It is much deeper than that – it is about our existence!
Oatly is a small Swedish company with its heritage from the university and research of oat as a healthy and nutritious ingredient in drinks and food.
In the recent months Oatly had have a total transparent media war, due to a communication issue. Oatly said their out-milk is better for adults than cow-milk, and this is what academic research have found out. But the Swedish diary society went furious and organised a juridical process to stop Oatly to communicate this message.
This story is a bit like, no other comparisons, when Germany attacked Poland 1939 with tanks, and the Polish try to defend themselves with horses and swords. It was the old way facing the fact that the new way was superior, due to new technology as well a new mind-set. This is exact what we see in above fight between Oatly and the Swedish Dairy Association: a new mind-set and structure competing with an old structure belonging to the old world.
I had the pleasure to interview the CEO of Oatly, Toni Petersson, who is a visionary leader that is trained in building concepts and launch them. His most well known concept, so far, was KOI in Malmö, Sweden. KOI was the first restaurant that introduced a very well-formed Japanese identity into a business concept in Malmö in the beginning of 1990:ies. KOI was not only a restaurant: the imported Japanese spirit, beer and food, had an own interior design line – KOI Living – and also were consultants to other restaurants. Then the conceptual idea was new, and today we see lifestyle concepts like this everywhere – it’s the ethics and values that rules, not the excel-sheets or juridical issues.
And this is the very core issue: the new world runs by ethics and values, the old world relays on old laws and old systems constructed for a very different world than we live in today.
Toni, who are you?
I’m half Japanese (mother) and half Swedish, born in Gothenburg, Sweden but lived my first seven years in Japan. Then we moved to a small village at the countryside outside Gothenburg called Sollebrunn. This is a beautiful, calm and idyllic village, but totally devastating for the creativity!
How well do you think my brother and me fitted in that community? Looking a bit different and with a perspective of the whole world. When the others have their perspective in their own garden! So in several ways I grew up like an outsider – in a good sense. I finished school and build a music studio in which a worked with for a couple of years, until my mother bought a restaurant and I started to work with her. It was there I learned and build the idea that later went to KOI.
The concept was very easy: we wanted to be best, we kept it simple and were extremely consistent – we didn’t compromised with anything. The food, the decoration, the wine (one white and one red) etc. had to be our way!
Then we sold KOI and I moved abroad to Costa Rica for many reasons: I didn’t want to be in the rat-race, I wanted to live in another culture, I wanted my children see another culture and see that everything is not like in Sweden!
Back home I stated to work for BOBLBEE, and the 15th of November 2012 I joined Oatly, so I have been here two years now.
So what have you done here at Oatly? What was the challenge?
Oatly has its heritage from research in the academic world and it was before a life science company filled of trained academics doing research and developed our products from oat.
My mandate and work is to transfer Oatly from a life science company, with a traditional agenda, to a lifestyle company which is run by values, ethics and by doing what’s best for the entire society.
What do you mean with value driven?
In short, it’s like your own living rules. Me myself see the higher goal, the purpose to create something good for mother earth, myself, my family and everybody else. If I create something that others like, it makes me feel better and I go to work everyday with a smile: I want to do something that matters. That does inspire me, and inspiration is perhaps the absolutely best driving force.
That must be a real challenge, to build a brand new identity and at the same time keep the old employees?
Absolutely! To change something is maybe the hardest thing to do. But in three weeks I created four films and one identity guideline concerning how Oatly would be in the future. This was a total concept and I’m really happy to say that we had follow it ”by the book”, and we still do! That gives credibility.
The ”concept” was build on values and how to do – we would not be a new Unilever with several departments doing one thing. Oatly should be a lifestyle company run by ethics and values, with a transparency into our work and flat organisation doing it. The people who work here gets up every morning looking forward to work with and for Oatly: this is both true and my guidance. Filled with passion for the company, its products, ideas, its CSR and the wisdom that Oatly works for a better society, all this are is the fuel that give us strength and a friendly and smiling face every morning.
