Debra Crew

Chief Executive of Reynolds American. United States

1993 tp 1997 US Army Captain and Military Intelligence Officer

2008 to 2010 Chief Marketing Officer Mars

2012 to 2014 President Americas Beverages Pepsico 

2016 to 2017 Chief Operating Officer RJ Reynolds Tobacco

January 1, 2017 to present President/ Chief Executive Officer Reynolds American

Debra Crew became the first woman to succeed another female as Chief Executive of a Fortune 500 company when she took up the reins of the tobacco group Reynolds American on New Year’s Day 2017.

The group, whose brands include Camel, Kent and Newport, had previously been led by Susan Cameron who has had two tilts at the top job since 2004.

Analysts said the appointment of the 45-year-old Crew had been expected as she had overseen $8.6 billion of the group’s $10.7 billion in net sales last year as Chief Operating Officer of its largest unit RJ Reynolds Tobacco.

Cameron said of Crew: “When we looked at succession, I didn’t just interview Debra or just women. We wanted the best choice and during the process, Debra absolutely soared to the top of the list. She quickly mastered the details and dynamics of our industry and has helped drive innovation throughout our businesses. This together with her 20 years of experience and leadership in consumer products companies makes her the ideal fit to lead Reynolds American.”

As with other tobacco firms Crew will be faced with the challenge of declining cigarette and cigar sales particularly in developed societies because of health fears. The industry also faces challenges from e-cigarettes and vaping products, tax hikes and stricter government legislation around the globe on plain packaging. “Our strategy has been to really look at leadership and our growth through a lot of next generation and smoke-free alternatives for adult tobacco consumers,” Crew has said.

 Vijay Shekhar Sharma

CEO of Digital Payments Provider Paytm, India

2000 Founder of One97 – the parent company which owns the Paytm brand

2010 Founded Paytm

Vijay Shekhar Sharma describes himself as both a capitalist and a hippy on his Twitter page. The founder of mobile wallet provider Paytm clearly doesn’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

The capitalist side is pretty obvious. Paytm has become the go-to cash alternative for small merchants such as rickshaw drivers and consumers in India downloading its app to pay bills, book movies or flight tickets or stock up on tea and petrol.

That is despite many in the huge, developing nation not owning a mobile phone or understanding the digital world. “For many of them, it is not just a leap frog but a triple leap frog,” Sharma, known for his ebullient personality, has said. User numbers are strong at around 177 million with Paytm adding 20 million after the demonetisation announcement by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last November. Modi said the Government would scrap 500 and 1000 rupee banknotes, which account for around four-fifths of the nation’s paper money, to stem endemic corruption.

New notes have since been produced but the demand for digital payment solutions is still expected to grow. Sharma is using this interest to help him develop a payments bank business – Paytm Payments Bank. It will have no branches but mobile wallet holders will be able to open an account digitally – some for the very first time. Financial extras such as insurance, debit cards and loans will also be available.

Sharma aims to turn the bank into the nation’s market leader even outpacing the State Bank of India and creating India’s first $100 billion company by value. Now, Sharma, who has been known to start singing Coldplay songs during press interviews, taps into that hippy side of his. “I am dreaming with eyes wide open,” he has said. “We will change the way banking is done. We aim to build a cashless economy. No cash, no corruption.”


 Geisha Williams

Currently president of electric operations at Pacific Gas and Electric. From March 2017 she will become President and CEO of the whole PG&E. United States. 

Bachelor Degree in Industrial Engineering from the University of Miami and an MBA from Nova Southeastern University

December 2007 to May 2011 Senior Vice President of Energy Delivery at PG&E

June 2011 to August 2015 Executive Vice President of Electric Operations at PG&E

August 2015 to Present President of Electric Operations at PG&E

Geisha Williams will become not only the first female Chief Executive of PG&E when she takes on the top role on March 1, but the first female, Hispanic CEO of a company PG&E’s size.

Williams, who was only five years old when her family left Cuba for the US in 1967, has driven the group’s push into clean energy helping it to secure nearly 30 per cent of its supply from renewable sources.

Williams will be tasked, despite an expected decline in political support for renewables following the election of President Donald Trump, to build on her work stoking more consumer demand for rooftop solar energy and electric vehicles in the next few years.

She will also have to repair trust in the group after a Federal Court ruled in August that it had obstructed an investigation and violated safety laws in the 2010 San Bruno gas pipeline explosion killing eight people.

“We will never forget the lessons of San Bruno,” she has said. “It’s really caused us to focus on safety with a laser-like sort of manner. There’s always more work to be done.”

