— Supported by Acolad —

Bertrand Gstalder

Seizing the Opportunity

For newcomers to the language industry, a career pivot brings both challenges and opportunities. To be sure, it’s a professional sector with its own decades-long culture, conventions, and developments. But with the industry roiled by the latest technological advances, it’s also an opportunity to steer a ship with a steady hand through tumultuous seas.

But for Bertrand Gstalder, fresh off a year in Acolad’s CEO seat, that’s just where the opportunities start. He sees a chance for the language industry to distinguish itself with its already-engrained values of sustainability, human creativity, and productive communication. MultiLingual spoke to him about it all.

February marks nearly a year since you accepted your position as Acolad CEO. What were your expectations when you took the office, and how have those expectations been confirmed or revised since then?

When I took on this role, my vision was focused on three key areas: embracing AI and technological advancement; consolidating our group under a single, unified identity; and expanding our global footprint, particularly in North America and in life sciences.

Having experienced the internet revolution firsthand through my work in ecommerce and digital markets, I was aware of how AI, in a similar way, would revolutionize the industry. I immediately felt confident with Acolad’s early proactive involvement in AI research, which positioned us well ahead of the curve. This AI revolution goes way beyond technology. It’s all about a forward-thinking mindset — a principle at our core. I’m proud to say that adopting AI and innovative practices across all our teams has exceeded my expectations, demonstrating our commitment to industry leadership and excellence.

In addition to AI, joining Acolad amidst the merging of various entities and standardizing processes led to one of my main missions: constructing this new group identity. Acolad is built on the strengths and experiences of these historically rich brands, and they all needed to align under one Acolad umbrella. The continuous engagement with our teams, clients, and stakeholders has been invaluable in this journey that recently culminated in the reveal of refreshed values, vision, and mission, a result of the fusion of the history, experience, and legacy of all the companies that made up the group.

I would also like to point out our organic growth, especially in North America and the life sciences sector, where we made substantial progress in 2023 with initiatives like our Center of Excellence for Medical Trials.

After one year, despite disruptions from the generative AI (GenAI) surge and ongoing economic instability, there have been encouraging signs that we are on the right path. I focus on sustaining our growth trajectory, nurturing our corporate culture, and ensuring we remain at the forefront of innovation.

What are some unforeseen challenges and biggest learning experiences since becoming CEO?

Well, my first anniversary in the industry matches the explosion of GenAI — so I think that answers the question! The initial hype around AI, combined with the global economic turndown, led to a wait-and-see attitude in the industry, causing delays and uncertainties in new and ongoing projects.

This phase, while challenging, was a significant learning opportunity for us and opened the doors to new growth opportunities. We had to adapt, transform, and react quickly, balancing the enthusiasm for new technologies with practical implementation strategies.

We diversified our service offerings to meet the changing market needs better and invested heavily in training our teams to upskill in emerging technologies. This helped us stay competitive and prepared us for a broader range of client requirements and requests.

Even though economic conditions have not fully recovered, I am optimistic about the future. We’re moving beyond the initial hype of AI into a phase of more tangible and concrete applications — and the lessons learned during this period have been invaluable, equipping us to face future challenges with a more robust approach.

Being a newcomer to the language industry comes with a steep learning curve — what attracted you to the work?

The newness of the experience was what drew me in initially, but the positivity and open-mindedness made it a truly welcoming environment to navigate. I enjoy the service-oriented nature of this industry and the fact that, through our work, we enable our customers to achieve their missions in any part of the globe. This ability to empower others to better communicate is incredibly gratifying.

Another attractive aspect is the current state of transformation, especially with the ongoing tech revolution. Being part of an industry actively evolving and embracing new technological advancements is exciting. This constant innovation ensures we’re always at the forefront of change, adapting, and growing — more important now than ever.

Finally, I must mention the “international essence.” Being part of a global group like Acolad and connecting daily with diverse cultures and languages is professionally and personally rewarding to me.

Conversely, entering a new industry with experience from other fields can equip you with atypical skills. What lessons have you applied from your time in real estate, e-commerce, travel and lifestyle, and retail?

My professional journey has taken me through challenging industries where technology and competition constantly push companies to think and move forward. That is my main motto: adapt, challenge, and act. It’s about constantly adapting, questioning existing methods, and taking decisive action to stay ahead. Whether in B2B or B2C industries, sustainable growth is based on identifying and encompassing our customers’ needs, creating strong benefits for them. This involves actively listening to their requests, sometimes challenging them, and always partnering to achieve their goals.

Building strong, trust-based relationships with clients is crucial across all sectors. Whether helping someone find their ideal home, planning a memorable trip, or delivering accurate and culturally appropriate translations, the goal is to provide a service that meets and exceeds clients’ expectations.

A throughline for your career is sustainability — something Acolad emphasizes in its business practices. Can you share what sustainability means to you at Acolad?

For me, sustainability is about balancing economic growth, environmental protection, and social well-being. It’s more than just a concept, it is a principle deeply embedded in our core values at Acolad and influences every aspect of our operations and decision-making processes.

Our commitment to an open working environment is at the heart of our approach to sustainability. We embrace diversity and inclusion as key drivers for sustainable growth, and that comes across in our teams’ heterogeneity and collaborative mindset. Ethics also plays a crucial role in our sustainability efforts, as we hold ourselves accountable to the highest standards, ensuring our business practices are effective but also responsible and conscientious. It’s also about our commitment to building a better future and not settling for the status quo. We constantly seek ways to improve, innovate, and lead change, ensuring that we are always progressing and evolving.

