swiss practice, where I learned a great deal about enterprise-wide risk management, financial advisory, audit and attestation, and sales and client relationship activities. I enjoyed working for different multinational clients abroad and gained experience and insights into critical success factors, as well as best demonstrated practices across multiple industries.”

At Ernst & Young, Schindler was one of his internal audit clients; so in 2005, Bickel hopped across the ocean to become Schindler’s Head of Internal Audit North America, managing all internal audit, risk, and compliance-related activities for Schindler North America’s U.S. and Canada operations. He also developed strategic audit plans, supervised and executed field audits, addressed critical company-wide issues, and ensured proper corrective actions were taken when needed.

“My audit responsibilities included spending a lot of time in field operations, where I got a wall-to-wall look at the business and learned about Schindler firsthand from the branch level up,” Bickel relates.

He soon rose to become Lead Area Controller for Schindler’s Americas Zone, responsible for 10 group companies with more than 10,000 employees. He also worked closely on operational and strategic activity with Schindler’s former CEO Americas Jakob Zueger, along with individual company leaders and unit-level CFOs. Bickel also directed the Americas Zone’s financial planning and budgeting activities, recommending process improvements, training key finance staff, and assisting with a variety of operations, including a key profit-enhancing project and an important cross-border M&A.

“I co-led a significant service business project (“project step”), which increased Schindler USA’s service margin by about 5 percent,” Bickel recalls. “We developed detailed benchmarking against our major market competitors with regards to issues like service model/planning, methods, tools, contracts, and metrics.”

As a result of the study, Schindler USA was able to slice $35 million of costs from 2010 to 2012 by reducing the number of service technicians from about 1,700 to about 1,500, with no productivity loss.

He was also co-leader of due diligence in the 2010 acquisition of Compania de Servicios S.A., a dominant Colombian company that designed, manufactured, installed, and maintained elevators and related products. “The acquisition of Compania de Servicios S.A. gave Schindler E&E [elevator and escalator] market leadership in Colombia,” Bickel notes.

In 2011, Bickel officially moved into his first CFO appointment, serving a three-year tour of duty in Shanghai as CFO of Schindler China, the Group’s second-largest business, with more than 5,000 employees.

The promotion made him responsible for all of the financial operational activities in that unit, from accounting and reporting to IT and finance projects. “I was a member of the Board of Directors of Schindler China, and I had oversight of the Finance department along with an IT team of more than 80 persons across multiple locations in China,” Bickel says.

During his time there, Bickel was instrumental in doubling the unit’s operating revenue. He started by establishing a three-year growth and profit plan with specific target numbers that let everyone know their goal, and followed up by instituting reforms with a focus on improving new-installation sales and cost reductions.

“We took steps to gain market share by launching new products designed and built in China for China, and increased the geographical coverage through accelerated branch expansion and by setting up a professional key account management,” he says.

Bickel also bolstered the bottom line with a strong focus on reducing product costs by implementing a fully dedicated cross-functional cost leadership team that pays particular attention to supplier negotiation, product design changes, and state-of-the-art production processes. The team also optimizes subcontractor costs with new installation methods and drives bad-debt management and accounts receivables collection, Bickel says. “My experience is that net cash must always support the profit trend; otherwise there is an issue. For example, ‘figure play’ [a reference to accounting methods that may boost reported profits even though cash flow is actually decreasing]: I was driving this area very hard in China. We also introduced improved finance and controlling tools to identify key profit drivers in each product line, so we always knew where we were and what we had to drive.”

Bickel also facilitated, without business interruptions, one of China’s first cross-district mergers, between Schindler China and Suzhou Schindler Elevator Co.

All of which helped to prepare Bickel for his move to Morristown, as CFO of the North American division.

Setting and Reaching GoalsScreenshot (4)

“Finance guys are typically risk averse, but if you want to move ahead, you’ve got to take some reasonable chances,” he says. “Instead of being defensive all the time, and just looking for ways to shield the company from the downside, you must be able to identify upside opportunities and ask yourself how we can take advantage of them.”

He’s currently working on a key project that is designed to increase Schindler USA’s earnings before interest and taxes by 5 percent within two years.

The strategy includes pricing initiatives, enhancements to Schindler’s supply-chain performance, the reduction of profit variability among branches with customized business priorities, and 80 percent benchmarking. The initiative also features improved new-installation and modernization execution approaches, and increased service margins through disciplined cost management, details Bickel. As he executes, Bickel continuously draws on his six Components of Effectiveness management paradigm (page 13).

But he’s also looking at de-risking the tax-qualified employee pension plan, and improving front-end-related processes and controls, while driving product liability exposure and implanting cost efficiencies across the enterprise. That will involve eliminating redundant or non-value-added roles, replacing underperforming individuals, and centralizing some roles that are currently held by field operations (and vice versa), he adds.

“Other areas I’ll be working on include revising our accounts receivable processes and policies to more fully align sales representatives with A/R and to automate upfront client payments prior to dispatching service technicians to callbacks not explicitly covered by contracts; and implementing the global SAP platform in Schindler USA,” Bickel reports. “To successfully implement these and other projects, I engage very actively with other departments, and together we support the entire business, from the front lines on through. It’s a constant evolution.”

Bickel says it is his “mission” to make the business more profitable. “To do this, regardless of which company you work for, a CFO has to understand challenges from the business unit point of view, and has to be able to integrate those needs and goals into the overall corporate strategy. It’s good to know what’s going on at the ocean level, as you can’t be steering the wheel all the time.”

It’s all part of the CFO-as-weatherman approach, figuring out which way the winds of the marketplace are blowing.

Copyright 2017