How I manage / Brussels
What’s the big idea?
Meet Margrethe Vestager, the EU competition commissioner who knits elephants while pulling apart the finances of technology behemoths.
“I was very shy as a child,” says Margrethe Vestager. Her face softens slightly as she recalls how much she avoided the limelight at big gatherings such as the open houses her parents, both Lutheran ministers, held for needy people every summer. “Over four days my father and my brother would entertain 300, 400 people and I would be so happy in the kitchen, just making sure all the coffee pots were filled and the biscuits were there in time.”
It’s an unusual image of one of the most powerful people in the European business community. But then Margrethe Vestager (pronounced Mar-gray-de Vis-tay-er, if you want to be among the few who try to say it right) is an unusual woman. Known for knitting toy elephants in meetings (more on which later), the 51-year-old’s office is covered in colourful contemporary art, including a sculpture of a hand with its middle finger up (pictured,below), a gift from a disgruntled Danish trade union. She also readily admits to loving Gilmore Girls and Legally Blonde and makes her own clothes.
But don’t be fooled: Vestager is one of the toughest women in town, and a career politician to boot. She began by working at the Danish Ministry of Finance in 1993 and by 2007 was leader of Denmark’s Social Liberal party. After the 2011 elections she was given the economy and interior ministries and named deputy PM (some suggest that she was even more influential than her boss by this point).
Since becoming the EU competition commissioner in 2014 she has turned what was previously a dry, largely technocratic position into a warship. She has taken on the world’s technology giants, from Apple to Google, and regularly flies in the face of government pressure to approve multibillion-euro mergers. Most recent was the Siemens-Alstom case, in which she resisted heavy pressure from France and Germany. Last month a public survey pegged her as the favourite to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as the next president of the European Commission.
Yet despite a clear ambitious streak, Vestager insists that being in a position of authority does not come naturally to her. “It’s something I learned,” she says. For her, leading is about great teamwork rather than telling people what to do. “When I got this job I thought long and hard about how to do leadership in an international context – and I couldn’t think of anything! So I basically tried to do the same thing as back home: low hierarchy, an open door, a lot of responsibility on the individual. And if you’re ever in doubt, well, let’s talk about it.”
As the conversation returns to work, her expression changes back to one of quiet determination. This is the Vestager that tends to appear in photos, underneath headlines describing her as “Silicon Valley’s worst nightmare”, “Europe’s antitrust cop” and “The great Dane of Brussels”. These stories depict her as hard-nosed, bloody-minded and fond of confrontation – and they’re not short on examples.
In just over four years she has clashed with every major US technology firm. She landed Apple with a €13bn Irish back-taxes payment; it was the largest in history and dubbed “total political crap” by CEO Tim Cook (who’s appealing it). She fined Google €2.4bn for SEO fixing that favoured its own services and demanded that Facebook pay €110m for misleading statements over its takeover of WhatsApp; she also made Amazon shell out €250m in unpaid taxes to Luxembourg. And that’s just the big cases; she’s also targeted German carmakers suspected of cheating on emissions tests and is now investigating bond-trading collusion among banks.
Controversy has become a familiar friend – and not everyone is a fan. Vestager’s critics accuse her of straying from her competition mandate into issues of tax evasion and data privacy, cynically using high-profile cases to boost her reputation. Her supporters praise her for taking on the corporate behemoths that increasingly control our lives in a way few governments seem able to do. About this, she is unapologetic: “It is for society and for democracies to shape our future; it is not for businesses, no matter how big they are. They don’t have a public mandate – a CEO is not elected by voters – so they have to submit to the law.”
Regardless, the woman who today willingly throws herself into the midst of some of the biggest battles facing society seems a long way from the girl who once hid in the kitchen making coffee. “At a certain point I realised that although you should never seek conflict, it is the starting point for change,” she says. “When things are conflictful they are also open. In order to solve it you’ll have to find compromise, you’ll have to learn, you’ll have to change your position. When we do cases it’s all about finding solutions.”
For Vestager, conflict is a tool that enables her to do her job: wring compromises from companies to ensure a level playing field for everyone. “I represent all 28 member states, all businesses, all citizens. Those who are the most vocal should have their say. But all the others who may not be so vocal, they have interests too which are completely legitimate.”
