“Following your heart makes for a bright career.”

Els Verbraecken, CFO DEME
  • Career path and life lessons
  • A work of heart and hard work
  • You're in the driver's seat of your career

Since April 2013 Els Verbraecken has been CFO of the DEME Group, where she has been working since 2002. Before, she gained experience at Delcredere and as an assistant at the university. At the internationally operating dredging company, she feels at home: "It's a great job at a great company," she says, “Arriving at the office in the morning and not knowing that you might be on a plane to Venezuela or Pakistan in the afternoon might scare people, but it has always appealed to me. I've always dreamed of being able to work internationally. ”

Follow your heart

Els Verbraecken studied Latin and Greek in high school. “That doesn’t really indicate a special interest in numbers, does it? I really did not know which direction to take. But I had good marks, there were quite a few engineers in the family and I was advised by the student guidance center to opt for the study of civil engineering. That meant I first had to do a preparatory year of math. I quickly realized this was not my cup of tea. After this preparatory year of mathematics, I decided to study commercial engineering instead. I have learned from my experience that you don’t have to be afraid to question your choice of study and that you should always follow your heart. ”

Taking matters into my own hands

Els Verbraecken did this when, after a short assistantship at the university with Professor Katlijn Malfliet, the coordinator of the Institute for International and European Policy, she decided that her work was too academic. “The international aspect really appealed to me, but I longed for practicality. That is why I also applied for a job at Delcredere. This is the government's credit insurer that covers companies and banks against the political and commercial risks of international trade transactions. I went to the exams that they organized without having high expectations. Three positions were vacant for French speakers and one for a Dutch-speaking person. We were seated in a room with 750 candidates. To my surprise, I was informed relatively quickly that I was included in the recruitment reserve of the organization.

It was at that moment that I took an initiative that actually determined the rest of my career. I called the CEO of Delcredere. I asked him if the message I received was the standard procedure or if it meant I had a real chance of getting a job there someday. A bit unusual but this call got me a meeting at Delcredere. After that, I got the message that I could call every month to find out if there was a job available. And so I started my professional career at Delcredere in early 1995. I think it proves that if you really want something, you have to try everything to reach your goal. And I am reasonably convinced that it will eventually work out for the good.”

I called the CEO of Delcredere myself to ask if my name on their recruitment reserve meant I could get a job there someday.

Els Verbraecken

Getting the right job in two steps

“I was allowed to supervise files from Belgian export companies. Initially in the more “traditional” Eastern European countries, later also in countries such as Georgia and Armenia. I also took part in many foreign trade missions led by - then - Crown Prince Philippe. I was working tremendously internationally and enjoyed getting to know the export companies. But in the end, I thought my role was a bit too passive. That is why, after seven years, I decided to look for something else, despite the very attractive status and relatively high job security. I felt the need to be more in the driving seat. I had built up an extremely good network at Delcredere and had a clear goal. I wanted to work for a Belgian company with a prominent international character. ”

Els Verbraecken, CFO at DEME
Els Verbraecken, CFO at DEME

Els Verbraecken eventually found the right match in two steps. “I first started working at the water purification company Seghers Better Technology through someone I met in Poland. But, the financial situation of the company was already quite precarious at that time and after a few months, I was convinced that things could go wrong there. I thought about what exactly I wanted and about who could really benefit from my experience.

Just as I previously called the CEO of Delcredere, I took matters into my own hands and applied for a job at DEME with the message that I could support the company with export financing. This technique was not used a lot at the time, and it goes beyond the classic export credit insurance because it also includes a collaboration with banks. I started in the legal department but it soon became clear that in the triangular construction with DEME, banks and foreign customers, the financial and commercial aspects were of great importance. So I made the switch to work for the CFO and later the CEO. I had already traveled quite a bit, but it became even more part of the job at DEME. I made my childhood dream come true: spend a lot of time abroad and get a taste of all those cultures, from Brazil to Pakistan, from Dubai to Nigeria. Of course, it is a bit special and I realize that it is not for everyone.”

My career choices were influenced by the fact that I wanted to travel and get to know other cultures.

Els Verbraecken

From Deputy CFO to CFO

Els Verbraecken became Deputy CFO ten years after her entry at DEME. Another six months later she became CFO. “Of course, a lot has changed in those ten years. My predecessor saw a turnover increase from 600 million euros to nearly 1.9 billion euros between 2002 and 2012, and we are now well above 2 billion euros. The finance department has evolved from a support department to a strategic business partner. I am therefore part of all risk committees where technical, financial and legal risks are discussed. I started the job of CFO four years ago with great enthusiasm, and I still enjoy doing it, even though I travel less.”

A work of heart and hard work

“To build a successful career - which I think is perfectly possible without becoming a CFO at a company with a turnover of billions - you must, first of all, follow your heart and dare to take the plunge every now and then. Being able to travel was crucial for me. That is why I would never work at the major accounting firms or banks. You must also be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

When I started at DEME, it was not with the intention of ever becoming CFO. When my predecessor retired, I was hoping for it, but I did not really express my ambition out loud. That I got it, after all, makes me proud, especially because I did everything myself, with my skills and competences. My parents were primary school teachers and certainly did not know anyone in the business community. It proves that hard work, and a little bit of luck, pays off. You certainly need a sense of initiative, but that in itself is not a guarantee of success. And of course, you need to have a partner who supports your professional decisions. I don't believe in advancing your career at the expense of others. Do good in your work and show that in all modesty. The most important thing is that you feel good about your role and that you are an entrepreneur. In my opinion, a well-functioning CFO will also be a strong entrepreneur. ”

A book about career paths

We bundled Els her interview, together with those of more than 30 CFOs in a book, entitled “Zo maak je carrière in finance”, “Comment faire carrière dans la finance?” and “So machen Sie Karriere im Finanzbereich”. It is published by Acco and for sale in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

Are you intrigued? Get your own copy. Take your time to read, get inspired, and use it to reflect on your ambitions and your personal development plan. More info here.