In this chapter of GTR’s series about inspirational women, Silja Calac, senior surety underwriter at Swiss Re Corporate Solutions and former banker, tells Shannon Manders about her journey to become the respected luminary in the world trade and forfaiting that she is today.
“It all boils down to luck: being at the right place at the right time,” says Silja Calac, describing her professional path, leaning across the table as if confiding a secret.
Her 20-odd-year career has seen her rise to the very top of the banking world, and then switch careers to turn her hand to developing insurance products.
So, brushing aside her modesty, you get the sense that for this risk specialist, now a senior surety underwriter at Swiss Re in Frankfurt, success has been more of a result of hard graft than pure luck.
Calac was born in Switzerland and obtained a master’s degree in international trade at the Institute of International Economics and Commerce in Paris. In 1996 she started out as a junior trader, joining the secondary market team of BDEI-Credit Lyonnais in Paris. She then spent eight years in Singapore, where she helped establish the Asian forfaiting desk within Bayerische Hypo-und Vereinsbank. Her next move saw her return to Europe, joining UniCredit in Munich, where in 2007 she became the bank’s global head of trade risk management. In 2015, almost two decades into her banking career, she changed tack to take up her current role in Swiss Re’s credit and surety team, where she is responsible for expanding the company’s surety product offering for banks.
Calac is also a board member of the International Trade & Forfaiting Association (ITFA), and heads up its insurance committee.
Calac reveals with amusement that her “big break” into the industry was as a result of a secretarial degree that she had obtained before completing her master’s. The bank that she joined was looking for someone who could type and write stenography – and Calac’s first role was as a replacement for a secretary on maternity leave. But with her foot in the door, it wasn’t long before she had worked her way to joining the bank’s forfaiting team, where her focus was on distribution.
She felt immediately at ease in the forfaiting community – and decided that that’s where she belonged, despite her initial dreams of becoming a derivatives trader.
Calac talks with enthusiasm about how her years of experience working in risk at banks led to her recent leap into the insurance industry.
The use of sureties has grown steadily over the last decade as insurers have started to cover the bank guarantee business within their surety activities. This development has seen the product transform from a traditional surety to an on-demand guarantee.
“At UniCredit we had started to cover the risk under our guarantee facilities with some insurance companies. But it was not a systematic offering from insurance companies – they just did it on an opportunistic basis,” she explains.
One of the insurance companies that Calac worked closely with was Swiss Re. So when she decided to make a career change, the insurer seemed like the “perfect product match”, as Calac puts it. It just so happened that Swiss Re had set its sights on formally establishing a surety for banks business.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she says with palpable excitement. “It works so well. Banks get hooked on it, because it really is an easy way for them to get more capacity for their business.”
It is this passion for what she does, combined with her desire to acquire new skills, that has driven Calac throughout her career. “I get frustrated when I can’t learn anything new anymore. For me, if it becomes routine, it becomes awful,” she laughs.
Despite her many triumphs, however, she remains loathe to point out her greatest achievements. She compares her career, rather philosophically, to a painting: “You cannot say which is the nicest brush stroke in the painting – it’s the whole picture which is nice.”
Diversity in forfaiting
Throughout her career, being a woman in the forfaiting community has been a fairly smooth ride on account of the diversity in the market, Calac says. This, she explains, is reflected in ITFA gatherings, which bring together the “people who do the business” and not necessarily those in senior management.
It is at this very top level where she admits that there is a problem in that there are still too few women – although she believes that this too is changing.
“When I started at UniCredit in Munich, I was the only woman on the management team. When I left, there were just as many women as men,” she says.
Because of this change, Calac reports that she has never felt her gender to be a hindrance when climbing the career ladder. Although she says she has been aware that she has been paid less than her male colleagues – and that her battle for equal pay brought little success.
On one occasion, she recalls being motivated by her employer’s “women’s network”, aimed at churning out more female leaders, to broach the topic with her boss – knowing full well that she earned less than her male counterparts. The response from the bank’s HR department was that Calac would have to provide unequivocal proof of the disparity. “How could I prove it?” she laments. “I couldn’t do anything about it.”
With experience and time, Calac says she has grown more comfortable with making demands – which she used to actively avoid.
“In the beginning, I would make demands for my employees in the way of a small bonus or something, but not for myself,” she explains. This approach changed when, early on, she solicited private coaching sessions, which she had intended to fund herself. To her horror, her first piece of homework, as set by her coach, was to ask her employer to pay for the sessions. Failing to do so would result in her not being able to complete the course.
“I was shocked at this suggestion,” Calac recalls. “But the coach convinced me that, with these sessions, I would offer even more value to my employer. And so, I went to my boss and asked him and his response was: ‘Yes sure, that’s a brilliant idea.’ It never would have occurred to me that I could do that.”
With this recollection in mind, Calac’s advice to women in the trade finance industry is, at all times, to be bold. “Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and doing things that you think you can’t do. Because chances are you probably can.”
More articles in GTR’s Women in Trade Finance series: