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Category: Leadership Thoughts

Diversity Champion: Céline Coimbra, CEO at Holcim Trading & Shipping

Céline Coimbra, CEO at Holcim Trading & Shipping

In our latest Diversity Champion article, we feature Céline Coimbra, CEO of Holcim Trading & Shipping. With a civil engineering background, Céline’s career spans global roles from Portugal to the Americas and back to her birth country, Switzerland. As CEO, Céline is dedicated to ethical business practices, transparency, and team well-being.

Céline’s advice to aspiring leaders centers on authenticity, integrity, and self-care. She advocates for staying true to one’s values, managing business with a personal touch, and fostering a culture of openness and support. Read the interview to learn how Céline navigates challenges, promotes DEI, and leads Holcim Trading & Shipping toward a sustainable future.

HC Insider: Can you tell us about your career path that led you to your current role at Holcim?

Céline Coimbra: I graduated as a Civil Engineer, so I was naturally attracted to the construction environment. I started working as a GM for a cluster of RMX Concrete plants in Portugal while I was finishing my masters in Structural Mechanics. After three years of operational experience—which was significant because I was fresh out of university and managing about 60 people, most of whom had children older than me—I moved to the head office in Lisbon. There, I started up a performance department for ready-mix and aggregates, overseeing operations in twelve countries.

Since I was born in Switzerland, I always wanted to return home. With five years of experience under my belt, I applied for jobs in Switzerland and was fortunate enough to join Holcim as a project manager, effectively acting as an internal consultant.

Working on projects around the world was humbling and eye-opening. I interacted with people from diverse cultures and learned that what worked well in Portugal might not be as effective elsewhere.

With the merger between Lafarge and Holcim, I became Chief of Staff for the Executive Committee member of North America and then for Central & South America – this is when I got a real understanding of the corporate environment and strategy. The pace was extremely fast, the scope was broad, being that close to the top-level decision-making and being allowed to witness how a merger of two giants is put in place was more educational than any MBA.

After a year and a half in North America, I took on the same role for Latin America, living in Córdoba, Argentina, for a year. Eventually, I returned to Switzerland to manage P&L for ready-mix and aggregates for the French-speaking part of Switzerland and drove RMX performance for Switzerland and Italy.

Three years ago, I was invited to be the CEO of Holcim Trading. This was a new and quite daunting challenge, as I had no prior experience in trading. However, I embraced the role, studied a lot, and asked many questions to get up to speed. It required humility and a willingness to learn, but it has been a rewarding journey.

HC Insider: As CEO, what are your primary objectives right now?

CC: Sustainability is one of the key drivers for me and the entire Holcim Group. Our slogan, "to build for people and for the planet," is something I strongly identify with. The cement industry is on track to reduce CO2 emissions drastically by 2030, and shipping, which is a big part of what we do in trading, accounts for another 3%. This means we have a significant potential to make a real impact.

At Holcim Trading & Shipping, even though we don't produce anything ourselves, we have a vital role in influencing our suppliers and customers. We strive to ensure our suppliers are producing the most sustainable products, that the ships or other means of transport we use are the most efficient and that the supply chain is as optimized as possible. This involves measuring emissions, encouraging the use of alternative fuels, working together on technology and innovation to reduce environmental impact. It's an ongoing educational and collaborative process on all ends, our position as a market leader allows us to offer substantial support and guidance and actually have an impact.

On the customer side, we promote sustainable products and delivery solutions with fewer emissions. The challenge is making these products as competitive as traditional ones. Achieving our ambitions requires strong partnerships and collaborative efforts to move in the right direction.

Our goal is to show that it’s possible to achieve good profits while doing the right thing. Leaders in the market have a duty to pave the way for sustainable practices, and this is a top priority for us. The drive for sustainability is shared across the company, with many passionate individuals working tirelessly to find innovative solutions and make meaningful changes from within. It’s from the inside out that we believe real change happens, not just through external pressure or protests, but by actively transforming our operations and partnerships.

It's essential to have a clear vision and to be able to communicate it effectively. You need to energize people towards the goal we're trying to achieve and create excitement around it.

HC Insider: What do you attribute your success to?

CC:  For me, it's about the people more than anything else. Having the right people and fostering a culture of transparency and trust is key. It's essential to have a clear vision and to be able to communicate it effectively. You need to energize people towards the goal we're trying to achieve and create excitement around it.

Talking solely about shares and shareholders isn't very inspiring. It's crucial to translate the mission in a way that resonates and conveys its importance. Transparency is vital. Explaining why we are doing what we're doing, where we're heading, and what is expected from everyone. Setting clear values is also essential, so people understand what we stand for and how we do things.

Trust is fundamental. People need to know that they can rely on each other and that we have each other's backs. Respect is crucial, and so is keeping egos in check. Staying humble and curious is important; you should never stop learning. My grandmother used to say, "You learn every day until you die," and that's something I live by. It's okay to admit mistakes and learn from them. If something doesn't work, you backtrack and try a different approach, sticking to a bad decision not to lose face is just leading nowhere.

