Don’t Underestimate The Power Of Enduring Companies
October 20, 2014 Leave a comment
Here is an excellent essay by Marcus Wallenberg,chairman of SEB (Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken),founded by his great-great-grandfather in 1856. He also serves as the chairman of Saab and Electrolux and sits on the boards of directors for Investor AB and AstraZeneca, among others.
Joseph Schumpeter focused his attention largely on new businesses and their role in eating the breakfast of established companies. But in my view, “intrapreneurs”—risk takers on the inside—are just as important as entrepreneurs in promoting new ideas and new technology.
Much depends on the attitude of the owners, board, and top management. In my opinion, it’s their strong duty to foster a culture of constant innovation that drives its own creative destruction on the inside. A related issue is a willingness, when things look bad, to find ways of breathing new life into and rebuilding even very old companies. It’s not easy, but in my experience it’s possible, with the right determination, to take the long view, persevere, and succeed in what seems to others a hopeless situation. It’s not always necessary to break up companies or introduce innovations from the outside to stay ahead of the game. Established firms have a huge natural advantage in the marketplace because of their strong customer and supplier bases, their long-term shareholder structure, and their deep reservoir of capable people.
We have stuck with many businesses where we were confident that doing so would create value in the long run. The capital markets need investors who recognize that the innovation cycle is often measured in years and that you can’t create successful product portfolios with a short-term view. In our part of the world, the presence of dominant long-term owners on the share registers—investors who feel a responsibility toward companies in difficulty—is an advantage. When those shareholders take the lead in a restructuring, other institutions tend to follow.
Owners and boards who are in it for the long term must choose their leaders according to the challenge at hand; there are appropriate skills for a restructuring, but different ones will be needed when expansion is called for. It’s vital for a chairman to be closely in touch with the CEO—on boards where I am chairman, I speak to the CEO a couple of times a week. I also think boards ought to stay informed on operations, immersing themselves in specific investment decisions rather than just talking about long-term strategy. Nordic boards have been quite successful in doing that.
All in all, we should not underestimate the significance of large, enduring firms. From society’s perspective, think of what I call “the rings of the water”: the indirect business generated by a large corporation like Ericsson through small suppliers, service contracts, technology spin-offs, and the like. Sometimes we are too philosophical about losing large businesses and forget the economic impact on these networks.