Good morning, Romina, and welcome to Commodity Conversations. Please tell me a little bit about yourself and your journey so far.
I’m originally from Argentina. I grew up and studied there but had itchy feet, and an international career was always on the cards. I always thought I would return to Argentina, but it became increasingly unlikely as I got older and had a family.
I had two defining parts in my career. I spent the first ten years with Shell, an incredible company with high operations standards. I then had my agri commodities decade-plus, coinciding roughly with my time in Switzerland. I began in sugar with Cargill and then moved to coffee, molasses, and derivatives with EDF Man. I then joined Noble, later COFCO, and spent five years with Bunge in Geneva, finishing as their EMEA HR VP.
I have since moved to natural resources with mining and now am with a technical consulting firm supporting all the B2B markets I used to work with. In the last five years, I have focused more intensely on the Americas with experiences in Chile and Canada.
During your nine years with Shell, you worked in Argentina, the UK, Brazil, and the Netherlands. Since then, you have worked in Switzerland, Chile, and Canada. That’s a lot of different geographies– more than anyone I know. What motivated these moves, and did they help or hinder your career?
It was easier to move in the early part of my career. Since I am now part of a dual-career couple, it’s sometimes challenging to coordinate two senior careers. However, we have managed to lead or follow at different times depending on the opportunity and family impact.
Despite being sometimes challenging from a career perspective, there is a silver lining, and everything is an experience from a life satisfaction perspective. Living in various countries makes me a more culturally aware individual and is far beyond what I could have dreamed of in my early years as a professional. It has also been great to raise a family with a multicultural perspective. We juggle four languages at home!
Where is home?
After 14 years in Switzerland and becoming Swiss, we call Switzerland home. When we say we miss home, we mean Switzerland. It’s our anchor. My oldest son will start university in Lausanne. We all agree that finding a better quality of life is challenging once you have lived in Switzerland. Though I have lived in some other great places, Switzerland is very special, and we have grown to love it. Argentina will always hold a place in my heart; my mum, sister and the rest of the family are still there, and I follow its news daily. And that is undoubtedly a country that is never short of news!
You started in energy, moved to ag commodities, and then to mining. What specific challenges do ag companies present in terms of managing talent? Are they different than others?
Yes, I think so, more and more. Given the food element component, agribusiness is more global than the other sectors you mention – not in every role, but in many roles. You need a global mentality from a supply chain perspective and an interest and understanding of geopolitics and economics. I see that in pockets in other industries where I worked, but one of the things that I miss from the ag business is the daily global conversation.
That’s on the positive side. On the opportunities side, agribusiness companies, in my experience, are less structured when it comes to career opportunities and management. I have found that other industries provide better career visibility. The ag business has an incredible career to offer. Still, in my view, it has not done as much as it could to market what it can do for people’s careers, particularly for those with a talent for an international perspective.
Did the different ag companies you worked for have different cultures – and to what extent does the CEO set the culture?
Each one of them has a distinct personality that partly depends on size. In a company as big as Cargill, for example, the heritage, to an extent and not just the CEO, helps shape the culture. I experienced its culture as robust and well-defined. The other companies I worked for had more of an entrepreneurial flair, and the culture was somehow more linked to the personality and approach of the CEO.
The CEO plays a role in fine-tuning a company’s culture, but it has more to do with its history and whether it grew organically or through acquisitions. People often define culture as ‘the way we do things around here’. I find culture plays a crucial role in successful integrations after a merger. A strong culture that aligns with a company’s strategy is a considerable asset and challenging to replicate.
What about managing all the different types of professions in the ag supply chain? Is that a challenge?
It is the same in the oil and mining or consulting industries. You have a wide variety of different profiles and skills needed. I know that people in the ag industry like to say they are unique. They are unique in certain aspects of what their roles require. That is true, but not necessarily in the diversity of skills needed to succeed as an industry.
What I think is different in ags, at least in my experience, is the stardom of the trader. The trader used to play a protagonist role. I think it’s starting to subside a little. People realise this is a team game, and you need everybody in the chain to execute their part to the best of their abilities. I started to see a more conscious recognition of corporate functions during my last years in agribusiness.
What about compensation? Traders get royally compensated, but operators don’t. Is that a problem?
Ag trading companies tend to pay quite competitively; their people are generally well-paid compared to similar roles in other sectors. From a human perspective, the challenge is that people do not necessarily compare themselves with what they would earn in the market. Instead, they compare the different job families in the internal ecosystem.
