This is Working For Me Vera Calasan
Photograph courtesy Vera Calasan

This Is Working For Me: Vera Calasan

The CEO of Excellence AG–German Engineering shares her gender-neutral view of leadership, the lasting lessons of her Global New Venture Challenge win, and the thrill of a record-setting skydive.

CEO Vera Calasan, ’08 (EXP-13), dismissed the widely held thinking that there aren’t enough engineers in Europe and cofounded Excellence AG–German Engineering two years ago to prove her point. Coming from a family of engineers, she saw the need for a McKinsey-like company that would employ engineers and source them by project to companies that need specific skills. Her vision paid off. She employs 200, and revenue hit €10 million this year. Buyers are interested, but she plans to hold off on an IPO until 2020. Calasan lives with her partner outside of Düsseldorf, Germany.

I come from a family of engineers but I don’t think I’d be a good engineer. My skill set is getting the right people together and managing them. I’m sales and marketing. If I’m impressed, I’m the best salesperson for my engineers. My brother works for us, reporting to my business partner, Gerjan Mazenier. He has 30 years in the engineering business and an established network in the industry.

I immigrated to Germany from Montenegro as a child. My parents had nothing. My mother worked in a hospital. She was not educated, but she had a network of people who did good for each other. That’s something you don’t learn in school. When I talk to young business people, I say, “Work hard and smart and network! To get job offers, you have to know people. You need to go and show yourself.” 

My iPhone is my constant companion. When I’m traveling, my day starts early and ends late. I answer every email within 24 hours. It may be two words or a phrase, but it’s an answer.

With 201 others, I recently set the world’s record for linked skydiving in Southern California. Yes, it’s a bit crazy. And yes, it’s risky, but it’s calculated risk. I started skydiving 15 years ago at a client event. I was amazed, and I knew I wanted to do it again and again. Now I’m with world-class people, getting world-class results in my sport and in my business.

Gerjan Mazenier and I are two of the hotshots of the industry. My very smart business partner is innovative and successful. He worked for Brunel and Atos, knows the business of engineering very well, and managed the fastest growing company in the industry.

Women CEOs in Germany are rare. When I started my career, it was not possible to combine family and work; I had to make a choice. It’s gotten better for working women in Germany, but there’s not universal childcare as there is in the Nordic countries or France.

Leadership is gender neutral. I set clear goals and leave people space for creativity. Within that, I adapt: Do I need to be the innovator? The implementor? The builder? The stabilizer? In the beginning I thought I could always act in the same way. Now I know I need to tailor myself to the company’s life cycle, the market, and my employees’ needs.

My team won the Global New Venture Challenge in 2008. We pitched a virtual-fair business. We felt like we needed $500,000, but when we presented to the panel they said, “Make it big: ask for $5 million.” So when we started Excellence AG we started big, with many locations. It’s how the market looks at you and how clients look at you, and it’s why clients work with us. Make it big: I learned that at Booth.

Business school changed the way I analyze situations, make decisions, and value things. At the London campus there were 90 students from 52 nations. I gained a broader, 360-degree view.

I set clear goals and leave people space for creativity.

Vera Calasan

When I started my career, I dressed very conservatively. I wore a black or blue suit and a white blouse. I wanted to be known for my smarts, not my looks. Now I’m more comfortable in my career. I started my own company, and I’m wiser. I also wear dresses. 

I take the Chicago Approach™. After the business and strategic plan, we did a study of 1,000 engineers. We found that they didn’t want a job if it meant moving from home. They wanted the security of a job, and they wanted interesting tasks. That’s when we knew we could start a company that would offer them a platform, like consulting. We’re a game changer for the profession.

After I earned my MBA I joined ManpowerGroup Inc., headquartered in Milwaukee. I was CEO for Germany, with €650 million in revenues and 22,000 employees in Germany at that time. With the tools from academia, I was newly confident with complexity. I acted more like an investor: Does this investment, this expansion make sense?

I act fast with all the power, smarts, and energy I have. A mentor taught me to step back and analyze the situation before I start running again. It was the best advice.

I believe in the superiority of German engineering. I drive my Audi A5 fast. It’s sporty and comfortable for long distances. My prize for reaching company goals will be a Porsche Macan.

Work takes me all over Europe. The Belgians have the best pralines. And my favorite drink is champagne.

I ski. I like outdoor sports, speed, and competition. We go to Sölden in the Ötztal in Austria. Sölden has huge slopes. We start early in the season and watch the World Cup skiers, and we enjoy skiing with our Excellence team. When you share a passion for a sport, it’s the best base for networking and building relationships.

—As told to Anne Moore