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Gwen Van Berne: Breaking Boundaries

By Lori Parks
July 1, 2022

IMA’s 2022-2023 Chair is an accomplished CFO and dedicated advocate for sustainability and DE&I progress.

 

More than 100 years after its founding, IMA®  (Institute of Man­agement Accountants) is helmed by a senior volunteer leader who reflects the organization’s global presence: Gwen van Berne is the first Chair of the IMA Global Board of Directors from outside the United States and the sixth woman to hold this position. Gwen’s background as a finance professional—she’s currently director of finance and risk at Oikocredit, an Amersfoort, Netherlands-based social impact investment cooperative, with prior experience as a CFO and in the banking industry—will help shape her priorities for the coming year. So will her passion for issues such as diversity and sustainability, which will help define her term as IMA continues its commitment to global expansion and recovers amid the aftershocks of a worldwide pandemic.

 

A LOVE OF LAW

 

The oldest of three children, Gwen was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Looking back on her childhood, she credits her parents for giving her responsibilities early on and encouraging exploration. Both parents had an artistic bent: Her father was an industrial designer, and her mother designed textiles.

 

“They both possessed a great love for design and also for nature,” Gwen recalls. “Wild camping was still allowed in most European countries when I was young, and my father always found scenic, secluded spots to spend our summers. We also visited Europe’s best museums, and our house was always full of art supplies. My love for visual representations of knowledge certainly links back to my childhood. In these days of information overload, telling a story in a small amount of time and with a compelling table or other graphic is a crucial skill.” (See “Tell a Story with Visuals.”)

 

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Gwen’s parents also helped her cultivate her people skills: “My mother taught me the importance of socializing and the art of building relationships. My father taught me how to trust my gut and to stay true and authentic. Both had very good instincts about people and about broader cultural trends.” Along with encouraging Gwen to nurture her creativity, Gwen’s parents pushed her to do well in school while still giving her freedom. “They gave me lots of space to forge my own path,” she explains.

 

That path was set for Gwen at a young age. Like in many school systems in Europe, as well as in China and Singapore, children in the Netherlands are given an assessment at the end of primary school, around age 11, to determine their aptitudes. Based on their performance, they’re then slotted into six educational levels, with varying levels of opportunity. Gwen performed well on these assessments, attaining the highest level, and thus was invited to pursue a rigorous high school program at the Stedelijk Gymnasium in Breda, one of the leading institutions of its type in the Netherlands.

 

After completing those studies, Gwen enrolled in Utrecht University, a leading Dutch university, where she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She specialized in economic public and business law, writing her master’s thesis on the liberalization trend within the European Union (EU) and the implications for the Netherlands’ postal industry.

 

“I was always fascinated by how laws were made. I especially loved learning about the economic system in the Netherlands, the rules of the EU, and the intersection between legislation and business,” she recalls.

 

As part of her graduate studies, Gwen spent a semester as an exchange student at the University of Florida. She moved to the U.S. for five months and took MBA-level courses—and had some fun, too, like learning to scuba dive. She also discovered something about the U.S. educational system that she grew to appreciate: “The focus on presentation skills and public speaking in the business curriculum was something that was completely new for me. In the ’90s, this wasn’t so much a part of the educational system in the Netherlands, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to learn those skills abroad as I began my career.” The entire experience helped shape a perspective that’s remained with Gwen throughout her life: “When you travel and explore a new community, you always learn new things. In fact, that’s true for every new experience you have—it teaches you something about yourself and the world.”

 

A LONG CAREER IN BANKING

 

Her career began where Gwen always expected it would: banking, which perfectly married her interest in business, law, and regulation.

 

After graduating with her master’s degree in 1999, Gwen was selected for a traineeship with ABN AMRO, at that time the eighth-largest global bank with more than 100,000 employees worldwide. Gwen’s role morphed from an intern to a series of increasing responsibilities over seven years, when she served as an account manager, then a consultant with cash management and transaction services, and then a manager for a data development team.

