Gerdi Verbeet and Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen (Siemens): ‘A Breath of Fresh Air for the Board’

Gerdi Verbeet and Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen (Siemens): ‘A Breath of Fresh Air for the Board’
One member departs, another arrives. Gerdi Verbeet will bid farewell to the supervisory board of Siemens Netherlands at the end of this year after two terms. Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen steps into her shoes. The departing board member offers valuable advice to her successor: ‘You must create a safe space for your executives, but also challenge them.’

Marguerite Soeteman-Reijnen began her tenure as a board member at Siemens Netherlands on October 1st — with a side of traditional Dutch oliebollen (deep-fried pastries). ‘It is a tradition here to eat oliebollen at the beginning of the new fiscal year. I literally fell with my nose in the butter,’ she remarks. Departing board member Gerdi Verbeet, surprised, comments, ‘What? Oliebollen? On October 1st? Why am I hearing about this just now? No one ever told me!’

The atmosphere between the incoming and outgoing board members is jovial, as shows during a conversation with Joyce Leemrijse of Allen & Overy. Verbeet even dares to make a confession in confidence: ‘When I started as a board member at Siemens Netherlands in 2014, I proudly mentioned that I owned a Siemens washing machine and dryer! They looked at me as if I were crazy. No one here was concerned with washing and drying; the focus was on digital industries and smart infrastructure. Siemens washing machines were no longer being manufactured by Siemens—the company had merely provided the brand name.’
The analogy with Philips arises. Soeteman-Reijnen confesses she is ‘the daughter of a Philips father.’ She was born in Eindhoven, and her father worked for Philips, which can, with some imagination, be considered the Dutch counterpart to the German Siemens. ‘Philips and Siemens are both companies with a long history. They initially grew big with light bulbs, televisions, or household appliances, but over time, they evolved into high-tech industries. Their strength lies in their ability to reinvent themselves continually and breathe new life into their businesses. Siemens, an enterprise with a 175-year history, has long-term value creation in its DNA.’

This is not the first encounter between Verbeet and Soeteman-Reijnen. They know each other through their work and efforts in the field of diversity and inclusion, especially in the realm of ‘women at the top.’ Their first meeting occurred when Verbeet chaired the jury selecting the Top Woman of the Year. At that time, Soeteman-Reijnen, then a top executive at insurance broker Aon, was one of the role models for Talent to the Top, an organization advocating for more women in top positions. Soeteman-Reijnen recalls, ‘Gerdi and I have met regularly since then to share experiences.’ Verbeet adds, ‘And to keep our spirits up.’

Why? Is that necessary?
Verbeet: ‘The advancement of women to the top is, of course, better than before, but still painfully slow. I remember about ten years ago when I, along with then-Minister Jet Bussemaker and the late former chairman of VNO-NCW, Hans de Boer, was working on establishing a database of top women. The prevailing belief in the business world at that time was that top female talent simply did not exist. De Boer, incidentally my predecessor here on the board of Siemens, attributed this to a ‘biological gap’ in women’s resumes. But he was brave enough to join us. After all, he also saw that his daughter had a harder time advancing her career than his son, for no objective reason. With that database, we proved that top female talent indeed existed. The interesting thing is that Ab van der Touw, then CEO of Siemens Netherlands, already back then was very enthusiastic about it.’
Soeteman-Reijnen: ‘In the Netherlands, supervisory boards are doing fairly well in terms of gender diversity targets. Unfortunately, executive boards are lagging behind. Before I started here, I checked Siemens Netherlands’ progress. And it is quite good. We have a female CFO here, Martina Genth, and I will be one of the three members in the board. Clear targets have been set for all top positions here. By 2025, 22.5 of top positions must be held by a woman. Through efforts in recent years, we are already at 20.9 percent.
What I find noteworthy, especially in light of recent news indicating that women still earn less than men: at Siemens Netherlands, the gender pay gap favours women! That is not something you often hear. Gerdi, you can be proud of that. You contributed to that!’
Verbeet: ‘I did keep drawing attention to it as a board member. And what I found, and still find, equally important: making the company attractive to young people. Interestingly, measures that benefit women also appeal to young talents. And they are good for the company: employees want to stay with you longer.’
Soeteman-Reijnen: ‘In general, there is still too much reliance on statistics in managing diversity and inclusion’; it is, of course, because reporting is necessary. But ultimately, organizations need to have a vision on the topic. What is the company’s strategy for becoming more inclusive? There is room for improvement there.’
Verbeet: ‘In politics, I learned always to look at budgets. Are ambitious goals supported by funding? If a minister claimed something was very important, but no funds were allocated, I knew enough. It was mere lip service.’

Ms. Soeteman-Reijnen, you have just started on the board. How did you prepare?
Soeteman-Reijnen: ‘I had various conversations, both with board members and with the Dutch management and, of course, extensively with the works council. I was nominated as a board member by the works council, so they are an essential sounding board for me. As a nominated board member, you naturally want to understand everything happening within the company. You want to know if the relationships are good, what the problems are, the dilemmas the company faces, which issues are currently on the table. Of course, I also discussed these matters with Gerdi beforehand. In the run-up, you essentially conduct your own due diligence. You need to get a feel for the company. I need to feel comfortable here, and they need to feel comfortable with me. What I immediately sensed is that everyone here is very positive about this company. There is an abundance of dedication.’

