Growing up in Sweden, Sara Molnar had always enjoyed an active lifestyle. She enjoyed skiing – and sometimes extreme skiing. But her working life was fully-focused on financial services. She built a career at SEB, one of Scandinavia’s most distinguished banks and an institution with a 150-year history. She became Legal Counsel for SEB Merchant Banking and later moved into a business role as senior adviser to Global Head of markets. Her responsibilities ranged from business development to regulatory strategy and management. Then, like a slalomist, she changed direction. She joined the Swedish sports retail brand Peak Performance and entered an entirely new culture. She had found “something that I truly identify with”. After a series of promotions, she is now Peak Performance’s CEO, leading a business that spans more than 20 countries.
Financial Services → Sporting Goods
By her own admission, Sara Molnar’s career pivot was a radical one. She had put in 14 years building a career in financial services at SEB, one of Scandinavia’s most prestigious merchant banks. Now she was taking a job in sports fashion retail.
The reason she knew it was the right move was that she felt it instinctively. “I was keen to work in something that I truly had my heart in.” It wasn’t just her. She quickly came to realise that everyone at Peak Performance, the Stockholm-based sports and fashion company, was dedicated to its culture and ethos. “Everyone is working at Peak Performance because they love the brand.”
Peak Performance was founded in 1986 by a group of ski enthusiasts in the Swedish winter resort of Åre. Molnar was familiar with the brand, and knew that it was highly respected by the extreme skiing community. “I’ve always lived an active lifestyle,” she says. “I thought, ‘Wow, it would be super cool to work with something so close to my heart.'”
“The challenge was to recalibrate myself for an organisation with totally different parameters, motivated by totally different things”
But making the transition wasn’t simple. While she credits her time in banking as being “a fantastic education in itself”, Peak Performance had a culture with creativity at its core. As she arrived as business development director, she couldn’t just act like a “financial bulldozer”, she says. Whereas banking was a target-focused sector where “you are constantly challenged on your IQ”, her new employer was just as interested in emotional intelligence (EQ).
“The challenge was to recalibrate myself for an organisation with totally different parameters, motivated by totally different things. Imagine a tyre overfilled with air – you have to let some air out. That’s how I felt. I could see so many things that I wanted to fix but I knew that I needed to understand the culture and the team before being able to implement these changes.”
Although she was making “a rather big jump”, she quickly came to see that her skill set was well-suited to an organisation that was seeking a buyer. “The business was looking for something that I had. What I didn’t know was that there was already a plan in their minds to sell the company. So my financial background was useful and these capabilities did not exist already in the organisation.”
Now as Peak Performance’s CEO she is convinced that she is in the right place. “My learning (at Peak Performance) is how much more you can get out of an organisation, and how much more fun it is, for everyone involved, if you have a strong culture which focuses as much on EQ as much as on IQ.”
The demand for outdoor clothing that is functional and fashionable is only set to grow, she believes. “People recognise how our lives are getting more digital, and more sedentary, For our brand, it is important to facilitate and enable an active lifestyle for our customers by providing them with the right apparel to do so.”
As for good leadership, the qualities she advocates include transparency and inclusion. “What is super important is that it is fun,” she concludes. “There needs to be joy in the organisation.”