Interview with Stefano Rivera, CEO, Scabal
Some would say Stefano Rivera's career path was less than typical. But not him. What is so strange about setting up your own company, selling it on and then finally throwing oneself into a career in the corporate world? It's just that often, a lot of people do it the other way round, acquiring experience in large companies before going on to start their own. Is that better, or is it worse? "Business is business, whether you head up your own company or somebody else's" he claims.
Business is something this 49-year-old Italian has in his blood. It's more than a job to him; it's a hobby, a passion. As well as being head of Scabal for 10 months, he also acts as a business angel, as a coach to entrepreneurs and he admits he likes to be involved in the operational side of things, "getting things done" as he puts it, so clearly. An industrial engineer by training - his father would have found it hard to accept any other qualification - he has worked for French, American and Japanese companies in the industrial sector (Honeywell), the transport sector (Carrier) and for tyre manufacturers (Bridgestone and Goodyear Dunlop). Who would have thought that one day, he would be running a large Belgian SME, specialising in luxury suits? Well, he would ! Because he has always had a passion for fabrics. And even if he didn't match the job description...
You started your career by setting up your own company. Ten years later, you sold it. Isn’t it hard to let go of something you created from nothing?
Stefano Rivera: “For me, there was nothing negative about selling my company. I made the decision to sell and I wanted to sell. In 1990, I started from scratch. Ten years later and turnover was close to 5 million euros but the market had changed, competition from eastern countries was becoming stronger and stronger, and without significant investment, we wouldn’t have been able to keep up growth levels. We divided up the company and we sold it. Walking away from it was the right decision. And of course, you have to look at things in a positive light: it meant I could join the ‘corporate’ world, discover larger organisations, gain new experience and progress along my own path.”
Haven’t you found it frustrating, not being your own boss anymore?
“Not at all. Business is business, whether you head up your own company or somebody else’s. In both cases, you have to achieve a result and you are always accountable, to shareholders, to the banks, to your employees or your customers. There is no such thing as a free entrepreneur!”
From a strategic point of view, isn’t there more freedom when you are the boss in your own company?
"I disagree. You can be very free to establish the strategy of a company that is not your own. If you prove your commitment and achieve results, you will be given freedom. And then, in both cases, your strategy will have to be validated. On the one hand by your venture capitalists or on the other by shareholders or stakeholders. Heading up your own company or the company of someone else, there’s hardly any difference. Personally, all the positions I’ve held in the corporate environment have always included an entrepreneurial aspect.”
So you won’t be setting up any more businesses?
“I didn’t say that. Business excites me. It is not a job, it is a passion. In addition to my job as CEO at Scabal, I am a business angel. I like to support start-up companies. I am also a coach for entrepreneurs. As far as setting up another company is concerned, it’s not impossible. But it will have to have a meaning, to be of interest to me, it will have to provide added value. As to whether or not I want to do it, that is secondary.”
You have been CEO of Scabal for 10 months. Before that, you worked for nearly seven years in the tyre business. How do you go from dressing car wheels to dressing the driver?
“Money has nothing to do with it (laughter)! Truly, I have a passion for fabric. Not fashion, just beautiful materials. One of my very good friends had a fabric business. I often visited him, he showed me interesting materials, and I was fascinated. And, in Northern Italy, where I come from, it is very important to dress well when you go to work. I have always gone to a tailor to have my suits custom made. I am familiar with that world. That said, it’s true that I am originally an industrial engineer, specialising in mechanics. I wasn’t looking for a job when the opportunity of joining Scabal came up. It was through my connections that I found out that Scabal was looking for a CEO. I wasn’t the right fit at all! (laughter) But I went there, I talked and I explained why I thought we could work together. I got the job.
That said, before starting, I had carried out some ‘due diligence’ work. I collected all kinds of information about the market, the aims of the shareholders for the next few years, to know whether it was feasible and whether the corporate culture suited me. 10 months later, we are all still convinced that it was a good decision.”
Although it was not the case for Scabal, you have dealt with head hunters several times during your career. What lessons have you learnt from that experience?
“A head hunter is a facilitator. He brings together supply and demand. If a company simply tries to copy and paste, replacing one profile with a similar one, the head hunter can help it find outside the company what it does not find within. It is basic, without any real added value. However, if the company does not try to do copy and paste, but expects a different profile, one that is more complex and less obvious, the head hunter has the ability to look much further, beyond the profiles that limit an HR department. Thanks to that flexibility, he will always have some value to bring to the table.”
You, yourself, when you have to take on staff, do you take part in the recruitment process?
“Yes, in a rather active fashion. I meet applicants, I dissect CVs and in particular, I introduce applicants to the team. I have never taken anyone on without checking my choice with the team. I believe in the group. In a company, going it alone does not exist. That is the lesson I learned, among others, from my experience in Japanese companies.”
Which brings me to my next question…. You have worked for French, Japanese, and American companies, where the corporate culture is very different. How do you adjust?
“The key is to listen. And try to walk in the other person’s shoes. It takes a lot of work to understand. You need to watch, to talk, and to meet the other person half way. Definitely, don’t think that you know everything. That’s not true. And even once you understand the other person’s culture, the company’s culture, you are still not there. Understanding is one thing, accepting is something else. Accepting another culture is not a straightforward task. Some may understand without accepting and therefore, in spite of everything, they wish to impose their view of things, their way of working. They won’t be prevented from doing so, but that could take many years and cause a lot of difficulties with minimal results.”
Earlier you said you helped young start-up companies, could you make it your one and only activity?
“I don’t think so. For me, it’s essential to keep one foot in the company, to play an active and operational role in it. I have a passion for ‘getting things done’ and I fully intend to work until I am 70!”