 

Gwen’s first big career leap came in 2006 when she was appointed to a vice president position, global head of compliance and finance. It was a demanding role, especially because she was responsible for global compliance, management information, and financial performance compliance before, during, and after the worldwide financial crisis in 2008-2009. Among Gwen’s accomplishments during this period: She digitized and synchronized the bank’s compliance information.

 

Gwen remained in that role for three years before being promoted to manager of private banking in 2009. For the next three years, she managed and grew relationships with private banking clients, eventually managing assets totaling €1.7 billion. She also helped to lower costs in the division and assisted with the successful merger of the local branches of ABN AMRO and MeesPierson, another Dutch private bank, in 2009.

 

After her success in private banking, Gwen shifted to a more business-to-business role. Between 2012 and 2016, she served as global manager of business development at ABN AMRO Clearing Bank, where she oversaw IT innovation for the bank’s services in the global securities and derivatives markets. With a staff of 30 direct reports and 100 indirect reports, Gwen enjoyed this highly technical role, where she successfully developed and implemented more than 50 global IT projects. It was this role, she says, that taught her the most about developing strong partnerships with global management teams, consulting firms, and regulators.

 

She eventually was promoted to her final position at the bank: head of capital and risk reporting at ABN AMRO Bank, where she was responsible for global risk management reporting for the company. A large portion of her job involved managing expectations for regulators, investors, accountants, and the bank’s executive committee.

 

After spending 18 years in banking, however, Gwen felt ready for a new challenge. In 2017, when she was tapped for an opportunity at RIPE NCC, she was intrigued.

 

Headquartered in Amsterdam, RIPE NCC is one of five globally active regional internet registries, providing internet resource allocations, registration services, and coordination services to support the operation of the internet worldwide. A not-for-profit membership organization, its members are primarily based in Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Gwen was hired to be the CFO, a role that expertly combined her interest in government and business; she spent four years at RIPE NCC overseeing all financial operations of the organization.

 

LEARNING THE LANGUAGE OF BUSINESS

 

Gwen attributes her appointment to the CFO slot at RIPE NCC not only to her regulatory banking experience but also to the fact that she’s a CMA® (Certified Management Accountant). Her journey to earning the certification began around 2007. She was working at ABN AMRO in compliance at the time, deeply involved in her responsibilities there and not really thinking about how certification might help advance her career. She was motivated instead mainly by a desire to learn.

 

“What I most eagerly wanted was to learn the jargon, to better speak and understand the language of business, and to gain a solid theoretical framework to better understand the financial concepts attached to my work,” she explains. Gwen had other, more personal reasons, too: Her husband, a controller at ExxonMobil, had heard about the CMA from his boss around the same time, and Gwen was pregnant, which limited both her and her husband’s ability to travel. So, they decided to pursue the certification together. They became study partners, sharing pizza evenings while poring over textbooks and practice exams. Gwen finished her last exam a bit later than her husband after she first gave birth to their daughter.

 

The CMA experience introduced Gwen to greater involvement in IMA. Gwen started making presentations to students in and around the Netherlands while also building relationships with members of the Amsterdam Chapter and the IMA office there. In March 2018, she spoke at IMA’s first Women’s Leadership Series event outside the U.S., held at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Gwen served as a panelist on the topic of “Strategies for Professional Success,” sharing the stage with Deborah Cheng, finance director at Trimb Healthcare, and Ginger White, who was serving as IMA’s Chair-Elect.

 

Meeting Ginger White opened a path to more global IMA roles. The next year, Gwen was nominated to serve on the IMA Global Board, where she first sat on the Strategic Planning Committee. More recently, she served as chair of the Nominating Committee. Her other IMA volunteer roles have included a member of the ICMA® (Institute of Certified Management Accountants) Board of Trustees, trustee of the IMA Research Foundation, member of the IMA Memorial Education Fund board, and member of the IMA Europe Board. When she was asked in 2021 to become IMA Chair-Elect, Gwen says she was honored and grateful.

