Fans of the best-selling novelist Scott Turow know that he turns out extraordinarily polished and erudite legal-themed mysteries in his spare time, away from his job as a partner at a major Chicago law firm.
If there’s a type of professional who might be thought less likely to publish fiction than attorneys, it could be CFOs. But the latter profession includes at least one such scribe, and unlike Turow, she doesn’t get a head start by writing about something closely related to her work.
Anna Belfrage, finance chief at Beijer Electronics Group in Malmo, Sweden, has self-published six religion-themed novels (the most recent just last month) since the autumn of 2012. The series is called The Graham Saga. The books feature a young, modern woman who inexplicably travels more than 300 years in time to mid-17th century Scotland. There she meets and marries a man and later voyages with him to escape religious persecution and start a life in America. Belfrage has sold about 10,000 books, a fairly sizable number in the realm of self-publishing.
Beijer is a $250 million multinational manufacturer of human-machine interface products, mostly for industrial automation applications and industrial data communications. Belfrage has been CFO there since November 2011 and previously headed up finance for six years at ABS Group, a provider of products and services for the waste-water field.
Belfrage recently spoke with CFO about her writing, her full-time job and how the two complement one another. An edited version of the conversation follows.
It seems counterintuitive for a CFO to be a novelist, doesn’t it?
The public perception of CFOs and accountants is that they’re kind of boring, stuck in their own little numbers world. But most CFOs I’ve met are not like that at all. A good CFO is a business-oriented person who is very socially open and has a lot of extrovert qualities, which goes hand in hand with writing a book.
Is there anything about your CFO work that informs your writing?
I think one of the biggest values is that a CFO is an extremely logical person. My novels have a very logical progression. I hate novels where suddenly something happens that is totally illogical considering what has happened before. If you have someone tramping 300 years backward in time, it would be illogical if she said [as seems to happen frequently in time-travel fiction and movies], “OK, well, fine, I’ll just get on with my life.” There has to be some other kind of reaction from her.
It also helps that I am very well aware of the business aspects of writing. I don’t need to worry about someone pulling the wool over my eyes — I think I can hold my own versus anyone who would present me with an offer or proposal.
How about the flip side: Does your writing inform your CFO work?
I think they fundamentally feed off each other, in a good sense. While I write I actually re-energize the parts of my brain that would generally be involved in spreadsheets and stuff like that. It’s very refreshing. Writing burns off any negative energy, and every day I come at my work with a clean slate of sorts. Likewise, if I have a conundrum in my writing where I’m stuck, I don’t need to worry about it much. I go to work for a few days knowing that somewhere along the line it’s going to sort itself out. That’s fine, because my writing doesn’t depend on meeting deadlines — I set those myself.
My writing also helps me be more creative in my work. I think out of the box much better now. When you write, you have to have a very holistic approach. You don’t just sit down and start writing at one end and hope it’s going to end up where you want it to. You’re pruning and selecting as you go along. I can bring that process to work — I won’t let anything grow into something wild and uncontrollable.
Can you give us an example of that?
A couple years ago, the company I worked for had a deficient order-delivery process. I was put in charge of revamping it. Before I began writing regularly, I probably would have done that piecemeal. That is, I would have broken down the order-delivery process into its sub-components and addressed each one on its own, hoping that at the end of the day they would tie together the right way. But instead, I looked at order delivery as a plotline: What do I want to achieve in the end, and what things are going to happen on the way? It was a much more holistic approach, and taking that approach allowed me to see what processes were superfluous. I killed 20% of them.
Are there times when you’re writing and you say to yourself, oh gosh, I should be doing CFO work right now, but this is really fun so the heck with that?
I’m fortunate to have a job that I find very stimulating. I do think my life would be boring without my writing, and there are times when I say, “Why can’t I make a million dollars doing this?’ But I don’t feel shortchanged, put it that way. I feel enriched by having both sides.
