What are they
CFO of Sulzer
Thomas Dittrich Climbs to the Top
The CFO of Sulzer explains how consulting prepared him to lead an iconic Swiss industrial firm into the future.
by Jen Swetzoff
“When I interviewed with Booz Allen Hamilton in the early 1990s,” says Thomas Dittrich, now CFO of Sulzer, a Swiss industrial engineering and manufacturing firm, “the office in Munich had just opened and they were recruiting heavily. The Berlin Wall had just come down. I remember I was talking with the head of the operations practice, who had flown in from the U.S., and he asked me if I could help him hang the pictures. Probably, that’s the real reason I got hired — because I was able to get a nail straight into the wall.”
Dittrich’s sense of humor and ability to get things done have certainly played a role in his success. He also brings a sharp intellect, contagious enthusiasm, and intense determination to everything he does. He says his passion for business and engineering began early in life, and he credits his father, who helped grow an industrial company in Austria, with inspiring his own career. He recalls dinner-table conversations about how to secure financing, adopt new technologies, purchase new equipment, and solve technical problems.
Determined to deepen his understanding of both the financial and the technical aspects of business, Dittrich received his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Technical University in Munich and then completed a second master’s degree in finance, accounting, and business administration at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. He worked with Booz Allen for nearly five years, until Swatch Group hired him to direct business development and finance. After that, he held top leadership positions at Dell Inc. and Amgen before joining Sulzer in 2014.
Today, Dittrich lives with his wife and their two children, ages 12 and 15, in a small town near Zurich. During a recent conversation, he discussed the importance of challenges, team building, and self-reflection.
How does your consulting background remain relevant to your work now?
First, I learned how to do proper fact-based analysis and develop superior solutions in a fast and structured way. Second, I learned that implementation is key. The best report that sits on a bookshelf won’t do any good in terms of value creation. Finally, consulting taught me the importance of forthrightness — to do the right thing, speak up, don’t compromise on ethics, and don’t cut corners. It also taught me how to keep my ego in check. I learned to work with my clients without compromising on quality, while also focusing on the emotional intelligence aspect of driving the adoption of a solution.
What’s the best part of your job as CFO?
I’ve always liked to climb mountains; to surmount challenges. So being able to deliver the transformation of Sulzer in a tough environment has been very rewarding. With 50 percent of our revenue coming from oil and gas, it hasn’t been easy. But as a team, we made three important changes early: We made the balance sheet more efficient, we improved Sulzer’s profitability profile, and we reignited growth through acquisitions. Now, two-and-a-half years after I arrived, we’re seen as a company that has driven a large self-help program and made itself leaner, while at the same time building a credible growth story.
How do you approach challenges?
I try to apply this principle: “Never waste a good crisis.” In other words, I’m not complaining about the down market. When you want to return a company to growth via acquisitions, as we do, there’s probably never a better time to explore M&A opportunities, because you’re more likely to get decent valuations and not overpay. We’re hoping to round out our portfolio with assets that will help us improve our offerings to customers and grow in the future.
How would the people closest to you describe you?
Agile, results-driven, people-oriented, balanced, and fun to work with — at least that’s what our CEO said when I asked him. Booz Allen would probably do a bigger sample size than that, but I can offer N equals one.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
I’m most proud of building high-performance teams across diverse environments: throughout my work in the U.S. and in Europe, and in three different industries — from computers to biotech to the industrial market. As a leader, I think it’s my job to make hard decisions and then motivate people so that they see personal accomplishment and growth in the work we’re doing together.
How has living and working in different countries affected you?
You learn to play the social piano in different ways. There are many similarities across geographies and cultures, and focusing on certain things always resonates: transparency, trust, putting people first, and getting results. What’s different is often the approach and how people communicate. Living in different places has made my family more sensitive, flexible, and understanding because we know that while values across borders are similar, you’re not just tied to one way of doing things or looking at things. I consider that a great gift.
When and where are you happiest?
Exploring new places and being active outside with my family, whether we’re biking, hiking, swimming, or skiing.
What’s next for you?
I’m looking forward to where we can take Sulzer next. The industry is changing rapidly, and new opportunities may arise via M&A that allow us to scale more quickly. We’re also actively building the data-to-value bridge. We have a large installed base of equipment because we’ve been around for a long time. Therefore, we have a lot of data, and our customers, for instance, the oil and gas majors and large pipeline operators, turn to us for valuable insights. My goal is to continue surpassing the expectations of our employees, the public, and our shareholders.
What career advice would you give to others?
First, look for the biggest challenge your company or your team has, and make yourself part of its solution. Second, take risks and accept mistakes, but learn from them. Third, celebrate successes. Then raise the bar on yourself an inch every time you succeed. Finally, take an active approach to self-development. Think about what you learned, what worked, what didn’t work, and how you might do things differently. Making time for reflection is one of the best ways to make progress as you go through life.
Jen Swetzoff is the founder and CEO of Closeup Content Studio, a strategic communications and marketing firm that focuses on sharing informative, inspiring, and influential stories. She formerly worked as the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.