Interview with Johan Cristvall, original founder of FCG
Tell us a little bit about yourself – where did you grow up and how did you end up in the financial services industry?
I was born and raised in Hässelby, a suburb west of Stockholm, together with my sister and my father. When I was around 15 we left the lush areas of the suburb to move into the city of Stockholm, to Kungsholmen. My childhood was characterized by sports as we were an active family. I tried many different sports and soon found I had a talent for football. I did really well until an injury put an end to my dreams of a career as a professional football player. After that I first felt a bit lost and didn’t know what I wanted to do, but after a couple of years I found my way back to my studies.
Basically, my first 20 years taught me the following:
- I learned to take action and deal with things myself if I wanted to get things done
- Purposefulness and fighting spirit from my years with football
- A desire to come back and prove myself that I never got the chance to do within football
You started your career at the Swedish FSA. How come you joined them and what was your role at the FSA?
To be honest it was a bit of luck, when I got an offer to join the FSA I immediately grasped it was a great development opportunity. I had a Master of Science in Economics and Quantitative Analytics, and the Financial Services industry and impact of the FSA seemed very attractive to me. At the FSA I had the opportunity to participate in a process aiming to change methodologies to a more risk-based approach. That gave me the opportunity to visit financial services authorities in other countries, for instance Federal Reserve. During the latter part of my time with the Swedish FSA I got involved in the work with the Basel II regulation, where many of my current colleagues at FCG were working at the time.
All in all, both Kristian Bentzer, Jimmi Brink and myself had great opportunities at the FSA to gather useful knowledge, both strategically and subject matter expertise.
You are the original founder of FCG and started the company back in 2008. What were your drivers when you decided to quit your job and start your own company?
Basically, I had two fundamental drivers to that decision back then. Professionally, I had identified a potential market for experts within governance, risk and compliance. Through my work at the FSA, I was struck by the fact that my expertise and credibility outranked the consultants at the Big4 we hired to support us – in general the consultants from the Big4 were not specialists within GRC. Actually, there were no true experts in the market within that field. After I left the Swedish FSA I worked in the banking sector for a couple of years and then I realized that the market for GRC experts was an oligopoly with the Big4 as the main providers of consulting services. I drew the conclusion there was a white spot in the market for these types of expert competencies and as a result, I decided to start my own consultancy, offering expertise advice within GRC.
The other reason was more personal – I had long been thinking about what my next step would be. One of my strongest drivers is that I find inspiration in challenges and I needed something new to focus on. I’m not the administrative type who’s happy in a predictable environment, I need challenges and new problems to solve in order to thrive and unleash my ambitions.
What were your ambitions and goals for FCG in the beginning?
From the very beginning, my ambition was to provide hands-on and practical advice for our customers, thus providing very tangible value for their business. The key was to combine both strategic and operational dimensions – never being afraid of hands-on hard work and tackling the daily challenges the customers were facing in their businesses. The ability to work with both dimensions simultaneously is what has made FCG unique. The flipside is that it makes us rather low key compared to other consultancies – we’re so deeply involved in the facts and details it becomes a challenge even to explain just how skilled we are.
FCG has been a literal success story since you started it. What would you say has been the most important success factors?
The business acumen undoubtedly is one of the most important factors for our success. Jimmi Brink, Kristian Bentzer and Mattias Ullsten all are subject matter experts, but also have the business acumen and the strategic innovative minds required to run a business well. Together, we had the strength to attract deeply skilled subject matter experts within GRC and to allow the experts to stay experts, instead of having to worry about administrative matters or selling.
Regulatory matters, risk and compliance are rigid subjects and it takes a lot of curiosity and willingness to take risks to be able to think innovatively and to challenge current practices in the market. Our mission has always been to help the customers find the best solution in their specific case, and that requires the courage to take a stand and think differently.
Another success factor has been our organizational culture and internal employee policies. We have had a relatively flat organization, free from hierarchies and infused with a strong business focus. It’s a brave set-up, that has allowed the employees and especially the younger consultants the opportunity to try their wings and develop quickly. We’ve always had a strong drive to delegate decisions and influence, we expect people to take responsibility and contribute their share. The culture has served FCG well, everybody understands they are expected to contribute to the revenue generation.
How would you describe the journey FCG’s been through?