What does it mean for a board member to be nominated by the works council? Does it entail additional responsibility? Does it create extra pressure?
Verbeet: ‘No, not at all. It is a joy to be a nominee board member on behalf of the works council. It is an incredibly positive role. You attend the works council meetings, where you hear, in plain language, how things are going in the heart of the company. All the insights from the workplace can then be brought to the board. This input is incredibly important for the top management. Fortunately, there are no tensions between the works council and the management here. They work exceptionally well together. The works council has a close relationship with the management and is involved in all developments. Very satisfying.’
Soeteman-Reijnen: ‘I strongly believe in the triangle of executives, board members, and employees. As CEO, board member, and works council, you are all on the same boat. It is your task to keep the ship on course together, also in stormy waters. In my role as a nominee board member chosen by the works council, I want to be close to operations. I find that valuable. My main resolve is to listen to what is happening in the company. Being a good listener is a crucial quality for such a board member.’

Siemens Netherlands is part of a German parent company, Siemens AG. The supervisory board is composed by two Germans besides you. In this configuration, what role does the Dutch board member play?
: ‘As a Dutch member of the board, the aim is to keep the other members informed about what is happening in the Netherlands. You advise them about the business climate in the country, update them on the societal context of this organization in the Netherlands, share the local governance practices.’
Verbeet: ‘I notice significant interest among the German colleagues in what is happening in the Netherlands. We always start our meetings with a current events roundup: what is happening in the Netherlands, how might it affect us? That interests them too. It is also crucial to introduce foreign colleagues to the Dutch business landscape or acquaint them with Dutch stakeholders. For instance, regarding innovation strategies or diversity, these companies can benefit greatly from each other. So, as a Dutch board member, you also offer your network. And I think it is vital to preserve Dutch culture here. Siemens Netherlands is a Dutch company, a company which for example sponsors the Dutch cultural sector and supports Dutch charities.’

But with an international workforce...
Verbeet: ‘That is correct. Especially our technical staff, we mostly recruit from abroad. Unfortunately, there is a shortage of technicians in the Netherlands. Especially female technicians. Consequently, the corporate culture has become more international. But that does no harm.’

Ms. Verbeet, you have accumulated considerable experience at Siemens. What event left the most significant impression on you?
‘The closure of our production facility in Hengelo had the most impact. Due to costs, one of our locations had to close, and the parent company in Germany chose Hengelo. I found it deeply regrettable. It concerned an old Stork factory in a socially vulnerable area. I had full cooperation from my German colleagues to explore possibilities for relocating employees to other companies. Together with the then CEO Van der Touw and the works council, we embarked on this—with the total support of the entire company. Ultimately, we managed to ensure that most employees moved to VDL. Some employees found jobs at ASML. In the end, it was a success. I look back on it with immense satisfaction.’

Ms. Soeteman-Reijnen, you are at the beginning of your term. Suppose you complete the eight years, similar to Ms. Verbeet. What would you like to have achieved?
Soeteman-Reijnen: ‘I will be satisfied if the employees and the customers are satisfied. I strongly believe in the Rhineland model, where the interests of stakeholders are considered. A company should be firmly rooted in society. As a board member, you must closely observe what is happening in the world around you. You must remain relevant to your customers. Changes are happening at a rapid pace right now. That means that it is hard work for everyone in a company. We have to juggle many balls. Sometimes this happens almost effortlessly, and at other times, you have to work hard to prevent the balls from dropping. As a board member, I want to contribute to keeping those balls in the air. If I can do that, I will be satisfied.’

How would both of you describe yourselves as board members? What do you bring to a board? Verbeet hesitates briefly: ‘...’
Soeteman-Reijnen steps in: ‘Gerdi is all about connection and dialogue. She knows how to captivate people. And she is courageous. She addresses certain issues with people, with charm and humour.’
Verbeet: ‘I want to instil courage in people. I also like to show that I am proud of someone. I enjoy doing things together. I enjoy forming little groups. I do that everywhere: I create little teams of people, stimulating synergy in a group. This results in much better outcomes, both individually and at the group level.’
Soeteman-Reijnen: ‘I like connecting people, not just intellectually but also emotionally. And I am very curious. The 2008 financial crisis taught me a valuable lesson. At that time, no executive could explain what they were doing and why they were doing it. I want complex processes explained in simple terms. If executives cannot do that, alarm bells go off in my head.’
Verbeet: ‘And I envy your language skills, Marguerite. Your English is excellent. And you also speak German.’
Soeteman-Reijnen: ‘Yes, the latter is quite useful in this company. It was delightful to conduct my first conversation with Chairman Christian Kaeser in German. It is just a bit easier. We used to watch a lot of German television at home. Pippi Longstocking was Pippi Langstrumpf for me. Moreover, early in my working life, I worked with the German reinsurer Münchener Rück. So, the German language and culture are familiar to me.’

Ms. Verbeet, you are stepping down as a board member. You must have a vision of the most important task of a board member. What advice can you give Ms. Soeteman-Reijnen?
Verbeet: ‘As a board member, you must give the executives the courage to pick the flowers growing at the edge. You must ensure that you create a safe space for your executives but also stretch them. And above all, you must ask a lot of questions. By asking the right questions, you open doors.’

Will you miss this company?
‘I had a wonderful time here, and of course, I will miss it, but I am also looking forward to what lies ahead. Less meetings, more reading, more time for friends and family. After two terms of four years each, it is time for something new, both for yourself and for the organization. Fortunately, the era when board members could serve for 16 years is over.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 09 2023.

This article was last changed on 24-10-2023