“I always want to do better tomorrow”

ANNUAL REPORT ARTICLE

Henrik Heideby has held numerous leadership positions over the years and taken big companies through hard times. He has headed management teams in large companies, and he has been a board member and chairman in widely different organisations and industries. He has a reputation for being tough, but he rather sees himself as passionate, deeply curious and somewhat impatient – even though he does sometimes wish he was better at keeping his mouth shut. What you might consider a weakness may well also be your biggest strength, and in Henrik’s case his tenacity, inquisitive mind and straightforwardness has helped him deliver great results and has earned him great respect.
Being the son of a tailor and a seamstress, Henrik Heideby appeared to be in his element when we met him at IC Group’s headquarters. He is now the chairman of the board and has come a long way from his parents’ starting point, even though we find him in the middle of the fashion industry. “As a child, I was sad that my parents’ financial situation prevented me from doing certain things, but looking back, I believe my background has given me an advantage as I had to take care of myself early on. I wasn’t conscious about trying to break a pattern, but wanting to prove that I could do more has definitely been a source of energy and drive for me”. When it turned out that Henrik had a flair for numbers, he dreamt about becoming an economics professor, but life had other plans for him. He had his children at an early age, which forced him to leave university to get a job. “My first real job was at the corporate bank FIH, which was called Investeringsinstituttet at that time. I’m the deputy chairman at FIH now, actually. When I started I thought of it as temporary, although I didn’t tell them, but I got promoted and got to do new things that were interesting, and at a certain point, I dismissed the idea of going back to school. Perhaps it’s in my genes to thrive in a com¬mercial environment, even though I didn’t think so at the time”, he says.
Henrik Heideby bio

Henrik was born in 1949. He got a BSc in Management Accounting at Copenhagen Business School and went on to study Political Science at university, but never got around to finishing his master’s thesis. Later on, Henrik stayed alert to thought leadership by visiting institutions such as Stanford University. Henrik got a job at FIH Erhvervsbank in the 70s, and became the company CEO in 1988. Ten years later, he joined Alfred Berg as CEO where he served until he was hired as CEO of the leading Danish pension company, PFA, in 2001. Since the age of 35, Henrik has been an active board member serving on more than 70 boards through his career. In 2014, he left PFA, and since then, he has devoted his time entirely to board work. He is the chairman of the board at IC Group and Carlsberg Byen, and in addition, he is a member of several boards, among them the board at FIH Erhvervsbank. An often-overlooked point on his resume is that he was once the Danish Greco-Roman wrestling champion.

“I don’t believe in career plans”

It’s fair to say that Henrik has a flair for commercial success. He ended up serving as the CEO at FIH for 10 years, and since then, he has headed companies such as the Nordic investment banking company Alfred Berg and Denmark’s largest pension company, PFA. This was never part of a grand career plan – he doesn’t believe in them. Rather, he believes it was the result of lucky choices, an extrovert personality and a certain DNA. “If you’re not interested in other people, forget about being a leader. If you come to the office and meet someone looking sad, you ask them what’s wrong. It only works if it comes naturally to you.” When you talk to Henrik, it becomes obvious that his primary source of energy is the social aspect and the drive to create results
together with other people. “It’s like in sports; it’s much more difficult when you’re alone. Being part of a team – be it small or large – is fantastic. Or it’s like reading a book; you need to discuss it with someone”, he says. “At home, my wife and I read the same books and swap so we can discuss them.” Henrik’s extrovert nature and his relentless curiosity are some of the characteristics that have helped him move forward. He has always been passionate about his work and deeply interested in the industries in which he is involved. According to Henrik, you cannot make up for a lack of curiosity by just being skilled, and you have to be able to really listen.

“As a leader, you have to accept that some people are much smarter than you, but you have to know enough to be able to ask insightful questions. You have to ask open questions such as ‘why is it that..?’ and ‘how did you..?’ and so on … without feeling inferior. Many leaders ask questions and try to project their own answers into your head, but it’s also important that you know when to be quiet”, Henrik says.

Typecast

Even though he did not end up an economics professor, Henrik has seen plenty of numbers through his career. Perhaps his almost autistic way with numbers has been the main reason why a great portion of his career has unfolded in financial and analytical companies, but many other aspects of the companies’ results have been key to him as well; a personality trait he feels is sometimes overlooked. “I sometimes feel typecast, sort of like the actor who always plays the funny character and never gets a serious role. People tend to bracket me with the number crunchers, but I’m deeply interested in development in a broad sense and in what’s happening outside the financial industry. Financial companies are sometimes perceived as different from other companies, but I’ve always tried to adopt an outside-in approach and turn them into more market-oriented companies. Numbers are important, but in the end, they’re only the symptoms of something that needs to be changed in our minds. What really matters is behaviour”, he concludes.

