Pioneering the way
Business builder Axel Scholz helps Siemens break into Asia in financial services
In 2005, Axel Scholz was sent to Beijing by Siemens Financial Services (SFS), the financial services arm of German industrial giant Siemens, to establish an equipment leasing company. Building the business in a place where such financial services were still virtually unknown proved challenging.
“In the beginning it was not easy,” Scholz, now CEO for Asia-Pacific of SFS’s commercial finance business, says. “The product was hardly known in the market, so it was very difficult to find people to work for the company. Getting the first band together was a challenge, and going out to explain to customers what leasing was all about and what the benefits were wasn’t easy.”
This is exactly the kind of challenge, however, that Scholz relishes. Throughout his career, he has found developing new things to be the aspect of business he finds the most exciting. This makes him particularly suitable to lead SFS’s commercial finance business as it develops across the region.
“To me, it’s always been interesting to build new things and make them work,” he says. “Trying to see whether there is a business model or a commercial model to do something, and then putting it into practice, is something which has stuck all through my career.”
After studying business administration at the Academy of Economics of Schleswig-Holstein in Kiel, Germany, Scholz worked as a trainee at a small German bank in factoring and receivables financing. Seeing growing business in Asia, the bank asked him to produce a market study of opportunities here.
This led to Scholz being asked, in 1995, if he would move to Hong Kong to establish a representative office. He saw this as a fantastic chance, both for personal adventure and for the opportunity to build something new, where the financial services in which he specialised offered potential for growth.
“Here was an opportunity to come out here and create something,” he says. “It was pioneer work … It was the great unknown, both personally and professionally.”
Scholz found the task of developing the business in a new place highly challenging and it took him outside of his comfort zone.
“In coming to an environment which was new to me, and to a large extent new to the business I was representing, the learning curve was extremely steep,” he says. “But it was also very rewarding … what I learned in those years would probably have taken me a lot longer if I’d stayed in Germany.”
In 1999, Scholz was offered a credit portfolio management role at SFS. He was drawn to the position because it once again offered the opportunity to develop new things.
“I found it quite exciting to join a set-up which was relatively new at the time,” he says. “SFS was only created within Siemens in 1997, so again it offered the opportunity to do some pioneer work and to create new products and businesses in a very different corporate environment.”
At Siemens, Scholz’s position grew with the business. Having already established its leasing business in the West, the company was keen to expand into Asia-Pacific and Scholz, with his enthusiasm for business development, was just the man for the task.
China, in particular, was showing its potential as a market for the leasing industry, partly because of its growing number of private companies. Scholz helped plan SFS’s move into the country, then in 2005 was asked to transfer to Beijing.
Following the move into China, he also led the establishment of SFS in India in 2010. In 2011, he returned to Hong Kong to become regional CEO of the commercial finance business unit – which has over 250 employees and earning assets of approximately €1 billion (HK$10.3 billion) – and oversee the strategic development of the business throughout the region.
In his CEO role, Scholz continues to show the same passion for building business and believes SFS still has lots of potential to grow in the region. For him, a key factor in supporting this growth is to put in place good human-resources practices. “Whatever you want to do, whatever you want to grow, people are the backbone of your success,” he says.
One of his main aims, therefore, is creating a sustainable talent management framework to ensure that the company always has a highly skilled workforce. “The competition to attract the best talent is very intense, particularly in countries like China,” he says. “[Making sure] you have the right tools in place and the right level of management attention has to be one of the top priorities.”
This means both ensuring skilled people are “on the radar” and that existing talent is developed in the right way. For this, Scholz wants to leverage Siemens’ global reach so that employees can be transferred to other regions to develop their careers.
Scholz also strongly believes in the benefits of having a diverse workforce. His experience of working in foreign places has taught him all about effectively leading cross-cultural teams.
“Listening and communication skills are particularly important in cross-cultural teams,” he says. “People say things in different ways and with different meanings, and I think everybody around the table has to recognise that and really listen very well to make sure nothing gets lost in translation.”
To get the best performance from employees, Scholz says that offering financial rewards is less important than creating an environment in which people really want to work.
“Of course, the money, position and title are always things to consider,” he says. “But what we’ve found in many surveys is that’s not the most important thing. People very often look for a family-like working environment where they feel comfortable.”
SCHOLZ’S SUCCESS SECRETS
LISTEN TO ADVICE “Wherever you start your career, listen well and understand what people are telling you. Be open and don’t jump to conclusions.”
DISCOVER WHERE YOUR PASSIONS LIE “Develop your own view of what you want and what it is that you enjoy doing. I believe you can only be really good at what you enjoy doing – it is very important to find out what that is.”
BE OPEN TO NEW PLACES “When I look at people at the decision point [to relocate] today, I can only recommend they follow that challenge, because what you learn and how you expand your horizons is very rewarding.”