Forging ahead with creativity and new mindsets

Text: editorial staff “ceo” Magazine | Images: Marc Wetli | Magazine: Life & Science – July 2017

A company faced with constant change, and doing likewise. A CEO who gives his teams the freedom they need to come up with solutions for the future: Grégoire Poux-Guillaume heads industrial giant Sulzer with a touch of unconventionality and telescopic vision. He wants his people to tackle the topics that mean something.

Mr Poux-Guillaume, in a few words, what do you associate with the term “life”?

Let me put it this way: life is fluid. Everything has its flow. We humans and many of the creatures we share this world with are mostly made up of fluid. And almost everything we do at Sulzer is in some way connected with flows and fluids: water, oil, fluid transport, fluid separation, fluid mixing and even make-up – you name it.

What contribution does your company make to the improvement of life?

Our technologies contribute in many ways to making life better and easier for people all around the world. The spectrum includes everything from wastewater treatment to clean water distribution, more efficient power generation, carbon separation and carbon capture, as well as innovative solutions for the beauty and wellness segments. A lot of this you don’t see at first glance, but each and every element has its own impact on life.

“You’ve got to be very modest about your personal contribution.”

What is your personal contribution in all of this?

You’ve got to be very modest about your personal contribution, especially when you’re at the helm of a company that’s been in existence for more than 180 years and you’ve only been around for a year and a half. But the CEO sets the tone. Our teams are less likely to take something seriously if I don’t. You have to walk the talk.

Pump systems play an important role in the history of Sulzer. What does this technology mean to you?

Pumps are historically really interesting, not just for Sulzer! Pump technology was known to the ancient Greeks already in the 3rd century BC. But for me, it’s fascinating to see how a technology that’s been in existence for so long can still be continuously de­veloped and refined. It also fascinates me how many of the processes that are crucial to human life actually involve pumps – everything that has to do with water, almost everything that has to do with energy. The list is long.

What is Sulzer’s vision in terms of life and science?

Sulzer is first and foremost a company built on science – a technology company with highly engineered products – and this since almost two centuries now. The vision of Sulzer is to grow in all four of our businesses, and we have the financial means to do so both organically and through acquisitions. That puts us in a really good position, and if we manage to make Sulzer the employer of choice for the talented people we’re going after worldwide, then the sky’s the limit.

What role does research and development play in that vision?

As I mentioned, that’s what we’re built on – highly engineered products, as well as the ability to innovate, develop complex solutions and protect them through intellectual property rights – these are the factors that make Sulzer unique.

Grégoire Poux-Guillaume is CEO of the Swiss industrial enterprise, Sulzer. A native of France, he assumed his current post in December 2015. Previously, the 46-year-old mechanical engineer with an MBA from Harvard held various positions at General Electric, Alstom, CVC Capital Partners, McKinsey and Total. Greg Poux-Guillaume lives with his family in Canton Zurich. To balance out his work life, he hikes and skis with his children and friends.

How has R&D changed over time?

If I take a look back at the start of my career, the important question at the time was where a company’s R&D department should be located. Today, we have outstanding methods and tools for collaboration, technologies that allow us to work on the very same projects yet across national boundaries and continents. This way, we can bring together the people with the best qualifications. We cooperate closely with our customers and with universities around the world and can attract talents from practically anywhere. So the “Where?” we used to talk about is no longer an issue.

Where do you see the limits of scientific and technological progress?

I believe that mankind has virtually no limits when it comes to thinking and creativity. It’s the ethical questions that set the boundaries. The way I see it, the main objective is to forge ahead with creativity and new mindsets.

“I believe that mankind has virtually no limits when it comes to thinking and creativity.”

Returning for a moment to the topic of air and water: What can Sulzer contribute to the improvement of the environment in a global context?

With pump systems for clean drinking water or by installing the high-performance waste-water treatment plants we offer worldwide, we make a direct contribution to that effort. Also, carbon capture technology has a tremendous potential. The financial crisis has relegated environmental issues to the back seat for now, but the time will come when this technology – which is ready and waiting – will finally see its breakthrough.

How can projects like that be financed these days?

Right now, the investments are going towards pilot projects of a showcase nature. The financing comes from various sources, such as private sector initiatives, government grants and environmental funds.

Is Sulzer – as a Swiss industrial company – not too pricey to be competitive in the realisation of projects like that?

I think you need to differentiate between two things here. We’re proud of our provenance. Swissness is an important element of our identity as a provider of qualitatively superior and essentially represents a seal of approval in the eyes of our customers. Equally spoken, our production takes place as close as possible to the given markets. An example: we don’t manufacture our pumps in Switzerland anymore, but instead in three factories in China and one in India. So the cost of the end products has little to do with the fact that we’re a Swiss company.

Founded in 1834, Winterthur-based Sulzer specialises in pumps, turbomachinery services, as well as separation, mixing and applications technologies. With a global network of more than 180 production and service sites as well as its workforce of some 14,000 employees, the company addresses the oil and gas, electric power, water and general manufacturing industries. In 2016, Sulzer generated total revenues of CHF 2.9 billion.

You alluded to your activities in the fields of healthcare, hygiene and cosmetics. What exactly is involved there?

Sulzer is a broadly diversified enterprise. With our mixing and application technology, we offer solutions for the making of medications, cosmetics and many other products. In fact, there can be a little bit of Sulzer in a lotion or a lipstick, or even in dental bridge or tooth crown you might need. We see growth possibilities in those areas. Ultimately, quite a lot of what we do is driven by population growth and economic developments.

“We live in a time of constant change – it’s the hallmark of our era.”

Throughout the long history of Sulzer and to this very day, change has been the constant. The old is abandoned; the new is added. What does this ongoing reinvention mean to you?

We live in a time of constant change – it’s the hallmark of our era. So the ability to anticipate change and respond to it rapidly is what makes Sulzer strong. Granted, the company has reinvented itself more often than many others. Even as CEO, who you would normally assume is prescient in his ability to foresee changes in the market, it never ceases to surprise me how fact things actually change. I of course have a view on what lies ahead, but no certainty.

Getting down to the nuts and bolts: a technician overhauling a generator.
Starting from scratch: a pump platform takes form.