The Business of Life Chapter 23 – Keeping Enemies Close

An early, hazy summer sun was shining the morning my flight approached Geneva and I could see the Jura, the city and Lac Leman spread out below.  I had spent ten years flying into Geneva on a fairly regular basis but this morning was different.  I was coming here to live and to work and although visually everything was familiar it felt very strange indeed.  A few years earlier our European head office had moved from tiny, cramped offices next to the lake into a new block adjacent to the airport.  Although it was now just a short walk from the terminal to our offices, the heat of a sunny day together with the humidity that came from Geneva’s position, ringed by mountains and built by the lake, meant I arrived drenched in perspiration. 

Sitting for a few minutes in the office I had inherited from Louis, my predecessor, I gathered my thoughts.  It was compact and somewhat clinical but did offer an astounding view.  Sitting at my desk I could see, over in the distance across the city and Lac Leman, Mont Blanc, just visible above the haze.  After a welcome cup of coffee delivered in beautiful white china by Germaine my new secretary, “Louis would never accept his coffee in anything else!”, I went in search of Don.  Sitting in his palatial office he proceeded to light a Marlborough.  The offices had previously been declared a no smoking zone but Don had imperiously decreed that the rule didn’t apply to his own office.

The briefing I received was perfunctory.  Don announced that stock levels across Europe were far too high and he wanted me to make a significant improvement.  I was perplexed as the company had spent a vast amount of money previously on a Distribution Resource Planning (DRP) software programme.  This programme (identified and implemented by Peter, a Cambridge PhD, who had been recruited to head up pan-European logistics) was designed to analyse sales history and trends and make more accurate forecasts than the capabilities of mere mortals would permit.  I politely reminded Don of this but was greeted with the response that my marketing team should be close enough to the market to be able to predict sales far more accurately.  He would hear no counter argument and made clear the meeting was concluded but not before emphasising that this was to be my absolute priority.  I said I would investigate and see what needed to be done.  This issue was destined to become my Nemesis.

The rest of the day was spent gaining the views of my new team.  They were a real multinational group including Swiss, German, French, Belgium & Romanian members most of whom I already knew extremely well.  The marketing department numbered 13 out of a total headquarters staff of 70.  In addition I also had what is referred to in management speak as ‘dotted line responsibility’ for the sales and marketing functions in all of the 16 European countries where we had subsidiaries.  At the end of that first day I was sitting quietly in my office writing notes on the day’s meetings when Rien Swaanen (VP Manufacturing) burst in.  Without pausing first for pleasantries or even common courtesies, he immediately launched into a vitriolic attack on me, my function and the whole of my new department.  I was totally mystified because the attack was laughable and demonstrated a gross lack of understanding of the issue he was complaining about.

A few years previously after Jean’s death,  I had heard from a colleague that Swaanen’s wife was suffering from the same cruel disease.  I felt spontaneously driven to write to him and let him know of my concern for them both and offered an understanding ear if he ever felt the need to talk.  Very shortly afterwards, I got a call from Swaanen’s secretary to fix a date for us to have dinner on his forthcoming visit to the UK.  We talked late into the night and he poured out his soul to me and thanked me profusely for my concern for them both.  It wasn’t long after that I heard the sad news that his wife had finally passed away.  I wrote again but it was some time before we met as I was still running the UK while he was based in Geneva.

A year or so later, I again received a call from Swaanen inviting me for dinner on his next visit.  Business concluded I drove him to his hotel.  As the sun was shining brightly on that fine summer evening, we decided to take a walk along the river that ran by the country hotel I had chosen.  Once more Swaanen talked at great length, of the pain of his wife’s suffering and death, of the slow repair of his inner self and of a returning belief in the joys of living.  And then he shared with me his love for a new woman in his life, how they had met, what she meant to him and how they would spend their life together.  I had been pleased for him but now, for some inexplicable reason, he was acting as if I was an enemy appearing in his back yard.  I retired to the hotel that shared our building.

The following morning I was met by Walter the office manager, a genial Swiss German who proved an invaluable part of the process of integrating me into Swiss life.  Our first stop was the ministry responsible for registering foreign workers and I was guided carefully through the process of obtaining my visa.  We then set out to inspect the half a dozen apartments Walter had lined up for me to view. In the end the last viewing of the day proved to be the one.  It was a pleasant and large apartment in an old block, close to the lake with on street parking and local cafes and bars, close enough to walk into the old town and it gave me a good feeling.  Critically, it was on the same side of the lake and only 3 kilometres from our office.

Louis had promised to meet me for a full briefing on my role but this never materialised.  Instead, I received in the post a few notes he had jotted down, which included the suggestion that I read through the files he had left.  One of the priorities was to continue working closely to bring a project with The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) to a successful conclusion.  It seemed that Don had initiated a number of major projects when our parent board had put the business up for sale, of which this was one.  The scope of the project was an outwards one to look at the European market and assess what could be done to improve our position.  I also discovered that another major project had been to look at the performance of our manufacturing operations across Europe but this had been put on hold (it was never instigated and I suspected Swaanen’s dead hand).

