It was an early start for the GIP Nordic group today, as we headed out two hours from Copenhagen to the city of Kalundborg to meet with the founder and CEO of the Copenhagen Merchants Group. The company is a family business brokerage company which was started by the founder, Torben Christiensen in 1977, and is today one of the largest brokering companies in Europe. Since the company’s early beginnings, Copenhagen Merchants has diversified themselves into four other areas, apart from just brokerage.
- Brokerage – Leading broker as well as service provider for the agricultural trading industry
- Biomass Trading – Heavily involved in global trade and distribution of biomass commodities such as wood pellets.
- Shipping – Has developed a vessel charting desk , ship management, and ship agency services.
- Terminals – Co-managers and co-owns 11 import terminals with a capacity of over 600,000 MT
- Superintendence – The company’s latest offering is the inspection services for grain.
Aside from the founder of the company, we also met with the present CEO, Simon Christiensen, Torben’s son and second generation of the family business, as well as Michael Christiensen, a non-family member and COO of Trading for the Biomass division. Among many things, Simon shared with the group about his rather uncertain journey into the family business, as well as his thoughts on the future of the company as well and the potential entrance of future generations into the company.
Simon had expressed early on in the session that he had thought of or wanted to enter the family business, for two reasons: one being his desire to create a name for himself within Private Equity, and second was due to his worry that his interests would not align with the company and his father. After conversations with his father, he had realized that not only did he find ease in speaking with his father about the future of the company, but had also seen how aligned he and his father actually were on various aspects of the company. This prompted Simon to join the company in 2003.
Before the Global Immersion trip, the class had discussed a variety of issues within family business, such as the professionalization of the family business, the importance of a third party perspective or consultant, as well as the necessity of board creation. All of which and more were issues that both Simon and his father, Torben, had gracious shared with the class.
In many early stage family businesses, the necessity to build a board does not become apparent to the founder until later on in the company. Torben mentioned how his early board included himself, his wife, a lawyer, and later on Simon once he joined the company. As a smaller family business, he had mentioned he preferred this organizational structure, which allowed to quicker decision making within the company. However, after attending a seminar with the IMD Business School, focusing on development of family businesses, Torben and Simon had begun to see similar patterns with various family businesses, and how the need to professionalize was evident.
Because of this, Torben and Simon had decided to add two more independent board members, and move Simon’s mother and sister to a family council, since their expertise did not lie in future investments and business decisions. However, the addition of board members was an issue that they were initially skeptical about. Simon mentioned it was “like an investment” as the time and energy needed to get the new board members up to speed was quite tedious. In time, the two soon began to see the value of the additional members, with inputs that were more creative, direct, and different than they were used to from their internal discussions within the family. With this change, the company flourished even more in the next years.
Looking ahead, we had asked Simon about his thoughts on the next generation of family members entering the family. Currently, the third generation includes Simon’s and his sister’s four children, all of whom are still between the ages of 8 and 14 years. Simon had said that he did not envision any of his or his sister’s children entering the business, since not only did neither of them express an interest, but also since he felt that the chance that they would be the best candidates to lead the family business would be lower than the previous generation. He expressed that he believed that this was so as the larger a business grows, the stronger the need for candidates of better fit rather than just passion for the business. He also felt that it would be unreasonable to pressure his children into entering, but was not completely closed to the idea, should the idea arise later on.
Overall the family business story of the Copenhagen Merchants Group was valuable and highly relatable, in terms of the lessons with their business and those that we had learned in our five weeks of class. Tonight, the group heads to Stockholm, Sweden for the final leg of the program, with a fairly packed day meeting three family businesses companies!
-Marty Lopez ’18