Nordic GIP Part 3: The Lessons Taken Home

Kit O’Connor ’17

NEW YORK – This is, alas, the final time you’ll be hearing from me. Which sounds so morbid, but really, it’s just because my work as the social media guru will conclude with this post, and then I’ll graduate and won’t be able to take week-long trips around the world on random Spring Breaks anymore! A single tear rolls down my cheek…(to match the single dollar left in my bank account).

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The gorgeous Nyhavn district in Copenhagen – be sure to take the canal tour (bottle of wine or six-pack optional, but highly recommended).

But! Sweden! Denmark! Families! Business! That’s what this is about. I struggled a little bit with structuring this post, so like any good consultant, I ended up with three main takeaways: one negative, one positive, and one that’s purposely a bit amorphous (I know, I know, show, don’t tell). Let’s get started.

The bad: One of our first visits was to the American Embassy in Stockholm, where we met with a number of senior embassy officials and learned about their initiatives for American interests in Sweden and how they can help US businesses make inroads around the globe. That meeting was perfectly fine, and we were impressed by the number of speakers who made time out of their day to meet with a group of Columbia MBAs.

However, the security protocols necessary to get into the embassy honestly made me embarrassed to be a United States citizen – I saw a young girl, who couldn’t have been more than four years old, shouted at through a glass wall, forced to take off her coat on a chilly day, and contort her feet and body to prove, I guess, that there were no threatening items on her, all while her mother had to stand twenty feet away (yes, we all had to do the same). I’m proud of my country and believe there’s a reason that our mantra of freedom above all attracts the most innovative and accomplished people to learn, teach, and start businesses – by no means does that mean that our people or politicians are always correct, though I do like to think that we represent the opportunity to make life better, no matter who you are or where you come from. But when I’m reminded of that scared little girl and her introduction to America, I wonder whether we’ve become a bit too possessive of our liberty.

(steps off high horse)

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OK, so, the candles aren’t exactly the focus of this photo but they really are everywhere!

The good: Hygge! Hygge, the Danish concept of “everyday togetherness”, which has certainly seeped across the border into Sweden, and definitely enjoys a robust ad campaign in the US.

There are a couple ways that hygge was present during our trip. The first is in the purely physical, and can be represented best by the abundance of candles in nearly every conference room that we met in. What would certainly be a fire hazard in America is a source of coziness and serenity in Scandinavia: proof that work in the Nordic is supposed to be comfortable in addition to being productive.

The second is the attitude that work in Sweden and Denmark is generally a two-way career contract. I alluded a bit to this in prior posts, but it deserves a specific callout here: employment in Nordic is designed to last much longer than in other areas of the world. Compared to the two ends of the spectrum – the US, where workers are used primarily for efficient productivity, and, say, France, who has extensive protections for employees to keep jobs – Scandinavia firms seem to invest more in training and education for their workers, and those workers in turn accept slightly lower wages for a career that can span decades rather than years. I will put a caveat on this: my belief may be skewed a bit due to small sample size or meeting exclusively with family firms.

 

The fuzzy: Speaking of family firms…another student and I were talking with Professor Angus about one small family firm’s search for a CEO. We wondered why the search never seemed to find a good candidate: the business was established, profitable, and had a well-oiled supply chain and production facility. In fact, we softly felt that just about any of the students on the trip would be well-positioned to run the company after our education at CBS.

However, Professor Angus asked one question: “Could you run the firm AND deal with the family issues behind the scenes?” We immediately shook our heads and realized THAT’S what makes family firms different – it’s never just about the money, contracts, or factory. It’s about everything that came before and the legacy that will be. One founder noted, “That’s my name on the jar. What will it stand for after I’m gone?” Will an outsider ever be able to live up to that attitude?

So in the end, neither the Nordic region nor family businesses can really be put into neat little boxes (classic consulting again: it depends.) But, like each Chazen trip I’ve experienced, I feel I now truly have an informed opinion on the region and will be better able to understand and transact with my future Swedish and Danish colleagues and business partners. Thanks again for reading along with my journey, and looking forward to my next chapter after Columbia!

