CEO Wessanen: 'It is all about clean purpose and strong performance'
Christophe Barnouin, CEO at organic food company Royal Wessanen, has nearly three decades of food industry experience under his belt. During this period, which included a stint at Mars, he has transformed into a compelling advocate for organic food. At the helm of Wessanen, the French businessman has been the driver of a radical shift in the business strategy.
A fresh focus on sustainable and healthy food prompted Barnouin to sell half of the company’s turnover. Today the company finds itself at the forefront of sustainability with renowned brands such as Zonnatura and Whole Earth in its portfolio. Size or maximizing profit is not at the top of Barnouin’s mind. “It is all about value creation: clear purpose and strong performance.”
Steering a company through such a radical change requires strong but also sustainable leadership. But what exactly are the features of this type of leadership? And do certain values related to it come naturally to people or can they be developed over time? These are questions that Anita te Water, partner at executive search & leadership firm Ebbinge, has asked numerous leaders from various backgrounds over the years. Today she meets Barnouin in his office over tea – in fact Clipper tea, another one of Wessanen’s sustainable brands – to talk about his values and view on sustainable leadership.
When you talk about purpose, is it the company or you that has a purpose?
“Most of the people at this company did not get here by accident, and neither did I. As for a personal belief, I think that the food system needs to be changed. For the last 50 years every single industry has contributed to disconnecting the consumer from nature. The consequences in terms of health and environment are enormous. Our goal is to help restoring that connection and the best way to do that is to start from within. There is still a long way to go though. Right now only 4 percent of the European food market is organic.”
What do you mean by changing the system from within?
“So far, competitiveness and economic performance have prevailed. You do everything you can to deliver, over and over again. Most of the time this has negative effects on who you are and how you lead people. It impacts the whole ecosystem in which you operate. So what we are doing here today is to make a positive impact from the core of our business. This means that we don’t do sustainability on the weekends. We stand for organic, fair trade and nutritional vegetarian food. Being at the forefront of the food revolution, by doing good for the people and planet, is our contribution. Our impact reaches far: from farming to our consumers base. Because we promote organic farming all over Europe, we don’t strive for the lowest costs. Some investors can rightly point out that we could have a higher profit by driving down our costs. But that is not our business. We are a purpose-driven company.”
How do you succesfully integrate purpose into your business?
“It is about a consistency between what we sell and what we do. Because what we sell gives us an obligation to behave in a different way. We are for instance fully transparent about our chain and communicate more than we have to disclose. Nearly 80 percent of what we do is organic. And for our top four raw materials, which are oat, tea, cocoa and almond we strive to have a fully transparent supply chain up to the source.
However, the truth is that once you start on the ladder of sustainability, you can only discover what you do wrong. Using recyclable packaging is an example. Circular cardboard is fantastic but how to recycle cardboard that is printed with ink. Or paying a premium for fair trade is great. But where is the money exactly going? And how do you deal with the challenges around palm oil? It is a continuous hamster wheel, which from the moment you have entered it, is going faster and faster. It is all about commitment and continuous improvement.”
To what extent does a tension between purpose and performance exist?
“There is no need to choose between the two. As a listed company we have proven over time that we are serious about our purpose while at the same time creating value for shareholders. Performance gives us the freedom to do whatever we want. Freedom for example to commit to fair trade, and freedom to educate people that they can have an impact on their health and environment through responsible consumption.”
Despite the proven performance Wessanen is currently in the process of becoming a privately held company again. What are the reasons behind this move?
“The listed company set-up only works if the performance is superior all quarters. We showed an incredible growth over four and a half years but there is a limit to that. But fair trade for example is a long-term commitment. We are not just buying a stamp on a product. We are buying a product from a certain cooperative, through which we support a number of families and pay a premium price for crops on a multi-year contract. The economic performance is not always guaranteed. But when you don’t deliver on market expectations, being a listed company is not ideal. As a private company we have the time to do long-term investments. That means that we don’t have to make any sacrifices on sustainability, can reinvest in our brands for a much longer period, and if we don’t get the results in one or three quarters that is fine.”
Back to you as a leader. How do you motivate staff to get on board with the company’s purpose and performance goals?
“Transparency is very important. Taking everyone in the company very seriously and being open about your intentions is the foundation. Only then people will tell you what they really think. It is about people to talk freely and to disagree. When I am in a management meeting and everyone agrees with me I do get very anxious. It is a signal for me as a leader; when there are no conflicts something is wrong and you find yourself in a classic pattern of ‘command and control’.
The more challenging part is the continuous reconciliation of purpose and performance because people tend to go all the way in one direction. So occasionally you have to be the bad guy and challenge people. That can be on the performance side but also on the purpose side. What is the next step in sustainability? What are we going to do after we have become a B-corp?” (Most of Wessanen is already B-corp certified)
What does it ask from you as a leader to strengthen and enable people?
“I never had a very strong ego, which means I don’t have to fight with myself to let go. I don’t need to be in the papers. What I did learn is to understand others better and that collective energy is the driver of a company. A community is the strongest thing that exists. So of course you need to design a framework as a leader, in which the energy can be channelled. It is about setting the scene and letting people freely operate. This insight came from my previous work experience. I left large corporates a long time ago. At that time it was still very much a ‘command and control’ system. That was not very inspiring for me as a leader.
Another lesson has been the recognition of the strength of feminine characteristics. Research has shown that women are more likely to sustainably run a company compared to men. The corporate world however, is still very masculine, with values such as performance and competition still dominating. These are in essence not fundamental values for women, whose value is mostly caring. Being married and having four daughters I very much live in a feminine environment. Through my own life experience, not only can I accept gender differences and mitigate who I am in the world, but I probably care much more than the average for our people and our planet.”
Are there any other life experiences that have cultivated the values you hold today?
“Growing up I have always been aware that I am a mix of things. For example my mother is Jewish and my father is Catholic. I am not religious myself. I have been educated in a system where debate is fundamental. Everything could be viewed from different angles as long as the argument sticks. This has enabled me to see that there are more sides to everything and that people can view the same reality from a different angle. I am very happy to be French and to lead a Dutch company because at the end of the day I believe that diversity unites us.”
At last, which leaders do you find inspirational yourself?
“I find many people inspirational. They don’t have to lead a large company. The guys that have founded Abbot Kinneys’s do inspire me for example. That start-up, now part of Wessanen, produces organic almond and coconut based yogurt alternatives. The way they set up the company was so smart and smooth. Last year they reached already € 4 mln in sales. It is this younger generation that I find truly inspirational. For them it is natural to be led by values, unwilling to compromise.”
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Image: Adobe Stock (head), Marijn de Wijs