I LOOK OUT OVER the 60 young adults sitting scattered in the warm room. From face to face, I catch as many glances as I can. Silence has spread throughout the room, and I take a moment to feel the atmosphere. The world these young people are about to plunge into is undergoing an enormous transformation. I can sense the anticipation on this first day of school of the bachelor’s program in Retail Management at the Stockholm School of Economics.
Every year I usually join in and welcome the students. I start by describing a normal day, and how each person in the room is one of the 1.5 million customers who we meet through our businesses every day. The students get to hear about Axel Johnson, how we are a family company truly long-term, our passion for change and building new businesses. Lastly, I give them a message based on a quote from Steve Jobs: Be open and curious, go out and explore, stretch your mind and take opportunities that you don’t always know in advance where they will lead. Eventually – in the future – you will be able to connect the dots and see how everything is related.
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
IT IS ALSO possible to draw a parallel to what it is like to lead and build a family business over time. Axel Johnson’s almost 150-year long history has consisted of many choices and decisions made by generations of owners and business leaders, the consequences of which have not always been clear from the start. Curiosity has often spurred the creation of new starting points, new dots, and these have been woven together by a passion to build and develop over time. The widest plate of stainless steel, the most modern container vessels, the smartest grocery chain, the best omni-commerce, the most innovative marketplace for solar energy.
IN RECENT YEARS, we have reshaped large parts of our operations by digitally transforming both business models and customer offerings. We have added new companies through more than 100 acquisitions and expanded into new areas such as solar energy. During the past year, we have had a growth in e-commerce that normally would have taken years to achieve, and new customer groups have been welcomed. The 10/50 goal that we set in 2015 has served as an important guiding star – the goal that in ten years, 50 percent of what we do will be things we do not do today. So far, after six years, we have reached 34 percent in new revenues and the majority of this has come from our existing operations. This is a large transformation – reshaping and remodeling – that we are accomplishing together. The new image of Axel Johnson is emerging, dot by dot.
WHEN I THINK about the future, I feel great optimism. In 2020, our long-term perspective and ability to stay the course even under extreme conditions has been particularly valuable. During the pandemic year 2020, I experienced the strongest turmoil since I started working at the company 16 years ago. It has been difficult to navigate and demanding for many. I have seen incredible contributions from our people in all parts of the group. Efforts characterized by quick reactions, innovation and courage. We have had a new reality to adapt to every week, every month. Uncertainty that required taking another deep breath, again and again. I feel proud and grateful for the outstanding achievements from our employees within the entire group. This gives me strength for years to come. Our transformation continues together with all our people in a strong combination of long-term perspective and impatience.
THE STUDENTS’ first day of school is drawing to a close. I congratulate them on choosing an exciting program, especially if they like change and development. I catch as many glances as I can. I hope some of them will be involved in creating Axel Johnson’s future. We do not know what the future will look like, only when we look back will the picture become clear. We will surely remember 2020 as a year that shook both the world and the Axel Johnson Group. But also a year when, despite the strain, we managed to move forward and continue to invest in our future. A year when we, through curiosity, impatience and our long-term perspective combined, found many new paths for building and developing growing and sustainable businesses for the long haul.
Stockholm, April 2020