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A trip we’ll never forget.

Nordic GIP Part 1: A Swift Summit in Stockholm, Sweden

Kit O’Connor ’17

STOCKHOLM (or at least begun on a train from STOCKHOLM to COPENHAGEN) – Hej again, reader(s? one can dream!). My upmost apologies for the lateness of this post; I’ve been quite waylaid with a combination of seemingly every non-lethal upper respiratory infection possible. For those of you keeping track at home, countries I’ve visited during CBS when I haven’t had to spend an entire day floating in and out of consciousness in a hotel bed: Dominican Republic, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Curacao, Mexcio (twice!), and Vietnam. Countries where I’ve missed seeing the assembly of the most expensive bed in the world: Sweden. Go figure.

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Mike Conway ’17 hanging out in a FAR more luxurious bed than I was in that day.

 

ANYWAY. The meatballs. You want to know about the meatballs, not my health. They’re great! We did have to wait until the second day to taste them, however, as the first night included an even more unique Swedish dish: reindeer!

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Not quite Instagram-worthy, but Dasher tasted wonderful. There was a very Christmas-y vibe.

 

A couple observations about life/business in Sweden. First, gender equality is extremely important – we saw just as many men pushing around strollers as we did women, and, even at our nicest meals, there was no order to the service (i.e., both men and women were served according to seat position, not gender).

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One of our nicest dinners was at Bread & Table, generously sponsored by CBS alumnus Per Börjesson.*

Second, consensus is critical in corporate governance. As opposed to a more hierarchical system, where a manager decides the best course of action, it’s much more likely to be a group decision at every stage of the corporate ladder. Though this necessarily can slow down the pace of action, it creates a more cohesive environment where everyone in the organization is more aligned with the overall goals (in theory, at least).

I’ll leave you for now with this picture of the oldest church in Sweden, Storkyrkan. Besides being visually stunning, it’s also ancient – on a board listing events in the building’s history, there was a gap of 292 years, which one student noted was longer than the history of the entire United States!

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“On this site from 1600-1892…nothing happened. Check elsewhere on the map.”

Next stop, Copenhagen!

*When visiting Per’s company, Spiltan Fonder, we were treated to rather unique decorations in the restroom: rejection letters from every firm he had applied to from CBS. I can relate to him on at least one level!

Nordic GIP Part 0: Relatively Speaking

IMG_7915This sign in our hotel lobby was CLEARLY added to welcome the CBS group.

Kit O’Connor ’17

NEW YORK – Hej! Kit O’Connor ’17 checking in again – you might remember me from my travels earlier this year in Vietnam  – and no, I didn’t make a typo on my very first word, it’s just the way that we’ll say hello at my next destinations with the Chazen Institute: Sweden and Denmark!

Let’s start with a quick quiz: what do The New York Times, Volkswagen, Walmart, and Ikea have in common (other than what I suspect would be a very weird Sunday op-ed)? They’re all family businesses! One of the really cool things about this Global Immersion Program (GIP) is the dual focus on both family businesses and the way that those firms are run in the Nordic region. And yes, Ikea is indeed on the itinerary, though no word yet on whether we’ll have to assemble the conference room ourselves.

A little refresher for those readers who aren’t based out of Uris Hall (hi mom!): GIPs, unlike other Chazen programs, involve classwork and projects before and after the in-country experience and provide the same academic credit as a full-semester class. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have Professor Patricia Angus, a recognized expert on family-run firms, guide us in our classroom experiences over the last six weeks. I’ll be sharing some of the lessons we’ve covered over the next week of blogs, but for now, two quick facts that astounded me: did you know that family businesses make up more than 80% of companies in the world? And that despite that concentration, it’s incredibly rare for a family business to survive more than three generations? One of our most highly anticipated meetings will be with The Wallenberg Foundations, which are run by a family currently grooming the sixth generation to take the reins, so hopefully we’ll hear the secret to longevity.

