On Friday, March 20, 2020, I defended my thesis to complete the Executive MBA program at Nyenrode (EMBA16: 2018-2020). What should have been the highlight became somewhat of an anti-climax. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, I presented my final project via a video link from my office at home. Congratulations, you got your MBA! The graduation party had to be moved to social media.
For me personally, these weeks as a brand new general manager of LTO companies and a graduated participant of the Executive MBA program at Nyenrode became an unreal period. I anticipated that I would have space to take up my social life after EMBA, that I would have time to get back into the business and I was looking forward to celebrating the graduation with the EMBA16-group. It turned out differently.
I’m writing this article because I see parallels between my thesis at Nyenrode and current events. The lessons of my thesis help me to guide the company through the current storm. The theme of the thesis is the formulating of a business strategy with stakeholder involvement, based on the future development of the sector. I described it on the basis of a case study at LTO companies, the company that I have led as managing director since September 2019.
My thesis contains recommendations for the strategy of LTO Companies in the period 2020-2025. Based on workshops with management, senior employees, supervisory board and shareholders and inspired by a previous study into the future of the agro & food sector. In May 2019, together with two co-authors I published the book 'What will agriculture and horticulture look like in 2050?’.
The involvement of the internal organization in strategy formation resulted in a strong commitment to get started. A strategy in which value growth, synergy and innovation are the guiding factors, with intensification of internal cooperation and knowledge sharing between employees as the basis. Relatively new to a company that was run as a portfolio-organization.
And then it was the end of March. MBA in the bag, company and environment explored, ambition formulated, stakeholders involved and plan written. So it’s time to get started. But since the week I defended my thesis, the world has been turned upside down. Quarantine in the Netherlands. That also affects LTO companies, a holding company that owns eight companies, ranging from media to labor services, purchasing, marketing, insurance, precision farming, crop registration and sustainable energy.
On the weekend of March 20th, I wondered what the value of my strategic recommendations still was. Should the growth ambitions, investment plans and saving the intended organizational tilt for the future, now that employees largely work from home and we will be busier managing the crisis in the short term instead of growth? Can that strategy document go in the trash?
The answer is ‘no’, as far as I'm concerned. The impact of the coronavirus outbreak is forcing executives to intervene with the exploitation, in line with the company's longer-term ambitions. As a result, the focus of management is shifting from 'tomorrow' and 'the day after tomorrow' to 'today'. Necessary to protect the cash flow.
But the guiding principle for all these actions and measurements remains the strategic ambition. Where do we want to go and what is needed for that? Formulate a strategy with involvement from the environment, based on short-term developments in the sector. Where can you be pragmatic in times of crisis and what has absolute priority? Making choices in scarcity.
But with the long-term ambition sharp in the eyes. In principle, what we’re working towards does not change as the result of a crisis. Our mission - to support farmers and horticulturists in the transition to the agricultural world of tomorrow and to make innovative technologies and revenue models accessible to today's entrepreneurs - does not change. The route towards it does.
It took me two days to make the necessary shift in mindset. On Sunday the 22nd of March I made a first step towards a scenario model, in which the impact of the corona crisis is elaborated in four scenarios. Varying from light to moderate, heavy and very heavy impact. But with the belief that we might emerge stronger from this crisis if we do the right things now.
The guiding factor in this phase is to maintain the freedom to invest for tomorrow's growth. To do this, it is necessary to reduce operational costs in today's activities. Operate proactively, keep an overview and make choices. Look even more sharply for synergy, the fruit of cooperation. Being extra cautious and hoping for better weather is not a strategy.
It's important to stay positive. Celebrate your successes. Even if it's remote, let your voice be heard. It is precisely now that binds the employees who create the success of the company. Encourage people to look after each other and show that you are a solid employer. Provide certainty where you can offer it and let them know where you cannot. Show commitment. Soft values in hard times.
Patrick Bramer is an alumnus of Nyenrodes Executive MBA program and general director of LTO Companies.