So, what does she do when under serious pressure to give in to demands from heavyweights? “First of all I take it seriously. I consider: do they have a point? That helps me to do the quality check, to make sure that we don’t develop tunnel vision. In that respect, criticism and pressure can be a good tool to make sure you get it right and you’re thorough.”
Vestager won’t admit to finding her work stressful – “it’s a lot of working hours and it’s very intense but it’s also a good job” – but she does go running every other day to stay on top of things. If the going gets really tough and she needs what she calls a “spa moment”, she gets out an item that one imagines none of her colleagues at the European Commission’s headquarters at the Berlaymont ever call upon: a sewing machine.
“If I want to fully forget myself – my job, my phone and everything – when I take out my machine, fabrics and scissors, there I am, and I make myself a dress or something like that,” she says. “A lot of what I do is about words: words on paper, lots of talking – words, words, words. But I love things that are tangible. I also like to cook, I like to make bread – I like to see something coming from your work.”
Which brings us neatly to the elephant in the room. “Ah, yes,” says Vestager with a laugh. “I am one of the few people who is never afraid of talking about the elephant in the room because very often I’ve made it myself.” Her habit of knitting elephants in meetings has become a trademark quirk in Brussels, something for people to joke about. But for her it’s a way to work better. “I listen best when I do something. Then I don’t get distracted and start making mental lists of things or something like that. When I see people reach for their phone or their tablet, then I find my needles – and I tell you, I think I’m more present than most people.”
She’s now made nearly 100 elephants, all of which end up being given away as birthday or baby presents (she keeps a record). There is always a pair of knitting needles and some wool in her bag, she says, fishing out a half-finished version as proof. She begins with the ears and head – a fitting symbol of her policy to listen and think before acting.
But why an elephant? “I think it’s a formidable animal. It has this presence because it’s huge and yet it seems to be very gentle, very sociable. The groups are led by females and they tend to remember well, which I always think is a good thing.” It could be a fitting description of Vestager – is it her spirit animal? “Yes, maybe. I think it has become that.”
Vestager’s mandate expires – along with the rest of the current Commission – this year, with European Parliament elections in May. Despite her popularity with the public, support where it really counts is in shorter supply. Macron is still said to be smarting over the Siemens-Alstom snub, Germany and the Netherlands are backing their own candidates and, in Denmark, her party is in opposition.
Regardless, the possibility of succeeding Juncker has not yet been ruled out and she has joined the race along with six other candidates from the liberal ALDE political faction dubbed “Team Europe”. Whether her government will back her was unclear as we went to press. “The tradition is that the big party in the coalition government should name the next commissioner but so far they haven’t said no.”
It’s clear that despite everything she has already achieved, Vestager feels like this is the warm-up. “I think we’re in the middle of something and I would very much like to continue,” she says. “In every job, during the first six months plus, you need to learn how to do it. That argument will not take me to a fourth mandate but [if it was renewed] we would have no need to pause or break. If we find that things are not fair then we have to do something about it today, not in a year.”
Governments and businesses had better watch out: if Vestager has anything to do with it, they’ll be hearing a lot more from her yet.
1993–95 Head of section at Ministry of Finance
1995–98 Various roles at Agency for Financial Management and Administrative Affairs
1998–2000 Minister for education and ecclesiastical affairs
2001–07 MP for Social Liberal party
2007–11 Leader of Social Liberal party and chairwoman of the parliamentary group
2011–14 Minister for economic affairs and the interior, deputy prime minister, leader of the Social Liberal party
2014–present European commissioner for competition
- What time do you like to be at your desk? I aim to arrive before 9am.
- Are tough decisions best taken by one person or a group? Decisions get stronger when discussed by a group – but at the end of the day it’s your responsibility.
- Better to be liked or respected? Liked by family and friends, respected professionally.
- Where do you go for advice? People close to me and literature.
- Key management advice? Listen, trust, sleep and laugh before important decisions are taken.
- What is the most difficult part of your job? I would rather say it’s a circumstance: final decisions are mine.
- Is it OK for staff to disagree with you? Yes – that comes with giving advice.
- What’s the one thing you would fix about your department? We should have a better coffee machine. It’s a great place to catch up.
- Best way to prepare for leadership: MBA or on the job? Education, skills and insights from the job have to go hand in hand.
- Do you read management books? No.