Weisser shares major management plus in decision to take Bunge public

by Josh Sosland
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In addition to giving Bunge greater access to capital, the change of Bunge Ltd. into a publicly-traded business for the first time in its nearly two centuries had the incidental benefit of making the company easier to manage in certain important aspects, said Alberto Weisser, executive chairman of Bunge.

Read Part 1 of the two-part interview with Alberto Weisser, executive chairman of Bunge Ltd., here.

In candid remarks about what he believes is required to manage a business like Bunge, Mr. Weisser, who stepped down in May as chief executive officer, said it is more difficult for a boss to sugarcoat difficult messages to other top managers when a company is public.

“Most people don’t think too much about this, but it made life so much easier to run the company when we went public,” he said. “The reason is you talk internally the same way you talk to investors. Sometimes you have tough messages about why you have to do certain things. That’s the way you have to talk in public. This was a surprise to me once we went public. Honestly, when you are private you are much more reluctant to talk like this internally.”

Among lessons Mr. Weisser said were most important to learn when he was elevated to the position of c.e.o. was to show greater care in his choice of words with his colleagues.

“When I became c.e.o. it took me a while before I realized the position is very different from anything else I had done, because you suddenly are the last person in line,” he said. “You are the one who has to not only make decisions but also think about which direction to go. And everybody really listens to you, not as a person, but because of the function. Then it starts dawning on you, it’s not only my job, but it’s what we are doing for shareholders, customers, employees, and the community — and it will become part of the history of the company.”

The burden of history may weigh on the c.e.o. of Bunge more heavily than on those leading other companies, Mr. Weisser said.

“It does, obviously if you have a company that is so old,” he said. “In 5 years we will be 200 years old. We are older than Belgium, which was founded in 1830, and somebody once said there are only 16 companies larger than $3 billion in sales that are as old as we are. One of them is Royal Mail of England (established 1516). So when you think of it you feel pride. You feel good about it.”

What Mr. Weisser described as the “professionalization” of Bunge, moving from family management, began in 1993, well before the i.p.o. It was initiated by his predecessor as c.e.o., Ludwig Schmitt-Rhaden, and moved Bunge into “more of a meritocracy.” A tremendous amount of management turnover occurred during this period. Mr. Weisser said the shift was crucial for allowing an entrepreneurial spirit to develop at Bunge.

Key to the transition was applying the new approach with complete consistency, Mr. Weisser said. Also key, he said, was the cooperation of the company’s founding families, who turned over their management to outside professionals.

“Ludwig Schmitt-Rhaden and I never looked back,” he said. “They hired us, and we said what we are going to do is what is right for everybody. No politics and let’s just do it right. So he did it for as long as he ran it, 5 years, and I have done it for the past 15 years. I give credit to the founding families that they had the courage and the guts and resilience to make this transition.”

Soft spoken, Mr. Weisser describes himself as “shy.” But as evidenced by the company’s track record of growth during his tenure, this has been an asset.

Mr. Weisser also stressed the importance of balancing the seriousness of business with a need not to take oneself too seriously, and offered as an example a policy he instituted to discourage late arrivals at business meetings.

“I hate it when people are late to meetings,” he said. “What I have introduced, and what I hope Soren (Schroder, his successor as c.e.o.) continues, is that for every minute you are late you must do one pushup. I had the most. I had an interview once, and I was 23 minutes late. I had to do 23 pushups. As I was doing them, half of the group in the room was saying, ‘Enough. Stop. We don’t want you to die.’ The rest said, ‘Not enough! Not enough! More. That one doesn’t count!’ You have to have a little fun.”

He managed to do the 23.

“If you have 19 people watching you, that’s the right amount of pressure,” he said.

Mr. Weisser grows visibly uncomfortable when the discussion appears to be pointing to him individually as responsible for the growth Bunge achieved under his watch.

“I have made probably a 2% contribution to it,” he said. “My role is a little bit like a conductor, and it’s a team approach.

“You just have to do a little bit here and there and listen to your team. The most fascinating ideas arrive. My predecessor Ludwig Schmitt-Rhaden said one of the qualities of a strong leader is to have your own ideas brought up by one of the employees and then approve them. And I have seen that so many times. People coming up with an idea that I liked as well and saying that’s a good idea. The power of that is that it was their idea.