Keeping his cool

Tough decisions are a natural part of the leadership role, and Henrik has made his fair share. When faced with a difficult choice, he believes he acts based on 75% analysis and 25% intuition. In the problem-identification phase, Henrik relies heavily on his gut feeling. “If I sense something’s wrong, I dig into it and do what I call a deep dive. I’ve seen too many people just hope for the bad things to go away. They usually don’t”, he says. He also uses his network and advisors to evaluate different options. An example of a tough decision was when Henrik decided to pull the plug on a large-scale IT project that had been running for four years. “At a certain point, I got very worried, and I recommended to the board that we stop the project and start over. I did so because I could see a different way forward, but I wasn’t certain it would succeed. If it hadn’t, the board would probably have thrown me under the bus,
but that’s the risk you run. In these situations, I keep my cool.” Another situation that required a measure of coolness was in September 2001, shortly after Henrik had joined PFA, when the company as well as the entire western world were in a state of crisis. PFA was in a tight spot to say the least – 22 billion short in capital. Months of hard work and long nights followed, but Henrik and the team at PFA managed to turn the company around, taking it through a huge transformation process. “When I joined PFA, the company was close to putting up the shutters, but I thought to myself ‘if the company doesn’t exist in 20 days, I’ll find something else to do’, and I dug in. If you lose your nerve or become too dependent on your job, you become a poor leader”, he believes. Getting PFA back on track is still the one achievement he is most proud of in his long career.

“It was very, very dramatic, and I believe I succeeded because I was quick to identify the problem and its magnitude. I’m actually quite proud of that. I think many people would have thrown in the towel in that situation, but I have this gene – I like it when the adrenaline starts pumping”, Henrik says.

Both sides of the boardroom table

Even though Henrik has perhaps been typecast as a numbers man, he has worked in many different industries. Since he was 35, he has served on more than 70 boards covering all industries from pharmaceuticals to agricultural machinery, and he has always made an effort to gain a deep understanding of the drivers of the industries in which he was working. Having experience from both sides of the boardroom table is a huge advantage, and Henrik has a very specific take on what characterises optimum co-operation between board and management. “There’s a fine governance structure you have to observe. The daily management has to accept that the board is its superior. The board shouldn’t just serve as a supervisory or controlling authority; it should also participate in stimulating new ideas and be creative in developing the company. The board has to let management shine, but it should also ask constructive and critical questions”, he says. A high level of trust and a spirit of teamwork among the board members as well as the executive managers should also be fostered, and it’s important to choose the board members carefully, making sure that they bring complementary skills to the table. “You have to remember that you’re there for a reason. Ask yourself what it is”, he says.

“I wish I’d kept my mouth shut”

Henrik has sometimes been labelled as tough, and he admits that some people may have been intimidated by his drive. “I always want to do better tomorrow, and I tend to transfer this to the people I work with. That causes some people to criticise me. I’m not very diplomatic – I call it as I see it. You shouldn’t create conflicts, but you shouldn’t avoid them either. Doing better is a continuous process, and if you fall asleep, you stagnate or deteriorate. I don’t agree with companies that don’t believe in growth. You have to grow, otherwise you die at some point”, he states. Honesty, commitment, hard work and loyalty are the values that Henrik Heideby cherishes most in his teams, and he has no patience for politics. “If people get too focused on their own situation – perhaps they’re afraid of losing their job, or they want to become CEOs – their behaviour becomes so self-centred it overshadows everything else. I don’t understand that. I don’t think I’m like that at all”, he ponders. Often, our strengths can also turn against us, and Henrik is aware that it would sometimes be wise to tone down his directness. “There are many times I wish I’d kept my mouth shut. I’ve probably aired my opinions too loudly, but other than that, I have no regrets. You only have this one life, right? You have to enjoy it, and I thrive if I feel like I make things happen – if I make a difference.”
There’s no doubt that Henrik has indeed made a difference in the companies he has been part of, and that he has been an inspiration to many people. When asked about his own sources of inspiration, he emphasises Erik Mollerup, his first boss at FIH Erhvervsbank, who was a renowned businessman in the 70s, holding board positions at Politiken, Danfoss and Tuborg, among others. “I was his executive assistant, and he taught me a lot of things, both about what to do and about what not to do. He was an iconic person – very holistic. He was anti-conservative and very charismatic, and once he trusted you, you could get to do anything”, Henrik recalls. The fact that he himself is a role model for many people is not something Henrik has given much thought, but he does think about what it has meant for his two grown-up sons. “I feel that my career has been somewhat straining for them because they might feel that now that their father has been successful in a certain domain, they have to be successful too. I try to play it down, saying that life is a series of opportunities. Some you see, others you don’t, and it’s all about trying to seize them and do something about them”.