In the last two years, we have also been actively working on reducing our carbon footprint. This includes minimizing the need for physical offices, encouraging a balanced approach to remote work, and optimizing our use of cloud technologies.

Another career theme is nurturing a creative environment. What does this look like at Acolad?

That definitely is something I stand behind quite fiercely. It’s about nurturing a culture where creativity and autonomy bring ideas to life and propel us forward. A creative working environment will boost productivity, boost team engagement, and make you want to come to work every day. I was fortunate to find a like-minded team with shared values and similar mindsets that believes work can be as much fun as it is challenging. And passion for what we do runs deep throughout the company. That contributes to a collaborative atmosphere where everyone knows they can speak up, share ideas, and contribute with their thoughts and actions.

We elected forward thinking and openness as two of our core values — which are what they are all about. Being open to others, listening, collaborating, taking initiative, not fearing difficulties — being hungry for progress.

We try to nurture that feeling by creating the right channels and opportunities to aid in that. The AI Ambassador program, which we launched some months ago, is a great example of that, where we are not only encouraging our teams to use AI in their daily work, but also asking them to share their experiences and ideas with their peers.

You’re not the first of Acolad’s new leadership team. Chief Revenue Officer Gráinne Maycock and returning professional Arnaud Daix, executive VP for North America, preceded you. What kind of a dynamic does that new blood bring to Acolad’s leadership?

First, it’s about sharing a vision and a strong team mindset. I was lucky to join a seasoned leadership team that embraces the group’s culture, smartly blending fresh vision and strong expertise. As you mentioned, 2023 was a year of a fresh beginning for Acolad’s leadership, with the arrival of some remarkable talents from both within and outside the company who have quickly adapted to their new roles and pushed our global goals forward with their energy. I would highlight not only Gráinne, who took over last year as CRO and has significantly boosted our revenue streams, and Arnaud driving the fast development of our business in North America, but also Mikko Hakkarrain in the Nordics, Daniel Gray in the US sales team, Christine Wetzl in DACH, Hayley Kreiger in the UK, and Rocco Filomeno in South Europe. And we will have some more highlights lined up for 2024.

It’s a combination of welcoming new talent and valuing those who have been with us for a long time. And it’s that combination — that balance — that truly differentiates us and has been a cornerstone of our growth and success.

Minds across the industry are focused on the technological revolution of AI and automation. What is your vision, and how do you foresee Acolad embracing it?

As an industry, we are in the midst of a revolution and are traveling at light speed through it. We can never fight the current, so we should embrace it and learn to use it to our advantage. Language service providers (LSPs) need to act now to establish their future role in helping​​ organizations so that they can achieve their global content and growth goals. And while we are still in this “buzz period,” organizations cannot wait forever to see what comes next or how others will deal with it — they need to take concrete action and be fast with it.

Acolad has been proactively adapting to this new reality since 2016 — it’s not new to us. We have embraced it, and we’re already seeing the practical applications in our work, such as hybrid machine translation/AI models, AI-assisted linguistic QA, content generation workflows, and audio and video creation with AI support. For instance, we’ve just completed a project for audio instructions and components for a well-known board game. No need to list them all, but just to illustrate the number of new possibilities. ​​

I also firmly believe that data and connectivity are key to success in this AI-driven industry. At Acolad, our AI and Data Steering Committee — with representatives from sales, tech, and operations — has been essential to our strategy in terms of internal and client solutions.

Moving from hype to reality with AI is also about empowering our people. As mentioned, we launched our AI Ambassador Program this summer with great new initiatives. Over 70 volunteers from all departments integrated this program to enable and experience AI internally and help the rest of the company onboard. It is something I am truly proud of.

We appointed the head of AI Solutions, who will work with our sales, solutions, and AI teams in prioritizing customer use cases. We also actively develop our partner programs, as success will come with integrating multiple evolving technologies efficiently. My vision for Acolad? To be fully service-centric and have AI increasingly become part of our DNA. ​

You place a high value on the importance of technology and the irreplaceable value of people in the workplace. Given the tension many are experiencing between these elements, how do you believe they can be harmonized?

As seen in the recent multimedia industry events and the actor and writer strikes, technological developments must be managed ethically. We must find the right balance and value what is unique and timeless: human creativity and emotion.

This is the responsibility of not only LSPs, but also buyers. We reap the rewards of the world we build — it is our responsibility. As a company, one cannot advocate for sustainable, positive, and ethical behavior in its CSR policy while not considering this effectively.

People need to be aware of both the possibilities and shortcomings of these new technologies and be educated on how to apply them ethically and positively. As a company, we have made it abundantly clear that no technology can thrive or reach its full potential unless it is human-driven. We are encouraging our teams to embrace GenAI to empower themselves. Of course, this will involve adaptation, upskilling — learning new ways of doing things. But we want them to understand how positive this is for them, allowing them to lessen the load of time-consuming, repetitive tasks and focus on being creative and on using their talents more productively. And while there is external pressure to use AI to cut costs (which is not always the case), we are also trying to educate customers to understand that having a human lead take the helm and use AI to enhance the results is the only way to go. As I have mentioned, we ask: “You can technically fly a plane on autopilot without any human pilot, but would you?” That analogy seems very fitting to this day and age.

Anything else you want to add?

Despite some uncertainty, I remain confident about our industry’s ability to navigate these challenges, supported by developing new skills and perspectives.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” This will be the motto of Acolad (and my own) for the coming years. I would add that the best way to shape that future is by doing it collectively — with our teams, customers, partners, and vendors.

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