It's also important that people don't fear making mistakes. If they see top management admitting to errors and learning from them, it creates a culture where everyone feels safe to innovate and voice their ideas. This openness and willingness to correct course is something I believe is crucial for success.

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HC Insider: Could you share a specific instance where you faced a significant challenge, and how you navigated through it? 

CC:  It was when I became the Chief of Staff for North America. This role was a huge challenge because I didn't know I was being interviewed for it initially—there was no job description, no expectations laid out. I was just a project manager in a satellite office and suddenly found myself in this super high-paced, strategic and demanding role.

To navigate this, I reached out to other Chiefs of Staff in the company, asking for advice and learning how they managed similar situations. This helped me realize that I wasn't alone; many had faced similar challenges. This networking not only provided practical advice but also emotional support, making me feel less isolated.

I worked tirelessly, often from early morning until late at night. I had to learn to take breaks and care for myself to avoid becoming unproductive. Opening up to others expanded my network and taught me the importance of vulnerability.

HC Insider: Could you share a pivotal moment or experience in your career that significantly influenced your leadership style or approach to business?

CC: I have to go back to the first time I worked with my former manager. He was caring, strategic, and focused on mentoring his team. He would gather us for sessions not just about strategy and numbers, but about how we interacted with each other and our teams. He emphasized trust, empowerment, and creating a supportive environment.

This approach was revolutionary for me. It took more time to build trust and openness, but it was incredibly powerful. I found myself deeply engaged and motivated, not just working for my salary but for him as well. His genuine care for his team’s well-being made a huge difference.

Seeing this different style of leadership opened my eyes. It showed me that leadership could be about humanity and empathy, not just authority and results. This has significantly influenced my management style, emphasizing honesty, transparency, and genuine care for people. It’s more straightforward and allows for authentic connections, which people can see and appreciate.

We enable collaboration by acknowledging the challenges of remote work, maintaining a hybrid working model, and focusing on objectives rather than rigid schedules.

HC Insider: Your roles have often involved significant international exposure and coordination. How do you navigate cultural differences and ensure effective collaboration across diverse teams and regions?

CC: We address cultural differences through programs like UNMUTED, which raises awareness of accent bias and encourages open communication, because you will have people from some cultures who say what is on their mind, and then people from other cultures who will stay quiet because they think it’s a sign of respect. Promoting inclusivity can involve organizing events where employees share food from their cultures, we promote diversity month, Movember, International Women’s Day. We also celebrate a lot of holidays, not just Christmas, to include as many people as possible. There are people from about 33 different nationalities at Holcim Trading & Shipping and over seven religions. 

While we have a flexible home-office policy, we promote team lunches every month and group activities to ensure people stay connected. Giving flexibility to people really improves their well-being and their quality of life and allows us to reach a wider and more diverse pool of talent, including parents of young children. We’re more about working on objectives rather than working to a schedule – like being in the office 9-5pm. If you need to go to the dentist, then go. You don’t need to announce it. The important thing is that the work gets done.

We implement policies that support work-life balance, including extended maternity and paternity leave, and provide support for employees facing personal challenges like bereavement. Our goal is to create a workplace where everyone feels valued and supported.

HC Insider: As a member of executive committees and boards, you've had significant exposure to high-level decision-making. What strategies do you employ to ensure alignment between overarching corporate goals and DEI strategies?

CC:  Our approach revolves around fostering diversity and inclusivity across all levels of the organization. The cement industry is male-dominated, and we want to maintain a balanced gender ratio in recruitment, ensuring both male and female candidates are considered for all roles. We also want to extend our focus beyond gender diversity to address other aspects of diversity, such as sexual orientation and age diversity. I’ve been in situations where people have said, “yes, they’re a great candidate but they are older” and my thought is, “so what? Who cares? That candidate is probably very experienced and has a lot to bring to the company. I don’t care if they are five years away from retirement. As we’re pushing for diversity, there is also more information available about health and well-being, and how it ties into diversity. Additionally, we implement policies that support work-life balance, including extended maternity and paternity leave, and provide support for employees facing personal challenges like bereavement. Our goal is to create a workplace where everyone feels valued and supported as a human being.

I've always believed in managing a business as if it were my own or my parents' business. This mindset ensures you act with integrity and make prudent decisions because you want to make the business proud. By doing so, you'll do the right thing for both the business and the people within it.

HC Insider: What advice do you have for aspiring leaders, particularly in promoting DE&I?

CC: For any aspiring leader, I would say the first thing is to stay true to yourself. Whatever ideas and values you have, put them forward and speak your truth. If it's the right environment, you will thrive. If it's not, then find the environment that suits you. I've always believed in managing a business as if it were my own or my parents' business. This mindset ensures you act with integrity and make prudent decisions because you want to make the business proud. By doing so, you'll do the right thing for both the business and the people within it. People are key to success. Another important aspect is self-care. Remember that you're human—you'll have ups and downs, and that's okay. Don't be afraid to voice your needs, ask for help, admit mistakes, and learn from them. This approach is essential not only for yourself but also for fostering an open and supportive environment for others. Be candid with yourself and others. This honesty and openness is crucial for personal growth and for building trust within your team.