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).

FullSizeRender.jpg
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)

IMG_7951.JPG
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!

IMG_7977.JPG
A trip we’ll never forget.

Vietnam Part 4: Back in New York

Kit O’Connor ’17

NEW YORK – Back home, I think I finally know what time it is after nearly six days in the US – when people say that the jet lag is significantly worse west to east, they’re not kidding. It’s strange to think that four weeks ago, I was just getting ready to leave for Hong Kong en route to Vietnam, but now I can say that I definitely have an appreciation for and basic understanding for both the country of Vietnam and the economic environment therein. And, of course, a newfound appetite for $2 banh mi sandwiches.

To structure the overall lessons of the course, I’m going to break this into three main takeaways, two that I’ve previously discussed (but are critically important) and one other key aspect of life and business in Vietnam.

Takeaway 1: The emerging consumer economy will be the driving force of Vietnamese growth in the near term.

It’s quite easy to assume, as, frankly, I did, that Vietnam would be composed primarily of manual laborers who worked for subsistence while manufacturing the gadgets and clothes that are immediately shipped to richer countries. While Vietnam certainly has a thriving manufacturing industry, domestic firms work hard to serve a populace that is increasingly focused on health and quality. One theme that was hit several times was a focus on proof of quality: Vietnamese consumers vastly prefer food that can be proved to be produced in a safe manner. Just take a look at the outfits that we wore while visiting Veeteq, a farm focused on healthy produce!

file_000-20

Takeaway 2: The communist government operates in an opaque and glacially slow fashion, unless it sees politically relevant reasons to expedite processes.

While the general populace seems mostly unaffected by the government (one tour guide had no idea Vietnam was a communist country and income tax payers are estimated to be south of 10%), many foreign nationals can quickly become frustrated by the inability to proceed without a local fixer, who generally has to grease the right hands. Building a business without a strong consumer presence can be dangerous, as it could easily be suddenly ruled illegal – B2C firms, however, could be slightly better off, due to the active and relatively free press. One story in particular that seemed to demonstrate the government’s motivations: after Rex Tillerson was nominated to Secretary of State, ExxonMobil was suddenly granted permission to drill in an offshore oilfield after years of negotiations.

Takeaway 3: Vietnam has developed transportation solutions that uniquely suit both the needs of the individual cities and the overall country.

file_000-21

A constant presence in Vietnam is motorbikes. Roads: motorbikes. Sidewalks: motorbikes. Most shops: motorbikes. Factories at closing time: veritable seas of motorbikes flowing out. An especially poignant question was asked during the meeting with the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi: what technological progress will have a similar effect on Vietnam as the motorbike? After thinking for about a minute, the chairman of the committee couldn’t come up with a single advancement that would have anywhere near the impact of the motorbike, which had opened up opportunities and connections so widely.

A similar issue existed in the trek from Saigon to Hanoi. At first, many of my classmates wondered why we were taking a 1.5 hour flight rather than what we suspected would be a quick bus ride. Turns out that the bus would have been nearly 25 hours due to poor roads and rough terrain. Once again, technology came to the rescue: every hour on the hour, multiple airlines are flying large planes (747s, A380s) back and forth from Vietnam’s two main cities. Both these solutions prove that the Vietnamese are practical above all and perfectly willing to find the best (if not the most traditional!) method to move both the society and economy forward.

Well, that’s a wrap for me! Time to start preparing for my next Global Immersion class: Family Business in Nordic Europe. Cam on (thanks) for following along!