I’ll wrap this up for now – my next report will cover the arrival into Stockholm and opening dinner (future spoiler alert: I bet the meatballs are awesome). See you across the pond!

Innovation + CBS: Sleepless in Scandinavia

We packed so much into our time in Scandinavia that it’s hard to know where to begin. As can happen if you’re not careful, one day seeps into the next and memories become misplaced. But that’s the great thing about Chazen trips: the intensity is incessant without being particularly uncomfortable, meaning every minute is accounted for. And we made the most of our time, mixing company visits with cultural events, indulging touristic impulses and making believe we were residents.

The truth is, the culture isn’t all that much different from New York’s – though maybe the Scandinavians wear more red pants (a trend I’m sure we’re not too far behind on). And because of that, these countries are exceedingly easy to travel to. The natives speak better English than the Americans do, and everyone is helpful and nice and deeply in love with and proud of their country.

And the food, the food, the food. This being the Innovation + Business Club, our group overlapped heavily with the Gourmet Club on campus, and it seemed like everyday we were swapping stories about the incredible restaurants we were finding. Everywhere we went in Copenhagen and Stockholm was worth it, but a few that stand out are, in Copenhagen, Radio, Koefoed, Manfreds and Geist (we went twice, the second time just for the “air on air on air tiramisu”) and, in Stockholm, Fem Sma Hus, B.A.R., Pontus and Bakfickan, behind the opera house and well worth two trips for the meatballs. (Sincerely, they’re out of this world.) As for bars, don’t pass up Ruby in Copenhagen, or Fisk Bar, even though you have to walk through the dodgy red-light district. And in Stockholm, we couldn’t seem to get enough of Riche (both sides).

My favorite restaurants were Koefoed and Fem Sma Hus, where, under the ancient vaulted ceilings we ate cured salmon topped with cucumber and cauliflower and mustard sauce, utterly smooth, and where I rediscovered Swedish deserts, which I had been dreaming of since I first visited the country ten years before. Let’s just say it was as smooth as I remember. Sweden may be famous for its meatballs, and, based on what we had at Bakfickan, it should be. But it seems they do ice cream like no other country can. I can hardly wait to go back for more.

Of course, I won’t have the benefit, then, of traveling with my classmates. Anyone with more time left at CBS should consider adding a Chazen trip to their to-do list. One of the beauties of being at CBS is that the hit rate is so remarkably high – in my four semesters, I haven’t really met anybody I couldn’t almost immediately get along with. As is often true even outside of business school, getting outside your regular environment is the best way to catalyze lasting relationships. Such is the case with our trip to Scandinavia. When I first saw the roster of travelers, I was excited by the fact that I had only superficial relationships with any of them. What a great way to get to know new people, I thought. And I was right: I walked the streets of Copenhagen and Stockholm with these people for a week, and I hope to keep in touch with them forever. I see them in the hallway now and it’s as if we went through something together, but I know that’s just me being romantic.

I feel blessed to have spent the nine days in Copenhagen and Stockholm under the aegis of our three organizers, Rachel, Zak and Laura. It’s clear how much work went into planning this trip, and how much effort it took to wrangle it all together. I know I’m not alone in thinking we are supremely lucky to have them as our organizers – thanks to them, everything has been wonderful, from our company visits to our meals and hotels. We owe them our deepest gratitude.

One final point, for those who may follow us to Scandinavia: No matter how persistently you ask, bartenders will not put Ace of Base on the speakers. But they will play Abba.

Thanks for reading. ~Brandon Wall

Innovation in Scandinavia: BIG and Bigger

Contrasts help define every city. Copenhagen, of course, has a few contrasts to speak of, but the one we studied is age-old: new vs. old. On our second day in the city, Bo, our local architecture professor/tour guide, led us out to a new neighborhood called Orestad, built on land that was, he said, “recently reclaimed from the sea.” Afterward we toured historical Copenhagen with another guide, Gordon, who walked us through the thatched-roof houses at Dragor and took us to the Royal Palace.

