In the background are the cheerful sounds of children splashing in the pool. The thermometer puts it at over 35 degrees Celsius. After a long day at work, Wessels is relaxing on the terrace of his home, a former British officer’s residence in the city centre. The new location doesn’t disappoint – that much is clear. “Singapore is a great city”, he says via a crystal-clear Skype connection. “Everything’s well-organised here. There are international schools for our children, healthcare, shops. It’s a very safe place. And yes, we have a really nice place to live. If you opt for an international career, you have to think of your family. My wife and our four children need to feel at home. The balance between work and family is very important. If I ever forget that, my wife Linka always knows how to put things into perspective for me. She studied philosophy and views life from many different angles.”
It is something he emphasises several times during the conversation: you don’t have to give up everything for your career. He would know. Wessels, 48, is now among the key financial decision makers at the giant Unilever group, producer of food products, personal care products and cleaning supplies. From his base in Singapore he is Chief Financial Officer responsible for Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia and more. The business represents a turnover of more than €7 billion, a considerable part of Unilever’s total turnover. Does he aspire to an executive role at the very top of the company? “That’s not something I think about. There’s no speck on the horizon with the label CFO of all of Unilever or some other multinational. So far Unilever has always offered me new challenges, always one step up the ladder. My criteria are: will I like it and will my family come with me?”
To date the answer has always been ‘yes’, although he did hesitate over his previous posting. “I’d held various operational positions and it was felt that after that I should go and spend a few years working at the head office in London, to be more involved at the governance level. I figured that would be interesting, but I prefer heading up our work in a country or region directly. Turned out it’s nice to see from up close how such a huge company is managed.”
Before London he worked for Unilever in Russia, Greece and Portugal. And before that, he was groomed in the Netherlands for his future international posts. Early on in his career he worked at the snack manufacturer Mora in Maastricht, then still part of Unilever, and he managed the Ola ice cream division.
It seems like the model career path for a financial manager at a multinational, but that impression requires some qualification. After graduating in 1992 Wessels launched an assembly firm for computers, spent three years working as a controller for an investment company in US real estate, then landed a job as a consultant at Coopers&Lybrand. In between all this he followed a graduate programme in Controlling in Maastricht. “While I was at Coopers I did some work for Unilever in Utrecht and they offered me a job. I had two conditions: that there would be no trial period, and that I’d be allowed to join the international group. That was no problem.”
And so the choice to study at Maastricht University, way back in 1986, seems to have paid off. “I think so. At the time I went around and looked at all the economics faculties in the Netherlands. International Management was being offered for the first time, and only in Maastricht. I was even able to combine it with Business Administration. Also, the system of small-scale education in groups really appealed to me. Maastricht may not yet have had the reputation of Rotterdam or Tilburg, but I learnt a lot there thanks to PBL. Debating, discussing, presenting, voicing my opinions.”
He looks back on his time in Maastricht with pleasure. “We were just a small group of students, which meant it was easy to interact with the professors. It had a real pioneering feel to it. The same went for student life. The university was small and there were few activities and associations. With some other students I helped to set up a student house and a student association that still exists. It’s about time I did another weekend in Maastricht – sometimes I really miss the city. Also because I lived there for a while with my wife after we got married.”
It’s a nice idea, but for now his priority is Unilever. With free time hard to come by, lying around the pool is not something he gets to do every day. But Wessels is not bothered. “I feel at home at Unilever, and not just because of the financial challenge. Unilever serves two billion consumers every day. If we’re able to help all those people eat more healthily, be more economical with water or dispose of packaging in a better way, we can make a big contribution to a more sustainable world. We’re very aware that we have a social role to play. As CFO I make decisions with that in mind.”
Remko Wessels (1968) was born in Geleen, went to high school in Heerlen and studied at Maastricht University from 1986 to 1992. He currently works as CFO for Unilever in Singapore. With his wife Linka he has three daughters and a son.