Corporate turnround, bent tomato cans and organised crime

This was a lead role in turning round a multinational packaging group, after a disastrous merger of two companies of similar size – one French and one British.  The work was done in Brussels, Paris, Hanover, Milan, Madrid and London.  It was done against a plummeting share price, and routine unhelpful commentary in the financial press.

Opening question from Chief Executive: "can you replace my accounts consolidation?"  Answer: "of course, but why do you need to do it?" "Because nobody will send me any numbers".  

"Well, we can overhaul your accounts structure, but they still won't send you any numbers unless we do some people stuff."

A short conversation later ... "I like this people stuff.  Go do it!"

Packaging is a highly compartmentalised business.  We spent considerable time working with Divisional Directors and their teams, in Headquarters across Europe.   Our intention was that, whatever process we put in would first meet the needs of the local companies, whose infrastructure was diverse and antique. Reporting to the centre would be a by-product.  This highly collaborative, workshop-based approach meant that people saw their local needs really were central to everything.  Along the way objections to the merger, and the resentments arising from them, were gently dissipated. 

At the start we weren't certain how workshop techniques, routinely used in Britain, would work in other national cultures.  They pretty much did, with interesting variations conforming to national stereotypes.  We only had trouble in Spain, which tends to an autocratic and non-collaborative management style.  And by the way, even if you're working in French, entirely for the benefit of the Paris HQ, don't wear a British city suit.  Lunch on Day 1 was a quick shopping trip - a new French suit was applauded, and did the trick. 

Meanwhile, it was still necessary to set up a new accounting system, and get control of operational cashflow, treasury management and assets.  We had to satisfy GAAP in several countries, each with different legal requirements for laying out accounting statements, and different tax regimes.  This was helped by taking all the Group Chief Accountants into the Brussels Airport Sheraton and not letting them out until we came up with a suitably flexible chart of accounts.  We learned more than we ever expected about accounting for scrap in France, Italy and Germany!

In Milan we negotiated a worldwide software contract with an Italian Count born to wear suits, and worked up an implementation plan. This included a streamlined corporate structure. 

Did everyone join in?  Yes, including one company owned (accidentally) 50:50 with the Mafia (our meeting there was very, very interesting!)   A year later, the Group share price had risen by 47%.

And bent tomato cans? Tomato farms tend to be in the south of Italy, canning plants in the north.  If you send the crop by lorry, it won't make it to the factory.  So you take mobile canning lines into the fields, drop a lot of tins, and that's why you see so many dented ones in the supermarket.