When I met with the BCG management a short time later I learnt that on finding that no product line profit and loss statements existed on a pan-European basis they had managed to create these.  I was staggered to find that our company, a major global player, had never attempted to create this basic information.  I had been carrying out this process in the UK for some time and found the information simply invaluable.  What the BCG exercise revealed was staggering.  Working from the factory cost price through to the ultimate selling price at market level less all costs showed that our entire incandescent product range was making large losses.  Furthermore, France which had for years been paraded as the premier example for their marketing excellence in this product area, was making the greatest losses.  The situation should have been recognised and addressed years previously.  However, in the current circumstances the required solution (closing obsolete factories and investing in new production facilities) was out of the question.  My previous UK profits for this product group were amongst a minority and vindicated my strategy in this area.  My cynicism started to mount.

The routine side of my new role involved monitoring progress on planned new product development projects, touring subsidiaries to review and promote good marketing and sales practice, sitting through Don’s meetings, which never seemed to address core issues and taking part in the travelling circus that was the individual country operations reviews.  New product development was driven by technical developments that manufacturing felt would enhance product performance rather than any attempt to establish what markets required.  It became crystal clear that my previous suspicions were well founded.  The central marketing function was largely reactive and existed without a clear role in overall company strategy.  In fact there was absolutely zero talk of strategy to improve the long term viability of the company and if such a strategy did exist it must have been securely locked away in a Credit Suisse bank vault.

The hectic schedule of meetings I was required to attend (both in Geneva and elsewhere in Europe) gave me the feeling I was on a treadmill that custom and practice had determined but which rarely achieved anything of value.  However, during this time I had been working away on the objective I had been given by Don and had started to see some startling results.  Swaanen had an entire department (headed up by Peter the director of logistics) solely to run the DRP system and manage the logistics of our business.  I had always kept close to Peter and had been a fervent supporter of the DRP system.  I had encouraged him to work with me in widening the scope of the relationship I had built with some of the largest UK distributors and this had borne fruit.  When I arrived in Geneva I found that this whole department with its huge potential was largely ignored by Swaanen.  With the added benefit of the relationship I built with Peter’s team, I soon had them working enthusiastically with me.

The DRP system complimented Manufacturing Resource Planning (MRP) that ensured materials for production in our factories were available when required.  The purpose of DRP was to ensure that our subsidiaries around Europe had exactly the correct stock levels of all finished stock at any time.  The system was participative with the subsidiaries in that it required that each and every one to define stockholding parameters, share key demand factors (e.g. large contracts producing sales spikes) and merely to review the sales forecasts generated by DRP each month for individual products lines.  In this system the subsidiaries never had to place an order as once up and running and reviewed regularly it replenished stock automatically.  This system was predicated on the finding that the best place for non-differentiated stock was in the centre (the factories) with rapid replenishment of subsidiary stocks.  The problem was that it seemed that the system was not working, giving rise to Don’s complaint of high stocks.  There were profound systemic problems.

Every employee at management grade and above (worldwide) participated in a Management by Objectives (MBO) system. Each individual had as many as eight or more quantitative objectives they had agreed to each year and bonuses were awarded on the basis of performance against each component.  At senior management level these objectives were spread across set areas and could be very prescriptive. For country and factory managers and above there was a specific target given each year for stock levels.  Given that stock levels were contributing to bonuses, subsidiary managers in each country felt inclined to attempt to manipulate these by adjusting the sales forecasts produced by DRP.

The factory managers also had an incentive to manipulate stock levels as they too had targets to minimise stock at factory level.  At one meeting shortly after a year end Swaanen had actually boasted that only the action of his factory managers in overriding sales forecasts agreed by subsidiaries prevented sales targets in subsidiaries from being missed.  The factories had an additional incentive to ship more stock than required because of the ever increasing drive to increase line speed to reduce costs.  Driven by a misguided bonus system both sides were playing the same game and I suspected this was the cause of excess stock.  The problem was that I had lacked the means to prove this.

Working with Peter and his department we solved the issue.  I asked if the DRP system could recover the individual product line sales forecasts it had generated for each subsidiary for the previous 12 months.  “Of course”, came the immediate response.  I then asked if these could be plotted against actual sales achieved over the same period and the revised sales forecasts the subsidiaries had made.  “Of course”, again!  Within hours I had a complete picture.  With the exception of a few low volume lines that had a very lumpy and unpredictable sales pattern, every major product line, in every country, monthly sales forecast by DRP had been far more accurate than the ones adjusted by the subsidiaries.  If the subsidiaries had done nothing more than merely tick the original DRP forecasts without making any adjustments and the factories had shipped against these, the calculation showed we would have ended the year with $10m lower stocks!  I had the answer and the proof.  We had to change the bonus system and stop the counter productive double guessing that was driving stocks higher.

Could I convince Don that I had found the root cause of the stock problem?  And would he agree to make the necessary changes?  Before I could take this issue further it was announced that a sale of the business finally had been agreed in principle and the potential new owners were to visit us the following week.

Image courtesy of Europeupclose.com

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