For a great many years we only grew organically. Up until the point we invited external PE investors to join us, FCG had never taken a loan. We were an efficient pianola, in no need for support. Our growth has been fueled by our customers’ demand of our services and it has been a constant fight to find new skilled people to employ. I could never have imagined that we would have grown as much as we have when I started out in 2008.
Sometimes, people have asked me if I’m never satisfied – and I’m not. I’ve always had a strong drive, always been two years ahead, thinking of the future and how we can become even better, even sharper. It was a bit of a revelation to me to find that most of the barriers for what this company can become were in our own heads – mental barriers in the shape of limits or inability to imagine there being no barriers. When we were 40 employees, I used to think it a giant leap to become 80, but the key learning is that it’s not. We’re 300 employees today and we can reach 1 000 if we want to.
What are the best things FCG has managed to achieve in your opinion?
- Prone to risk in the sense that we have dared to invest and employ, even if we haven’t always known what the future will look like.
- Innovative and flexible. We have tried many concepts that haven’t worked, and in those cases we have taken action by reversing the engine and adapting us accordingly.
- In spite of our innovative and creative talent we have been dedicated to the GRC area and stayed true to our expert focus. In a long-term perspective I believe that is wise and serves us well. It creates an clear focus and the market knows what FCG can deliver.
- A successful combination of understanding the market and the subject matters on one hand and excellent business acumen on the other hand. The result is a sound and prosperous business over time.
- We’re never content and try not to get blocked by mental barriers.
Are there any goals or targets you envisioned that FCG hasn’t managed to achieve yet or something you would like FCG to do in the future?
Not really. Of course we could wish that we would have reached even further internationally and digitally by now, but on the other hand that would have had to be done at the expense of something else. It hasn’t been possible for the Swedish organisation to focus on these dimensions until quite recently.
Looking ahead, how do you see FCG developing in the future?
We have rarely had such good conditions as we have now, we have every opportunity of succeeding. IK Partners is an interesting new addition and a good owner for FCG, who can provide FCG with the support needed to continue our journey. An important part of our next step is to continue building the business internationally and this is an area where IK can be of great support.
Going forward, I would like to see FCG continue and intensify our efforts to digitalise our unique concept. There are several small fintech entrepreneurs entering the market, who could start eating our market share if we do not act. Finding solid and sustainable fintech solutions for our customers’ needs is both an opportunity, a hygiene factor and a risk. Clearly, if we can build a solid platform in one market, it will be relatively straightforward to introduce the same concept in other markets. Hence, digitalization and internationalization go hand in hand.
A challenge that is already starting to emerge is to keep a flat, non-hierarchical organization. As an organization grows, going from a smaller company to the mid-size segment it’s very common that the organization becomes more anonymous and internal silos start to appear. That will hamper information flows, cross-sales and knowledge sharing. We need to work continuously with our organization to keep it strong, vivid and alert to stay ahead of our competitors.
You have now decided to leave FCG. Why did you make this decision?
Actually, it is for entirely personal reasons and has nothing to do with FCG. For a long time, I have worked very hard and my private life has been extremely intertwined with my work life. I want a complete break to find a better balance and by doing so and nourishing my private life for a while, I intend to reload my batteries and find new sources of inspiration and energy going forward.
Obviously, FCG will always be an important part of me and I will continue to follow FCG and it’s progress, and I guess I will always be on the lookout for new customers and employees for the company.
Is there any advice you would like to give us with regards to FCG’s future challenges?
To the younger consultants, I would like to underline what great opportunities there are to grow and develop your skills in a company like this. You will be expected to take initiatives and take responsibility for what you do and there is almost no limit to how fast you can develop if you want to. Be brave and take initiatives, claim your space and drive on. There is an acceptance and room for this in FCG as in no other company I have come across.
There is also an opportunity for FCG to develop the expat concept, where FCG can support employees who wish to move abroad and take on assignments in other countries. We have only just begun to explore this potential and I believe it could be an important part of our concept going forward. To some extent, we have done that historically, for instance when we were hired to help the United Arab Emirates write and implement financial regulations for financial companies in the UAE. That project lasted for over a year, on site.
To date, the best things we have accomplished are the strong business acumen combined with the open and positive culture. Let’s work hard to stay that way, not loosing the nerve in the flat, multitasking, cross-selling and integrating organization. We’re a curious, innovative team, always looking for the best solutions for our customers and that is the key to our success.