 

“My path to the role of Chair was pretty fast,” she says, “but I’m humbled by the opportunity. Volunteer leadership roles are important, as they’re a way to give back to society and to be helpful to others.”

 

BUILDING HUMAN CONNECTIONS

 

Gwen recognizes that organizations like IMA serve an important function in society: “I believe that people join associations because they want to network, and they want to build authentic human connections,” she explains. “IMA is a remarkable group of people, and I want to foster our culture. I also want to amplify the diversity of our members and the value we bring to them.”

 

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Gwen plans to employ her expertise in risk, oversight, and control to effectively help guide the organization amid geopolitical tensions and the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a CMA, she personally understands the value of the certification and the opportunities it opens, so she wants to continue to stress the importance of lifelong learning and education. She also wants to empower the IMA community by continued focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues.

 

For Gwen, DE&I, including opportunities for women and minority groups, has reached an inflection point. “We all know that diversified organizations are more successful, but unfortunately, as IMA’s and other research has shown, we’re still facing a situation where many groups are underrepresented in the workplace, in both accounting and in tech. The inequality starts at the early career stages and then compounds over time. Unfortunately, progress is still too slow, but I’m very positive about the role management accountants can play for my daughter’s generation,” she observes.

 

“Having said that, the key attributes for success are the same for any accounting and finance professional,” she says. “Accountants must be able to grasp the implications of their numbers—the ‘why’ behind the financials and not just the ‘what.’ That requires being open to new insights and developments but also formulating a vision and a plan so that you can assist your organization on strategic and tactical matters.”

 

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She also acknowledges the accelerating importance of sustainability reporting, where organizations are asking themselves how they can commit to sustainable development and how success can be measured outside of profit alone.

 

Lastly, Gwen will continue to focus on issues related to technology and how finance professionals can steer digital transformation within their businesses. She says, “Asking the right questions is crucial, and presenting proper data will continue to play a pivotal role for the success of management accountants.”

 

THE NEXT ACT

 

These passions have helped shape the next chapter in Gwen’s career. Last year, she resigned as CFO of RIPE NCC and, as she describes it, “really embraced the time between jobs.”

 

That quiet time of reflection between roles helped Gwen reassess what she wanted to accomplish. It led her to accept a position at Oikocredit, which she describes as “a culmination of what I want to be as a person and what I see as my purpose—helping others through financial services and through capacity building and knowledge sharing.”

 

Oikocredit, founded in the Netherlands in 1975, is a worldwide cooperative that offers loans and investment capital to organizations reaching people on low incomes in the financial inclusion, agriculture, and renewable energy sectors. The idea for the organization began in 1968, when the World Council of Churches met to create an ethical investment channel that could provide credit to emerging sustainable companies run by people in low-income communities.

 

Today, Oikocredit is a large private financier with a strong social mission, adhering to its motto, “investing in people.” In her current role, Gwen provides strategic leadership and expertise for the organization’s managing board while leading the finance, legal, and risk departments.

 

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Gwen is enjoying this new stage of her career, which reflects both what she sees as her role within IMA and how her experience has led to this point. “Oprah Winfrey says that she doesn’t believe in luck. For her, luck is where preparation meets the moment of opportunity. When your moments come and you’re prepared for them, that’s where the career magic happens. You never get to a new position by chance alone or through your capabilities or wisdom. It’s always a combination of both, as well as thanks to the people who have believed in you along the way. In every role, you must assess what you can bring to help the organization move forward and grow stronger.

 

“I truly hope that my presence at IMA will further stimulate our global footprint and diversity of our profession and that we increase our membership value across the world.”

 

Lori Parks is a staff writer/editor at IMA. You can reach her at lori.parks@imanet.org.  
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