How did you do it?
There are three key issues how to transform a life science company to a lifestyle company:
1: A higher goal and purpose than earning money – ”save the world”
2: A lifestyle company is ruled by values!
3: You need to be 100% credible and transparent!
Then it’s fundamental that the structures, the barriers, that exist in the culture are downsized and will be changed into new ones.
We have clearly explained the purpose with the transformation from a life science company to a lifestyle company to all employees, and we have had several think-tanks where we discussed the issues. Then we have to remember that the organisation was ready to change, but didn’t know in what direction. That helps.
Another fundamental issue is that we now are in the change phase, we can’t go back! All employees have seen our identity before, and how we are now. We have changed, not completely yet, but so much that’s impossible to go back.
But all changes happens in small steps every day, and you need to have patience, very much patience! You also need to know, that you need the patience, otherwise you won’t accept the speed, or rather lack of speed, the new culture will enter.
Can you describe how you did it?
We have had a two-year-process and totally turned us in-side-out, flattened the organisation and removed our, which is a fundamental position in the traditional food industry, product managers. What’s left is what we are now. We work cross-functionally, according to our values and with 100% transparency. We have worked through everything, every angle, every issue, and this is it. This is how we are, and we are completely open and 100% transparent.
There is no weapon against transparency – we take side, we think what we think and we communicate it. End of story. This means that we “feel” we are right. We are certainly not perfect, but we know that we have right: We go to work every day to make the world better!
This sounds like a very intelligent marketing strategy?
It’s sound very simple if you think this is a thought-out mind-set. BUT: It is much deeper than that – it is about our existence!
So without the higher goal (than earn money etc) you are lost in today’s business landscape?
Yes! I will argue that.
Just look at the ”milk war” or what to call it. The Swedish Dairy Association, with its foundation in agriculture, farming and political history, always have had the ”right” to decide the ”right truth” about milk. We are all indoctrinated that milk is good for everyone – children as adults. And here we come with moral, ethics and science, the foundation for a value based company, with a new product: oat-milk, and says this is better to drink for a huge amount of reasons and can verify it: the climate, all kind of research, the economy etc.
We all know that the climate is the largest threat, ever!, for the entire world, and we must act now! It too late to think, we must act! Every organisation knows this, but the politicians just think as long as to next mandate period! We as a company see the lifetime, and all companies and consumer must run this issue – not politicians with that short thinking mind-set!
But its the economy that runs, so we must find a model that value companies both by its public welfare and its monetary status. To invent such a model is dream! Owners, institutions and everyone needs to find such a model.
But its frightening to see the quarterly report driven economy, run by ”expectations” – how much will A sell next quarter? We will have no future quarter soon! It really frightening that financial institutions are in pole positions in the business hierarchy!
How do you describe innovation and/or product development?
It must have an objective, and create something that is relevant and it’s must be sellable. And perhaps the most important: it must add value. Then it’s also important to have uniqueness – we have oat.
In an organisational issue its fundamental with crossover knowledge – to get rid of all silo-thinking! Everybody in the organisation must have the information and this means that communication maybe the single most important issue: if everybody know what will happen and in what direction you turning, you eliminate uncertainty, fear and other human obstacle feelings. That also means that credibility and transparency is so fundamental – if everybody knows everything, no asymmetric information exist.
How will innovation and/or product development be in the future?
You must leave the silos and to be open for everything. Find inspiration everywhere, be open-minded. I.e you must have knowledge and channels what “surfing” around, and then you chose your parts and pack it to your business.
The key is be transparent and to have a holistic mind-set.
What will you see in the future and how will you continue?
For me, as well as the value based mind-set, it’s to think and act what’s good for the world and mankind, that’s good for me as individual. This gives a higher meaning or purpose and you can go to work everyday to make the world better with a smile. You as an individual give something to the entire community!
This takes time, we need to be patient, but the value-based approach is transparent, ethical and the only way forward.