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"Barry Callebaut Also Belongs to the SME Club"

"SMEs are all about the middle classes and the values they embody. These values are often found in family businesses. From this point of view, Barry Callebaut also belongs to the SME club," says none other than CEO Jürgen B. Steinemann.

Andreas Schiendorfer: Barry Callebaut is the largest chocolate and cocoa producer in the world. How did this happen?

Barry Callebaut: It came about in 1996, through the merger of the Belgian chocolate manufacturer Callebaut and the French cocoa producer Cacao Barry. From our Swiss headquarters, we consistently work toward the vision of the majority shareholder family Jacobs: "We are the heart and motor of the chocolate and cocoa industry."

Then it must surely bother you that many consumers don't even know the name of this heart and motor?

On the contrary. It's good to work in the shadows. My grandfather taught me that. If you're in the shade, you can look at the sunlight. If you're in the sunlight, however, you never know who's looking at you in the shade.

At the Forum for Swiss Foreign Trade and Investment organized by Switzerland Global Enterprise, you primarily spoke to Swiss SME representatives. How did you feel doing this as the CEO of a company with over 9,000 employees?

Very comfortable and among my peers. My definition of SMEs is not based on the number of employees or the sales. SMEs are all about the middle classes and the values they embody. These values are often found in family businesses. From this point of view, Barry Callebaut also belongs to the SME club.

You spoke about the worldwide growth of the middle class and the resulting opportunities for companies…

The middle class, which is of course defined differently abroad than in Switzerland, included around 1.8 billion people in 2009; in 2020 it could be 3.2 billion and another ten years later 4.9 billion. This offers huge opportunities, but not in Europe. This growth is taking place in the new markets, especially in Asia.

Can we assume you have been taking the appropriate steps over the past few years?

We have indeed been making our mark. Six years ago, we had one factory in Asia and one in Latin America. Now, we have nine in Asia and seven in Latin America. However, we are still at the beginning of this development when you consider that currently only four percent of our sales are in Asia. This is also due to the fact that chocolate is not a delicacy everywhere in Asia.

Do you pursue different strategies in the various global regions?

The sustainable, profitable growth we are aiming for is based on four strategic pillars: expansion, innovation, cost leadership, and sustainable cocoa. These pillars are weighted differently in each region. In Asia, cost leadership is key; in Europe, sustainable cocoa is increasingly becoming a decisive differentiation characteristic.

What advice would you give Swiss entrepreneurs wishing to expand in a growth region?

They must personally enjoy travelling in these countries. For instance, they shouldn't mind if a suitcase gets misplaced or if the hotel room is not thoroughly clean. It is also crucial that they first personally assess the situation on-site before listening to external consulting ideas.

So, from this point of view, the annual Credit Suisse SME entrepreneur trips to Asia are the right approach?

Yes, indeed. Credit Suisse, by the way, was also involved in some of our most important expansion steps. Which is why I'm a fan of Credit Suisse. In addition, I am absolutely thrilled by the selection of Ivorian Tidjane Thiam as the new CEO, which gives us another thing in common with Credit Suisse. Ivory Coast happens to be the world's largest cocoa-growing country.

Let's leave Ivory Coast and return once again to Switzerland. There are companies in the food sector complaining that the Swiss-made label is much too costly for them. What is it like for you?

We are a Swiss company because our headquarters are in Switzerland and many typical Swiss characteristics such as quality, reliability, and sustainability are very important to us. Yet since we only produce around one percent of our chocolate in Switzerland, the Swiss-made label is a relatively minor problem for us.

In principle, however, I am very worried about developments here: We manage our nation at breakneck speed. We are displacing entrepreneurship and creating a uniform gray mass of entrepreneurs and employees. In so doing, we limit our growth and create a negative underlying feeling. Nobody trusts anyone else. Entrepreneurship, however, is based on trust.

A good entrepreneur is someone you can trust because he or she also feels a responsibility toward the weaker members of society.

A role model?

Absolutely. This also applies to daily work. I do not ask anything of my employees that I would not do myself.

As a role model for Swiss entrepreneurs, how would you summarize the expansion experience?

I would like to highlight five points:

  1. Each market has its own needs and legalities.
  2. The development of emerging markets in Asia and Latin America takes time.
  3. There will be setbacks, which a company must be able to cope with.
  4. Take a critical look at your business case and the risks.
  5. Cultivate the right people. In my opinion, this is the most important point.

The last question is a sweet one. Do you personally like chocolate?

Very much. This is also related to the aforementioned role model function. You cannot successfully lead a company if you do not enjoy your product. I try our products at each trade fair booth, in one of our more than 50 factories, or even at a retail business. As one in five chocolate or cocoa products contains Barry Callebaut, that adds up, even though I rarely eat a whole bar.

Thank you very much, Mr. Steinemann, for this interview.