“And then the other side is you have to accept that everybody takes credit for what is well done, and nobody takes credit for something that’s badly done. You have to get used to giving the bad news. You have to be comfortable with that, and I always was.”

For Mr. Weisser, the immediate future holds continued full engagement with Bunge through December.

“I’m going to make sure the transition is perfect,” he said. “Soren (Schroder) is off to a very good start. He’s exactly the right guy for the next stage of Bunge.”

Looking at the post-Weisser era, at hand, the retired c.e.o. said he believes the company is positioned “very well” from an organizational perspective. He said the company’s values and operating model have been “completely institutionalized.” The genesis of these may be found in the late 1990s when the company established Bunge Global Markets, Mr. Weisser said. Before then the company essentially operated processing plants and traded agricultural commodities, but without the global positioning and coordination it has now.

“We hired from the industry in the early years,” he said. “A lot of people came from the competition to Bunge because they liked our
approach. Even the younger people who we hired from university and we trained liked this decentralized integrated approach. They liked our values. When you have openness and trust, there is less politics. You don’t have the global headquarters telling you all the time what to do. You have room to expand. You have room to express yourself. The level of satisfaction is high so it is a self-feeding process. Those who don’t like to work in teams, leave sooner or later.”

Mr. Schroder, Bunge’s 51-year-old c.e.o., fits well into the pattern described by Mr. Weisser. He joined the company in 2000, having spent many years earlier in his career with Cargill and Continental Grain Co. He most recently headed Bunge’s business operations in the United States, Canada and Mexico, and previously headed agribusiness in Europe.

“Soren has been absolutely critical in all this, and he also lives these values, he lives this model,” Mr. Weisser said. “He was critical to it and continued expanding it in Europe and later in North America.”

The team approach predates Mr. Weisser’s arrival at Bunge, he said. He said it is necessitated by the disparity of geographic locations between where the grain is originated, coordination in Geneva and White Plains, and delivery to different locations all around the world.

“So you automatically must have a system of very strong teamwork,” Mr. Weisser said. “This was never a business of stars. You can’t work alone. You can’t have chief traders betting millions or betting the farm. You have to make the business the hard way, one customer and one farmer at a time — building the logistics, having the ports, managing the ships. We operate on average 150 ships every day, connected to barges and rail systems. So the network is massive and you need coordination. I think it speaks to our strength.”

While thrilled both with the results the company achieved in the past decade and by the transition in Bunge’s culture that has been effected, Mr. Weisser lists professional development among areas where additional progress is needed.

“We still have to hire too often from the outside, in part because we are growing,” he said. “With a more robust trainee program, filling the pipeline, you always have more people than you need, which is good.”

Additional progress is also needed in continuous improvement processes the company has adopted in recent years, Mr. Weisser said.

Mr. Weisser, while still in his 50s, said his tenure at Bunge extended significantly longer than originally planned. At the same time he acknowledged the sense that the period since the company’s 2001 initial public offering, while eventful, has passed “very quickly.” When he became c.e.o., he thought the longest he would stay at the company’s helm was 10 years.

“The reason I said 10 years is that the average tenure for c.e.o.s in the United States is 7 years,” he said. “But these 15 years as c.e.o. went by very quickly. I would not change them for anything.”

While members of the founding families have receded further into the background in recent years with several retiring from the Bunge board of directors, Mr. Weisser said family members remain significant shareholders.

“I want a quieter life now,” he said. “But this has been one of the most unique stories of smooth transition from private to public. We couldn’t have done it without the families’ support at the beginning. When we went public they still had the majority of the board seats, but they gave the seats up one by one on their own. You know, it is an unbelievable story. It’s a beautiful story.”

Beyond December, Mr. Weisser said his plans are not yet settled. Here he focused on the less glamorous, all-consuming aspects of leading a global enterprise.

“I do not know how to say this elegantly, but I do not want to be on the same treadmill,” he said. “It’s been 20 years. There was one year I spent 90 nights on an airplane, traveling around the world. You do this for a period of time, but it’s not a quality of life. We’ll take a little bit of time off, and I will think. I loved it for the 20 years. I really loved it.”

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