Can people like me, who have never known war, starvation or oppression, truly understand?
“Of course you can. Have you never been extremely cold? Have you never been afraid? Have you never been hungry?”
“Well then.”
But skipping lunch or not having time for dinner is one thing. Trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in a leaky rubber boat or starving the way you did in a concentration camp is something else entirely.
“Hunger is hunger. Fear is fear. Use your experiences and your empathy and put yourself in the situation. Anything else is just excuses.”

The answers are Hédi Fried’s and the questions could have been mine. Hédi knows what she’s talking about. When the Nazis took control during WWII, the change was gradual. Changes and intolerance were normalized and, as Hédi describes it, it was bad but not life threatening. The situation gradually worsened. Hédi was taken prisoner, together with her family, and transported to the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She survived. Her parents did not, nor did six million other people. When intolerance creeps in, little by little, people get used to it and hope that it will end and that everything will get better again. What Hédi went through and survived must never be forgotten. Each one of us has a responsibility to never get used to intolerance.

Sweden and the rest of the world are facing major challenges when it comes to integration. The gaps have widened, and society has become more segregated. Discrimination is on the rise and nationalism has taken hold in many regions. Slowly, like a glacier, society’s foundation appears to be changing. The framework of democracy is being questioned, and a new reality is closing in. Visible and invisible barriers are testing government authorities and institutions. Inclusion and integration will be some of the most important issues in the near future. Nothing causes as much harm as when people feel excluded. Words do not solve problems. Actions do.

At Axel Johnson, we believe that business is a place for change. Every year, Axfood welcomes several hundred new immigrants and asylum seekers to work as trainees in its stores. The company has also started the apprenticeship program Nyanländ (New Arrivals) at Axfood, which employs new arrivals in Sweden for one year to alternate between working in stores and taking digital training courses. Åhléns allows its employees to participate in Axfoundation’s Open Door project during work hours. The project is an initiative to connect established and new Swedes – and is now trying to get customers to participate by holding special activity days at some department stores. Martin & Servera has trained all of its employees in diversity. Axel Johnson today has approximately 1,700 employees from Samhall who work in our stores, warehouses and offices. We are partners of Mitt Liv, which is involved in integration. We recently introduced the Axelerate Leadership Program, a customized leadership development program designed to identify and develop talents with an international background. The level of activity is high, and we see the value of having employees and managers who reflect our customers. As Hédi Fried suggested, we intend to continue to use our empathy and our experiences to open doors. We are in a hurry, and much remains to be done.

Throughout Axel Johnson’s 145-year history, we have always had the will and the courage to try new ideas. The power of innovation and an inclination to change distinguish how we work and are the ultimate expressions of our long-term approach. The major transformation that we are currently undergoing in the industry is rich with potential, but it can also be a bit intimidating. We meet one million customers every day. Customers who have new demands. The sand is shifting under our feet, business models are realigning, and new customer behaviour patterns are evolving. The rate of business development and acquisitions within the Group is extremely high at this time. We are concentrating on digitalization and technical advances, and on developing and expanding our customer offering. Curiosity and new customer insights are important drivers. The open and agile leadership we are seeing in the Group’s companies is impressive, and the work that our employees do with devotion and dedication that goes above and beyond makes me proud. As a family company, we continue to believe in the combination of persistence and impatience, of long-term vision and innovation. Armed with courage and a strong will to change, we will proudly pursue the tradition of trying new ideas. We plan to be around at least 145 years more.

Caroline Berg
Stockholm, April 2018