When Annika Falkengren takes over as CEO of Sweden's SEB in January, it will mark a new era at the bank, which the powerful Wallenberg family has controlled for 150 years.
Falkengren, 42, is one of the few SEB chief executives ever recruited internally and the first woman to sit in the dark-wood-paneled inner sanctum of the bank's top management. She joined SEB as a trainee in 1987 and rose through the ranks over the next 18 years. After taking over the Corporate & Institutions division in 2001, she turned it into a profit machine. The unit brought in roughly half of SEB's profits of $1.3 billion in 2004, on assets of $220 billion.
Now, Falkengren will put her stamp on the whole bank. She aims to win more small and midsize business customers, a group SEB has fared poorly at enticing. "There is so much more we can do," she says. That means offering lower-priced services and financial planning for smaller companies. Falkengren is also looking to attract more private banking customers. And she wants to cut the time it takes to bring out new products from the current six-month average to two.
Since the beginning of the year, Falkengren has been traveling extensively, meeting customers and employees at SEB's Nordic, Baltic, and German branches. In the fall she'll take over more responsibility from CEO Lars Thunell, 59, who retires next year. Thunell calls Falkengren "a driving force" who "has a nose for deals." As CEO of the Wallenbergs' bank, Falkengren will be in the business and social limelight more than ever. That, she says, will take getting used to. But she doesn't plan to imitate Thunell's flamboyant style -- or anyone else's. "I will have to learn," she says, "but I'll do it my way."
By Ariane Sains