In her interview with “next-step”, the magazine of the Liechtenstein Office for Vocational Training and Counselling, Melanie Gstöhl spoke about career planning, new technology and why she treats herself to something good.
next-step: Melanie Gstöhl, when you worked at Bank Frick over 10 years ago as an employee in what was then the Finance and Compliance department, could you imagine that you would one day be Bank Frick’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO)?
Melanie Gstöhl: At the time I was very busy trying to achieve a balance between family, job and education. Relatively soon after I finished secondary school and as a young mother, I decided not to go to university but to pin my hopes on part-time further training courses instead. Of course my goal was to achieve an equivalent qualification, though. My employer has always been fantastically supportive with my professional and educational development.
What does it take to climb the ranks so quickly?
My career was never my priority. For me, the opportunity to contribute my ideas and help to shape the development of certain areas has always been much more important. I found it extremely exciting to get to know new areas on a regular basis and continuously expand my expertise. Another thing that has always been important to me is to have a precise understanding of everything I do – including what goes on in the background – and to take responsibility. Only then is it possible to identify risks and potential improvements and put the latter into practice. At the end of the day, these are probably the qualities that make the difference. Of course everyone needs a bit of good fortune too and somebody who recognises and encourages their potential.
What was the key step on this path?
There came a time after the birth of my second child when I had to decide whether to take a step back from my career or get more involved. Everyone who knows me will tell you that I would have found it extremely difficult to take a step back and not contribute my ideas.
What would you like to achieve as CFO?
As CFO, I am on the one hand responsible – as the name suggests – for the classic financial management of the company, which includes accounting, liquidity and financial planning, administration of the company’s funds, etc. On the other hand, in my role as a Member of the Management Board, I have joint responsibility for implementing our chosen strategy and ensuring the company’s positive development. The strong growth phase in which we currently find ourselves necessitates very close monitoring of the business models. An important goal is for the company as a whole to cope with the growth phase of the next few years without any major difficulties and keep the costs and income under control at all times, so that at the end of it all, we can look back on what we have achieved as a company and be proud of it.
What fascinates you about figures, accounting and finance?
Many people still imagine bookkeepers closeted away, silently filling in cash books. That has not been the case for a long time. As a finance expert, you have the clearest picture of what is going on at the company. After all, every transaction ultimately ends up as a booking in the accounts. A company can only be managed successfully if the basis for decision-making – in other words the business results from the accounts and the financial plan – is available and prepared in a transparent manner. I personally find finance to be a wonderfully clear and logical subject. It is fascinating to see how the accounts encapsulate the whole company in figures.
When did you first come into contact with blockchain?
In 2010, the Bank’s Management Board decided to enter into the e-commerce business and offer payment processing services for online trading. The following year, we became a principal member of Visa and MasterCard – as the first and to date only bank in Liechtenstein. In addition to the classic online business, such as payment processing for online shops, we quickly came into contact with various fintechs that were developing new business models along the value chain. And as a result, the topic of cryptocurrencies, which are based on blockchains, became ever more important.
Today, Bank Frick not only offers account services to blockchain companies, it also helps them to procure capital with initial coin offerings (ICOs) or exchange money between different cryptocurrencies.
In this regard, we succeeded in building up some really strong expertise and offering relevant products and services in a segment that is still a niche. Of course it is great to work at a bank that is open to new things and dares to step into the unknown. This has enabled us to become one of the leading companies in this field not only in Europe but in the whole world.
What challenges did you face on the way to getting there?
The biggest challenge, quite clearly, is the fact that these are completely new business models and processes for which we had to develop new internal procedures and control mechanisms. This is particularly relevant from the perspective of regulation, of course: we have to ensure that we know the clients and the origins of the money and meet all the requirements that we also have to meet in classic banking.
How important will this pioneering role be for the future of the Bank?
For small banks like Bank Frick, it will be even more important in the future to specialise in certain niches and provide outstanding services in those areas. Blockchain banking is one area in which we have managed to bring an offering to the market that is still unique. This enabled – and continues to enable – us to clearly differentiate ourselves from other market participants. We are aware that we won’t always be the only ones. What is important is to recognise market trends and demands at an early stage and flexibly adapt our business models.
Which new requirements will IT face in terms of data security?
Data security requirements are a very big issue, as they are at all other companies. In the field of cryptocurrencies, however, the main challenges lie in the development of internal processes. All cryptocurrencies which Bank Frick holds in safekeeping are stored on cold storage devices that are not connected to the Internet. Here, the decisive factor is clear regulation of the admission and access rights.
A total of 100 blockchain companies have settled in Liechtenstein in a very short period of time. Why are ICOs and cryptocurrencies an opportunity for the Liechtenstein financial centre?
A completely new sector is emerging and Liechtenstein has the opportunity to be at the very forefront of it internationally. Even if only some of these start-ups and ICOs achieve long-term success, a few will grow large and help to shape the finance and business centre in the future and create promising jobs.
What potential do you see for yourself in blockchain technology?
Blockchain technology provides access to a huge number of new and simpler applications, both in finance but also in completely different sectors. It would be possible, for example, to reliably trace foods and maintain complete land or commercial registers in a blockchain. There are a great many ideas and concepts in this respect. I am excited to see which projects will win through.
What will change in this regard over the coming years?
It is possible, for example, that patient files could be stored in a blockchain. Then it would no longer be necessary for each doctor to set up their own file and patients would be able to determine which doctors have access to and can use and edit their personal file. In this way, all information about patients would be available to all doctors who need it at a single glance, and the patients would not have to keep on repeating their entire medical history.
Will the new technologies make the banking professions more interesting and if so, why?
The change is interesting in itself because it enables and indeed forces us to question the status quo. We have to find answers to questions that have never been asked before.
What will (have to) change in terms of training?
In this regard, the important thing will be to recognise the new trends at an early stage, analyse them and if necessary offer suitable training and further education courses quickly.
How do you manage to achieve a good balance between your job and your family life?
In my opinion it is counterproductive to pressurise yourself by thinking that everything needs to be in perfect balance at all times. There are always phases in which one thing or another takes priority. The key is to listen to yourself and your body, and treat yourself from time to time.