The guru - Issue 50 - Magazine | Monocle

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“Think of it as CSR on steroids.” Christian Stadil, owner of Danish sports and fashion firm Hummel, is explaining his corporate philosophy. “I call it company karma and it’s at the core of Hummel. It’s based on the idea that what you send out into the world is what you get back; that companies have a social responsibility beyond their core activity.”

Stadil co-authored a book on the subject, Company Karma, and, as you would expect, his company is its showcase. Thus Hummel has sponsored the Afghanistan men’s and women’s football teams, founded a football academy in Sierra Leone and supported a plastic recycling project in conjunction with the European leg of a recent Black Eyed Peas tour, among many other social and environmental causes.

“These kinds of projects are a quadruple win. We differentiate our brand. The causes benefit. Our customers feel like they are contributing. And our employees get a sense that they are working in a company they can be proud of.”

This last point is crucial, Stadil says, to what he sees as one of the great management challenges of the future: keeping Generation Y loyal. “This next generation will probably be the first to earn less than their parents. Salary is not their primary focus; the most important thing for them is to fulfill their potential. They want to be proud of the company they work for when they talk about it with their friends on a Friday night and, if you want them to stay in your company, you’ve got to involve them in decisions; they’ve got to know why they are being asked to do something.”

In practical terms this means flattening the management structure (Hummel, which Stadil has owned since 1999, has five equal directors working beneath a CEO), and giving employees more of a say. “It used to be that, at Hummel, the designers worked in their ivory tower, and then production took over but today sales, marketing, production and design are all involved right from the start of a new collection.”

Hummel is part of the Thornico Group, an “old school” – as Stadil puts it – conglomerate which he owns together with his father, Thor Stadil, 66. As well as Hummel, it encompasses businesses engaged in everything from powdered cheese production to shipping, medical technology to commercial real estate, and employs over 4,000 people in 45 countries.

Thornico has been on something of a spending spree in the past couple of years purchasing a handful of companies around the world, the latest being US medical technology firm, Ramé-Hart.

“I am more and more involved in the other companies now and trying to make them all think as one, particularly in terms of the company karma approach. For instance, we now have probably the world’s first socially aware shipping vessel, Thorco Africa, which donates 0.5 per cent of its revenue to Red Cross projects in Africa. We have started up four chicken farms in Malawi together with DanChurchAid. And one of our commercial properties in Rotterdam has the world’s largest green wall, covered with plants.”

Stadil, who turns 41 this year, went to Denmark’s most exclusive boarding school, Herlufsholm, studied law and spent two years in the Danish Royal Lifeguards, attaining the rank of sergeant. He is a keen mountaineer and has somehow found time to co-author two more self-development books published in Denmark last year – one on creative thinking, and another karma-themed book for individuals. He is a well known figure in Denmark, appearing on TV regularly in his trademark heavy-framed glasses and eccentric headgear to talk about self- development, leadership and his Buddhism. “I don’t call myself a Buddhist actually but I have been interested in it as a philosophy since I was 12,” he says. “I find it is a 360-degree way of dealing with life – with emotions, stress, mindfulness.” Stadil even wrote the foreword to the Danish edition of the Dalai Lama’s The Leader’s Way, but he is happy to send himself up as the barefooted business guru, recently appearing on a Danish comedy show sitting in the Lotus position, meditating.

Thornico owns around 50 standalone companies (plus another 50 subsiduaries), which emerged strongly from the global economic crisis of 2008, due in large part to Hummel. Growth was 35 per cent in 2010, with 25 per cent predicted in 2011; turnover was up by a billion kronor at kr2.6bn. “That’s an advantage of being small. With Hummel we saw that, virtually overnight, everything stopped. Distributors couldn’t get finance. Consumers were pessimistic, but we kind of went under the radar and an alternative to the bigger brands is always needed. We think there is still a lot of growth potential in Germany, and our higher end fashion footwear is doing especially well. We are in stores such as Colette in Paris and Storm in Copenhagen, and selling around a million pairs of shoes a year.”

As a result of this success, Hummel’s Aarhus HQ is moving premises later this year to a converted submarine hall on the city’s harbourfront. “It’s a fantastic building overlooking the water with a floating outdoor deck. But there won’t be a fountain. A friend who is a company director once told me that, when a company HQ gets a fountain, it means it will be bankrupt within two years.”

The rules

What time do you like to be at your desk?   
I don’t have a fixed office, I am travelling so much. I usually begin the day checking my emails in bed at about 06.30. 

Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership – an MBA or on the job?   
It would have to be on the job. 

Describe your management style.   
Involving employees is key, which means tearing down the classic top-down management structure. 

Are tough decisions best taken by one person?   
I am an old soldier, so it is important to me to stand on the battlefield and take the bullets. So, yes, the ugly decisions you take by yourself. 

Do you want to be liked or respected?   
If respected means feared, then liked. Fear is old school. 

What does your support team look like?   
I don’t have a PA – that job is divided 10 per cent with one person, 10 per cent with another and so on. But now we are working more as Thornico the conglomerate, I am thinking about hiring someone. I get 150 mails a day, and I am not on Facebook or Twitter, simply because of the time they take. 

What technology do you carry on a trip?   
My iPhone. We have a strict IT policy at Hummel – you really have to need something to have it, so I don’t have an iPad yet. 

Do you read management books?   
I write them! One I do like is Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing. 

Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?   
I run if I’m preparing for climbing. No wine with lunch – it’s not a very Danish thing. But I do socialise. 

What would your key management advice be?   
Be the embodiment of the company. Be the change you want to see. 

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