Can you describe the sense of satisfaction you get from your work?
I think both the CFO job and the writing pander to my ego. And I have a relatively big ego, unfortunately.
You don’t have to apologize for it.
In Sweden it’s a bad thing to have a big ego. But anyway, I can go on a buzz because I solved a problem at work and realized that I freed up people’s time or saved money. That I find very satisfying. My biggest satisfaction is when I nail the differentiating factors in our products, when I nail our challenges, so that I make the right decisions to support the people who actually do the day-to-day work. It’s about seeing how the numbers contribute to the decision process and aren’t sitting there just because someone needs them from a reporting perspective.
Now characterize the satisfaction you get from writing.
The books are very “me.” There’s a bit of a danger in writing in that if you think it’s important to tell the story you want to tell, you’re hanging your heart out on display. Criticism of my books is much more difficult to take than criticism of my work, because I’m putting so much more of me as a person into my books. The satisfaction I derive from my books is extremely personal. It verifies that Anna the person has something to bring to the world that is beyond Anna the CFO.
But how do you have time to do both? There are exceptions, but most CFOs I know are pretty consumed by their jobs and don’t have a lot of free time.
Yes, that is a bit of an issue. But I don’t watch TV, I certainly don’t sleep eight hours, and I’m very disciplined. If I have two and a half hours in an evening, I get quite a lot done. I spend the weekday nights on what I’d call the administrative part, which touches Facebook, Twitter and writing blog posts. I spend weekends writing the stories.
How long does it take you to write a book?
I churn out a book of 120,000 words in three months. That’s the first draft. Then I spend twice as much on the editing phase. That’s when the adverbs go out. [Belfrage says on her website that she “can sit for hours with a single sentence and move the commas around. I know; weird.”]
How did you come to write about the 17th century?
That was very much dependent on the fact that I married a man who has his roots in Scotland, and his family left there in the 17th century due to religious persecution. I started digging into it, and I got stuck in that totally chaotic century, combining all types of religious persecution, wars, national states developing in Europe, and the American colonies coming into play. Suddenly people felt they no longer had to kowtow to whatever the king was saying, they just skipped over the ocean and started anew. It was tough being a colonist, but it was an option for people who had their own ideas.
What kind of research is required to write these books?
I spend a lot of time reading about the various religious factions. You have to understand why a Puritan would view an Anglican with mistrust, and why both Anglicans and Puritans hated Catholics, and vice versa. You also have to understand the political consequences, because ultimately it’s rarely about religion. It’s about power. What you had in Europe in the 17th century was a structure that was falling to pieces. The Protestant reformation of the 16th century had exploded into various factions, which created a drawing board where people could create new power bases.
Why did you use time travel as a device?
The purpose is to give me a modern voice to comment on some of the things that happened. By having a time traveler in the 17th century, she can make some deflating comments about, for example, Calvinistic creeds or whatever. She to some extent acts as an intermediary between our world and that world. Having said that, as the story progresses she becomes pretty stuck in the 17th century and probably loses some of that modern perspective.
Since you’re a European CFO, I’m wondering what you think of the tax-inversion trend, whereby U.S. companies are acquiring companies in Europe and redomiciling there to take advantage of the lower corporate tax rates.
The 35% U.S. tax rate is very high. Over time it probably needs to come down, or the United States is not going to be competitive with the rest of the world. In Sweden we have a 22% rate and are thinking about lowering it to 16%. There will be more companies thinking about moving their headquarters.
I find it surprising that a country that so embraces the concepts of freedom of earnings and freedom of capital as the United States does has such a restrictive approach to taxes. It doesn’t go hand in hand with European perceptions of the United States.
Now, our personal tax rates are higher. My marginal rate is 56%. But then I start adding up what I get for that, compared with my colleagues in the United States. We don’t have tax on property, cars or boats. We have free medical care. We have free universities. The difference isn’t that big at the end of the day.