Orestad is, in all regards, still developing. The infrastructure is in place – on the brand-new and completely automated subway, it’s a pleasant eight-minute ride to the center of the city – but most of the land sits poised. The hope is that a good number of the thousand or so people who move to Copenhagen every month see Orestad as the ideal option.

So far, many have, thanks in part to work by the young but increasingly prominent architect Bjarke Ingels. His firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (better known as BIG), is consistently putting out some of the world’s boldest new buildings, and he was commissioned to create three housing complexes in Orestad: the 8 House, shaped like a giant figure eight; the VM Houses, which is really two buildings, one shaped like a V, the other an M; and the Mountain Dwellings, a slab of homes sitting atop a sloped parking garage and shaped, naturally, like a mountain.

The buildings’ straightforward names belie how inventive these complexes are. Ingels, like his former boss, the “starchitect” Rem Koolhaus (excuse the pejorative), has a knack for taking standard building shapes and tweaking them into something dramatic that also solves the problem posed by the site or the programming. And with little else on the property, the architects weren’t constrained by context.

Each of the shapes serves a purpose. The “mountain” satisfied the client’s desire to build a parking garage as well as apartments. The V and the M ensure that the apartments get daylight on both ends (the other prominent shape here is the triangle, creating a porcupine of porches on one façade). And the figure eight, which incorporates both residential and office space, creates courtyards and a sense of community, with a rising and falling sidewalk connecting each of the apartments. (Even on a relatively cool March day, many residents opened their doors and sat on their front “porches.”)

That morning, we also stopped by the design-centric Bella Sky hotel, site of the 2009 climate conferences. The hotel itself isn’t as beautiful as the BIG homes, but its top-floor sky bar provides a view of the neighborhood’s potential. If we were to come back in ten years, we’d likely see less space and more structure.

Certainly, Orestad is an experimental neighborhood, and it’s not completely clear where all the demand was coming from, even if the city is still growing. But the results of this experiment are worth watching. These buildings may very well foretell a new, better, and more sustainable suburbia.

Enough words. Here’s a slideshow. ~Brandon Wall

Innovation in Scandinavia: Nordic Eats

Late on Day 3 (well, early on Day 4), it’s becoming clear how intense Chazen trips can be. We’re packing it all in: culture, adventure, tours, food, fellowship. It’s been nonstop. We arrived on Saturday in Copenhagen – considered one of the world’s most livable cities, capital of what may be the world’s happiest country – checked into the Scandic Palace (as nice as it sounds, featuring both modern amenities and the weight of its own history), and began our quest for aesthetic indulgence.

Our first event was a group lunch at Radio, which served us locally sourced, creative combinations that can be called “innovative” without any sense of irony. The five-course meal included salsify root, scallops, veal tenderloin and licorice cake with white-chocolate foam and apple ice cream. It set the bar ambitiously high, to say the least. The restaurant is owned by Claus Meyer, the man behind Noma, which San Pelligrino named the best restaurant in the world for the second year running, and it was the perfect place to start the trip. (NB: Three of our group arrived a day early and were able to score last-minute reservations at Noma, as well. Think a few dozen courses, beginning with fried moss. All report that if you have an opportunity to get in, don’t pass it up.)

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By the time we’d left Radio, Copenhagen had transformed itself from gray and rainy to crisp (enough) and (relatively) sunny, and we took the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the city. The group splintered off in various directions. Josh and I began our unsuccessful hunt for bikes to ride, a goal that still truly eludes us (more on that later). Some went shopping, or headed to the market for duck sandwiches (apparently delectable), or moseyed around the city’s web of streets.

