By Catharina Swartz
THE FUTURE OF BUSINESS THROUGH A SHARED PAST In one of the most remarkable conversations during Brilliant Minds, industry giants Antonia Ax:son Johnson and Marcus Wallenberg shared personal insights into what it’s like shouldering responsibility for a family business – and doing it well.
I remember asking myself ‘what is this all about?’ I was prepared for it but I really wasn’t ready for it,” she explains. During the first ten years, Ax:son Johnson was wondering if there was a “higher cause” and a “reason” for taking on the family business. She remembers reaching out to all the company leaders (“who were all men back then, by the way”) – and how they just talked about profits, power and positions. Nothing can change the world more than businesses can. This is Antonia Ax:son Johnson’s mantra and how she shapes her life’s mission. She is the Chairman of Axel Johnson AB, a company founded by her grandfather Axel Johnson in 1873, and with three generations of history before her she is now fostering the fifth generation. Something very similar can be said for Marcus Wallenberg. He is the fifth generation in one of Europe's most enduring family dynasties, acting chairman of three companies and board member of four.
A strong connection to the past is part of why both Ax:son Johnson and Wallenberg in many ways have been able to see into the future. For instance, Ax:son Johnson has been driving sustainability in her company since the 1980s – a time when the term “sustainability” hadn’t even been coined. “It definitely had to do with my background. I was born in New York City to a Swedish father and Brazilian mother. When my father had a stroke and wasn’t able to continue working anymore, I had to move into the business as chairman in my early 30s.
How did you manage to drive new values into an old company? “It became important to me to think about all the actual customers our shops had – and how this was an opportunity to make an impact in the everyday lives of people. When I was brought to the first conference on sustainability, called environment in those days, it was to feed the business perspective into the agenda. But most of the other business leaders thought that this was something governments and institutions should take care of. But I was so obsessed with the understanding that businesses can make a real change in the world and I have been ever since.”
So do you think it’s the responsibility of businesses to drive this change? “Even though we have good politicians, they can’t fix it. I think businesses will have to fix it and our main target is social sustainability. This spans all the way from how the products we bring into the market are made, to the influx of refugees and how we are going to care for them.” Marcus, what have been your driving values in your companies? “160 years ago my great great grandfather started a bank – Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken, SEB – and today I am its chairman. By now we have so many different types of businesses in the portfolio, it’s not only banking. From our point of view, the key values are the very long-term perspective of these businesses yet staying focused on innovation. You have to stay focused on reinventing the company time and time again.” How are you achieving this? “For instance, we’re spending a lot of time figuring out how the digital revolution will change the companies