Investing in the Future of Nordic Family Businesses

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GIP Nordic Spring 2018 with Founder Torben Christiensen and CEO Simon Christiensen

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.
Simon Christiensen welcomes the CBS group

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.

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Simon Christiensen, CEO of CM Biomass

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.

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Two generations: Simon and Torben Christiensen

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.

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Head of Engineering getting the students familiar with the facilities

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.

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Professor Patricia Angus with Founder Torben Christiensen and two MBA students
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Students examining the wood pellets
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Simon Charistiensen speaks about the various phases of the facility
GIP Nordic group ready to take the train to Stockholm!

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

Hilsen fra Danmark!

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Today marks our first official day for the Nordic Family Enterprise Global Immersion, and what an exciting day it was! The group started off with a visit to Maersk Tankers, a Danish shipping company which is wholly owned by the A.P. Moller-Maersk Group. To those unfamiliar with the company, A.P. Moller-Maersk (also known as just Maersk) is one of the largest family-owned businesses originating from Denmark, and is a conglomerate which focuses on transport, logistics, and energy. It is also the largest container ship and supply vessel operator in the world.

Model of Regina Maersk vessell
CBS Group photo with Mr. Christian M. Ingerslev of Maersk Tankers

At Maersk Tankers, the group met with Columbia Business School Alumnus, Christian M. Ingerslev, who graduated from the EMBA program in 2011. In this intimate gathering at the Maersk headquarters, Mr. Ingerslev shared with the group about his 20 year journey at Maersk, starting from his beginnings at the company right after his high school graduation, to working with the current CEO of the A.P. Moller-Maersk, Robert Maersk Uggla.

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Christian M. Ingerslev (CBS’11), CEO of Maersk Tankers

Apart from talking about the company’s rich history and forward-looking strategies for 2018 and onward, Mr. Ingerslev had also spoken about his experience working for a family businesses, and how it had shaped the person he has become today. When asked about the best thing about working for a family business, Mr. Ingerslev had mentioned that what had impressed him the most was the family’s dedication to their company values. Mr. Ingerslev has seen family’s strong commitment to the companies values far-reach and influence decisions from the executive board, all the way to managers for their individual vessels. Whether refusing bribes to speed up costly processes, or having to let go of executive members in the company who do not necessarily align with the company’s core values, the family has always been fully dedicated to what they believe in. Similarly, Mr. Ingerslev had mentioned that apart from sticking to one’s values, he had also seen significance in recognizing these values when making key decisions for the company. He has seen how every decision made by the family had been a reflection on their core values, and how it had positively impacted the longevity of the company and also created a positive perception of stability for Mr. Ingerslev and other employees within the company. He shared insights into finding success as a non-family manager.

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After the meeting with Maersk Tanksers, the group was treated to a typical Danish lunch at the Nyhavns Færgekro restaurant. We ate Smørrebrød, which consists of pieces of bread with a variety of typical Danish toppings such as smoked salmon and a variety of cheeses. The restaurant was located in Nyhavn, a canal and entertainment district, which began as a fishing port in the 17th century.

Smørrebrød, a typical and popular Danish dish.

In the town of Veksø, 45 minutes outside of Copenhagen, the group met with Hatla Johnsen, a 7th generation member of a family business. She welcomed the group to her farm, Egedal Gaard, which she purchased in 2016. She currently lives and works at Egedal Gaard with her family, running her farming business and a new start-up focused on online education. Ms. Johnsen spoke about her family business, the Scandinavian Tobacco Company, founded in the 1860’s. She mentioned how despite being a part of a growing family of over 30 members, none of them were working in the business; they had decided to hand it over to professionals to run. The family continued on as majority shareholders. The family decided to sell the company in 2008, with differing opinions within the family as to where the business should go. With a large amount of liquidation once the company was sold, Ms. Johnsen and her family had decided to set up a family office to take care of their various remaining assets and investments, which her siblings and mother continue to grow.

Ms. Hatla Johnsen speaking about her experiences as a 7th generation family business member.
Students enjoy time with miniature ponies at the Egedal Gaard Farm.

Tomorrow the group will be meeting with Copmer, one of the largest brokering companies in Europe. It will also be the group’s last day in Denmark before heading to Stockholm.

– Marty Lopez’18

Off to the Happiest Country on Earth!

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That’s right— The United Nation’s World Happiness Report had ranked Denmark the Happiest Country on Earth between 2013 to 2015, with Sweden rounding off the Top 10. 

Before starting off the MBA at Columbia Business School, I had been told by several students in the Family Business Club that the Global Immersion Tour to the Nordic countries was definitely going to be a trip that couldn’t be missed. With everyone’s glowing recommendations in mind, I knew that this was going to be one of the immersive CBS experiences that I would have to most definitely have to be a part of. Finally, after five weeks of in-depth learnings into Nordic Family Business Enterprises, our group of 26 Columbia Business School students, will finally begin our Global Immersion Tour to the Nordic region. The week-long tour will kick off in Copenhagen, Denmark, and will continue on to Stockholm, Sweden.

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Over the past few weeks, our class has had the opportunity to learn everything from political, economical, and family business trends in the Nordic region, to various aspects of Multi-generational Nordic Family Enterprises.  With guest speakers such as Anna Throne-Holst (granddaughter of Marabou founder) and CBS alumnus Nikolai Jensen (from the Jensen group), the class was also able to gain in depth insights into family politics in Nordic family enterprises, and how the region’s culture had affected certain aspects of the business, such as governance and succession.

For some of the students in the class, this would not only be their first time in the Nordic region, but also their first time to have taken or been exposed to a family business course during the MBA. Professor Patricia Angus had stressed the importance of understanding ideas such as the Three-Circle Model, to better understand the dynamics in a family business, as well as certain inheritance laws, and stakeholder theories that make doing family business in the Nordic region so unique to other countries. All of which will be extremely valuable when visiting and learning from various Nordic companies, and meeting influential individuals from family business such as Peter Wallenberg, who was recently at CBS’ Family Business Conference, which was held at Columbia University last February 9th.

Our extensive five-week preparation, and exploration into Nordic heritage will surely be an asset to all of us, as we gear up for a week of intense immersion into the region’s culture, which should allow all of us the chance to exchange our ideas and insights on the highly innovative Nordic countries, and how they have uplifted the entire region to an aspirational status.

I’m excited to share all our new experiences and learnings from our 2018 Nordic Tour!

-Marty Lopez ‘18

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