But in keeping with the day’s culinary theme, a group of us reconvened to cap the evening at Geist, another highly recommended panacea for hungry gourmands. Like Radio, Geist is grist for the argument that Nordic food is in the midst of a revival. It’s bigger than Radio and a bit shinier, but it too focuses on local ingredients and satisfying the adventurous. The plates are small, and seven of us passed around a host of offerings: lamb’s heart, raw ox and roe, suckling pig, turbot, cod roe, potato mash and crab, and black lobster and endives. We were too full to eat dessert, but we ordered it anyway, after our waiter, without a tinge of a smile, told us the “air in air in air tiramisu” was unlike anything we’d ever had before. He was right.

Tomorrow (Day Four) we visit the BIG offices and Designit, a strategic design consultancy. We visited some of BIG’s key buildings on Day Two, which I’ll write about tomorrow. With an early morning ahead of us, it’s key to get some R&R – we want to have enough energy to tick a few last things off our to-do list before heading north to Sweden. ~Brandon Wall

Innovation in Scandinavia: Norwegian Wood

In his seminal “Towards a New Architecture,” the inimitable architect Le Corbusier delivered what is probably his most famous quote: “A house is a machine for living in.” What’s most striking about that idea is how often most of us forget it – we rarely think “machine” when we think of the buildings we inhabit. Such is the curse of architecture. When it works, it risks going unnoticed.

I imagine we’ll be reminded of Le Corbusier’s sentiment often over the next week as we, participants in the Chazen Innovation Tour of Scandinavia, march around Copenhagen and Stockholm in search of what drives design in what is decidedly one of the world’s most stylish and forward-thinking regions. More than that, we’ll be encouraged to expand that sentiment, to include not just houses but all buildings, to think not just about architecture but about design in general.

On tap for the Copenhagen leg of our journey are visits to BIG (one of the most exciting architects working today), Novo Nordisk, the Copenhagen Innovation Lab, and Designit; in Stockholm, we’ll visit Spotify, Ericsson and Skanska (and maybe one other). But we’ll also tour the cities, eat at their finest restaurants and get to experience the Scandinavian culture firsthand. We’ll all leave with a better understanding of how good design works, what it looks like and where it comes from. That is, we all leave, I hope, with a notion of how good design can make life more worth living.

With that quest in mind, and as a second-year unshackled by the burden of mid-semester exams, I decided to tack on a pre-Chazen excursion to Oslo, Norway. (I recommend that future Chazen-trippers, if they can, take advantage of the “extended” spring break, as well. It’s a luxury that shouldn’t be ignored.) Norway is not part of our official itinerary – Copenhagen and Stockholm are both better known as design centers. But if innovation is the charge, I didn’t want to skip the work of the Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta – especially its relatively new opera house.

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The building – or, rather, the machine – opened in 2008, built on formerly flat industrial land that juts out into the fjord. It rises out of the water, a mound of glass and white-marble and oak. It foretells the area’s future – it was the first building to open as part of a rejuvenation of the area, and spillover is already in effect – as much as it recalls its history. Step inside and you’ll be delightfully overwhelmed by Norway’s favorite building material: wood. Wood is, simply, everywhere in this country. Sloping wooden beams hold up the Oslo airport, and it lines the walls and floors of even my budget-friendly hotel room. It’s warm and sturdy and striking to look at.

I bought tickets to the opera – Wagner’s Tristan og Isolde – and sauntered into Snohetta’s opera house – commissioned, of course, by the state – with a few hours to spare. I gawked at the oak “wave wall,” which wrapped the concert hall itself, and at the way the glass box framed views at the city and the surrounding hills. I investigated the pedestrian-friendly (though treacherous, slippery as it was from the day’s new snow) roof. I shot photographs of the Olafur Eliasson-designed interior cladding. And, of course, I studied the ubiquitous oak.

As the rest of the patrons trickled in, they were jubilant and talkative and fancy – this was, it was clear, an event. But most everyone focused less on the building’s details. To them, it was just a platform on which to place their cultural and social experience, a place to take in an opera. Surely, few of them would claim not to have noticed it, or say that their experience wasn’t impacted and enhanced by it. But the building in some ways seemed to disappear. Ah, to behold the power of a well-designed machine. ~Brandon Wall