Williams has previously thanked former boss Clark Cook for making her believe that leadership roles for women were possible in the traditionally male dominated utility sector.

“He took me aside and asked me what my long-term career aspirations were. I have to say, they weren’t very lofty. I was thinking, perhaps, if everything worked out I could be a manager,” she has commented. “He said ‘No. Think big. Somebody has to run this place. Why not you? I remember being so inspired by that. He made me think I could do it.”

She has encouraged other women in the sector to be courageous. “The sector needs more women. The next generation should take that as a challenge. Go where others have not. Fear holds us back sometimes, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of going into a department that is in turmoil. We worry we don’t have every single skill we need, and we hold back or opt out. But we need to be bold because success breeds success."


 Tan Wangeng

President and CEO of China Soutern Airlines. China

2000 to 2006 Director General and Secretary of Chinese Communist Party Committee of Northeastern Regional Civil Aviation Administration

2006 to 2009 Executive Vice President of China Southern Airlines

2009 to present President of China Southern Airlines

Since 2009,  has helped pilot China Southern Airlines to steeper and steeper growth. Operating revenue has risen from 76,495 million Renminbi (RMB) to 111,652 million RMB with passenger numbers up 7.4 per cent in the last five years and cargo up 6.2 per cent.

International growth has been at the heart of his strategy with revenues and passenger numbers far outpacing domestic and regional numbers. In 2009 international operations accounted for 18 per cent of its available capacity, now it is 30 per cent. One of the main drivers of this is the so-called Canton route – Europe to Australia via Guangzhou.

“Historically more than 80 per cent of our traffic was domestic. Few people from outside of China had travelled with our airline,” he has said. “We have launched many international routes in recent years. We used to have only two destinations in Europe – Paris and Amsterdam but now we also offer London, Frankfurt, Moscow and Tbilisi. The focus is not just on the Chinese communities in these cities but on the general market. Our international capacity is growing and that means our international brand is growing too. It is time for the voice of Chinese airlines to be heard on the world stage.”

Developing more US routes, alongside taking advantage of surging cross-border e-commerce movements and improving staff training, is on his to-do agenda at present.

He doesn’t believe this global strategy is at threat from the two major political events of 2016 namely the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of President Donald Trump.

“The benefits of the vast inter-linking of global trade networks and the benefits it has brought shouldn’t be wound back even though there have been political shifts in Europe and the US. I believe that even in this context it won’t reverse the trend of economic globalisation”, he has forecasted.

  Heikki Takala

President and Chief Executive of Amer Sports. Finland

Masters of Science degree in International Business from Helsinki School of Economics and ESADE in Barcelona

1992 and 2010 Procter & Gamble – several leadership positions in brand management, marketing, sales and commercial strategy

April 1, 2010 Amer Sports – appointed as President and Chief Executive 

At Amer Sports’ Capital Markets Day last September Heikki Takala strode on stage wearing a stylish winter coat and carrying a sports bag containing his tennis racket and a pair of cycling shoes.

Had he mistaken the presentation for his local gym? No. Instead Takala was making a serious point to his audience about the changing nature of today’s sportswear consumer.

“I am today’s consumer,” he said. “I do many things. I don’t stick to one single sporting activity and I mix my sports life with my personal life. I wear the things I wear for sport. I buy anywhere, anytime, whenever I want and I want to tell my stories and achievements to my friends, family and colleagues.”

Having such a keen appreciation and knowledge of his market has been one of the key drivers in sporting goods group Amer’s spectacular growth since Takala took on the Chief Executive baton in 2010. Since then Amer, which owns internationally recognised brands such as Sunnto and Wilson, has driven annual revenues from around €1.7 billion to €2.5 billion in 2015.

Takala, who wanted the group to be less reliant on the weather dependent winter sports equipment market, has overseen a tripling in sales of apparel and footwear, developed a thriving e-commerce business and ramped up international expansion in China and the US. He has also championed innovations such as avalanche airbags and digital connected devices including an American Football which can measure distance, speed and spiral efficiency.

Takala wants to prioritise these main areas as he aims to soar to annual revenues of around €4 billion in the next five years. “We invest every year back into the business to ensure that tomorrow is good and better than today,” he says. With his optimism, however, comes realism. “If a unit has underperformed we are disciplined and we are patient. We seek to fix them and if we can’t do that, we bite the bullet and eliminate the bleeders,” he has warned.

Illustrations by: Paul Ryding



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