That can create some internal friction, but it’s the same with other industries relying on different kinds of top-notch technical talent. The rainmakers can be highly paid, but they are also the ones who assess and carry the risk and eventually make the call. It’s probably more acute in the trading industry, but I think it’s an accepted fact.
But let’s be clear: it’s not all the traders. There’s a category of handsomely paid rainmakers – certainly the most significant bonuses I have been involved with in my career. Still, there’s a relatively small number of people on those big figures.
You mentioned that trading is becoming more of a team operation. It is a theme that’s been running through many of my interviews. It brings me to my next question as to the role of women. Women tend to be better as team players and networkers rather than as lone wolves. Is the future of trading female?
I don’t know if the future of trading is female. From a demographical perspective, the future and present of work is becoming more female. Industries that don’t consider women forego a big part of the equation. In my time, there were very few female traders – maybe one out of ten. To be on a trading desk as a female, you really must be outstanding. The ones that made it were exceptional.
Other sectors have been more active or at least more visible in being inclusive in general, not only on gender. Agribusiness will, unfortunately, miss out on a lot of talent if they don’t become more proactive. However, having been in other industries for the last five years, perhaps that is already happening.
How can agribusiness attract top-quality candidates, both male and female?
We haven’t done as good a job as we could around marketing what it means to work in agribusiness. That is slowly changing, particularly in Geneva, with Suissenegoce and the MSc in shipping and trading. People are getting a better insight into the industry and what sort of a career path that could lead to.
I see the difference as Gen Z comes into the workforce. Without going into the stereotypes, mental health, the work/life balance, and the ESG impact are all important. Gen Z has different priorities, and purpose seems to play a significant role in how they select their future employer.
Also, big corporations are generally less appealing than they used to be for those in their early careers.
You currently work for an engineering company that, through acquisitions, is going from 1,100 to more than 5000 employees. How do you align and manage the different cultures? I’m thinking here of Bungie’s acquisition of Viterra.
It’s been an intense ride, and we are still putting it together. Aligning culture is a long, long road. From a communication and engagement perspective, we’ve done a lot of work making the cultures explicit, but there’s no magic wand. It will take us a couple more years, and it requires everyday effort and leadership to set the right tone, which I believe we have done. These last few years, working intensely on Mergers and Acquisitions and integration will be one of my career highlights.
Remuneration is one of the critical pain points of integrations and acquisitions. You must ensure you hold on to the critical talent. Before considering strategy, you must look at the people and skills you can’t afford to lose.
What about different nationalities and cultures? With a global footprint, you must manage these nationalities and cultures in different geographies. Is that a challenge?
It is a challenge that requires patience and curiosity, which makes it interesting. It is one of the distinctive features of agribusiness. And a positive one in my view.
You need to understand where people are coming from. Why do they react like that? There’s an interesting book by Erin Meyer that talks about the different perspectives of each culture and how those translate into the workplace.
I’m hoping that in 20 years, when I look back, I’ll say that I’ve enriched myself with all these fantastic nationalities I was fortunate to work with; all of them taught me something.
You recently completed the FT Board of Directors program. What did you learn?
The course put a lot of focus on how people dynamics make or break a board.
The most important takeaway is that board members must be vested in the company and not just be there for the public recognition side of it.
The other thing I learned is the sheer complexity of it all – the number of challenges a committed board and executive team faces is no joke. You must be agile and active in scanning the environment for where the next risk to the company might come from.
Can conflict be a good thing?
There is a perception that conflict should be avoided and that we should behave and be friends. I don’t have that perspective. Conflict can be positive if you split the problem from the person. I know it sounds easier than it is, but you need creative tension; if there’s no tension, there’s no creativity, and groups gravitate towards group thinking.
Conflict becomes problematic if it turns into institutionalized friction. Permanent friction and unresolved conflict create an unhealthy environment.
What about pessimism and optimism? Do you need a pessimist in every team?
I think you do. You need a mix. The same goes for extroverts and introverts—or any other personality trait. You need a mix of different personalities to challenge, again in a healthy conflict, yourself, and your team. You need it in trading, but you also need it in any business decision.
What nationalities would make up your ideal board or team?
I don’t think it’s only about nationality. I think it’s about personalities, experience, and attitudes. Board members must be sufficiently diverse to challenge each other, but not to the point where you live in permanent conflict and cannot decide. But that is the same for every team.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
Don’t take life so seriously. Focus on what is essential in the long term. Things will eventually sort themselves out. That’s what I would probably say to myself, with the hindsight of a long career and adult life.
Would you have listened?
Unlikely. I was quite a determined 18-year-old!
© Commodity Conversations ® 2023