Hilary Maxson’s path to the CFO office of French multinational and energy automation behemoth Schneider Electric began at a kitchen table in upstate New York. Or at least that’s what comes to mind for us when she tells us about her “purpose-driven” parents, including a father who is a professor of agronomy at Cornell University.
“We didn’t live internationally, but my parents are very tied to what can be achieved internationally and I think that this is how I got that mind-set,” reports Maxson, as we search for answers that might better expose how within a span of 12 years she pursued and realized gainful career experiences in places as far-flung as Douala, Cameroon (3 years), the Philippines (3), Hong Kong (2), and Paris (4).Read More
Says Maxson: “I really believe that doing good business is the key to changing the world, and by ‘good’ business I mean that you can still make profits, still do right by your employees, and still do right by your country—this is how we can bring about change.”
Turn back the clock to 2003, and even as Maxson was exiting a 4-year banking career in New York City to get an MBA from Cornell— a familiar gateway for ambitious bankers—she was already looking past Wall Street.
Comments Maxson: “One of the reasons I wanted to change was that I also wanted to build things—not just in the U.S., but internationally.”
Sometimes building things necessitated some banking diplomacy. For instance, while living in Cameroon as CFO (Africa) for electric power giant AES Corporation, Maxson became charged with leading negotiations to help AES restructure €300 million in debt between AES, eight multilateral lenders, and the Cameroon government.
She would eventually join Schneider Electric in Hong Kong before transferring to SE’s Paris headquarters, where she assumed the role of group CFO in May of 2020.
Maxson’s CFO tenure now falls during a transformational chapter for Schneider, as the company has made no secret of its plans to double down on its commitment to sustainability initiatives and ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) principles.
“ESG is not just something companies do—it is a real value driver in terms of both mitigating risk and reporting actuals, so you really want to embed your ESG thinking into your financial planning,” explains Maxson, who—despite her years abroad—appears to not have ventured very far from the kitchen table. –Jack Sweeney
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CFOTL: Tell us about Schneider Electric … what sets this company apart from its energy management rivals?
Maxson: Very simply, we’re a hardware and software company—or really a hybrid—that provides the power and industrial automation backbone for customers across a number of end markets: buildings, which encompass technical buildings like hospitals and office buildings; homes, including multi- and single-family residences; data and IT centers, so cloud data centers, enterprise data centers, and all of the hardware and software around this industry; and manufacturing, particularly process manufacturing like mining and oil and gas, as well as more hybrid and discrete manufacturing operations like pharmaceutical, warehousing, and logistics.Read More
We also support infrastructure, which for us is primarily utilities. We’re the largest energy management firm in the world. I define our space as the power backbone—all of the stuff that sort of keeps the power on and with the right quality. Then we have a very complementary portfolio for industrial automation. These are really the same customers for whom we’re adding the IoT layer or digitalization of all of this across what we call life cycle asset management—from designing to building to operating facilities such as the factories that are making all of this stuff for these end markets.
I actually joined Schneider because I thought that this view made the most sense to customers. You need power and you need automation and you want digitalization of all of these assets. Plus, Schneider is really aligned with the big megatrends that we have today that are tied to the world’s energy transition: more electrification, more digitization, more sustainability. Even as I joined 5 years ago, I was thinking that Schneider was very well positioned with its portfolio and its strategy to address many of the future scenarios where these major world transitions would be going. I think that this is probably only more true today.
Schneider is a company that’s also really been driven by its own stance on ESG matters for more than 15 years. In 2005, we first adopted a barometer that we now call the Schneider Sustainability Index, which spans all of the UN’s sustainable development goals—so, it’s more than just carbon and our own carbon pledge. I think that we’ve been working with ESG more and more as part of our corporate culture and DNA since then. I’ve always believed in pretty much all of the aspects of ESG, including things like diversity in the workforce. Certainly, everything environmental is really a key to driving value over the medium and long term for all companies. It makes a huge difference for our employees, obviously, plus we have credibility with our customers who want to get there themselves through their own sustainability journey. This was another reason that I liked and wanted to move to Schneider: It really has everything across ESG as part of its cultural DNA and everyday actions.
Schneider Electric | www.se.com | Rueil-Malmaison, France