Jorge Born

  • Interviewed 21 August 2008 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by Andrea Lluch, Research Fellow, HBS
  • Clip Duration – 3:22

Mr. Born discusses his business career and describes major business cycles in the history of Bunge & Born. He reviews diversification and the group’s subsequent focus on its core business. He also examines major crises, organizational changes, the internationalization process, and the group’s global strategy. In addition, he reflects on the relationship between business and politics and provides his view of the Argentine business community. He concludes with the main traits that have defined him as a businessman.

P: ¿Cómo se organizaban en eso momento, ya que no tenían una estructura de holding? ¿Eran compañías independientes?

R: Teníamos lo que llamamos los product managers, que eran quienes manejaban, por ejemplo, textiles acá y en Brasil. Teníamos product managers acá, en Brasil, en Uruguay y en Perú. O sea que, poco a poco, se había organizado como cosas prácticamente independientes. Con todo el management independiente. Arriba estaba el Directorio, que no era un directorio como los de hoy, sino activo, y los managers respondían a ese directorio.

P: ¿Eso ya lo estaban planteando desde hace mucho tiempo?

R: Sí.

P: Porque hay muchos analistas que plantean que eso es algo reciente.

R: No, eso ya lo veníamos planteando desde hacía mucho tiempo. Nosotros tuvimos dos períodos de consultancy. Uno fue con una compañía inglesa que se llamaba Urwich que la usamos en el año 1960; y la otra fue con McKinsey, que fue a fines del 90. Con Urwich ya empezamos a pensar el esquema de cómo íbamos a terminar.

En esa época, llegamos al asunto de los product managers, que era la única manera de que no se enredara el top management. El esquema de product manager nos llevó bastante tiempo instituirlo y montarlo. Nosotros lo hacíamos con gente de acá, y acá no había un mercado donde uno podía llamar y traerse el product manager de cualquier compañía grande. No existía entonces. Había que formar a toda esa gente, lo cual implicaba todo un trabajo enorme de training, de enseñar, de ir de a poco con el asunto. Bueno, con Urwich estuvimos casi 10 años trabajando.

Como era una compañía inglesa tenían una comprensión mucho más elástica, digamos, o más europea que los americanos, lo cual facilitaba la comunicación con nosotros, porque al americano para explicarle cómo era la Argentina en esa época y Brasil era muy difícil. Entonces los mantuvimos a ellos durante mucho tiempo. Ellos también ya nos decían que “sooner or later” tendríamos que ir al core business. Pero ellos entendían perfectamente bien que no estábamos en una situación de mercado y de negocio como para ir al core business sin perder posibilidades en otros negocios donde ganábamos plata, y donde no teníamos la seguridad de que ese core business iba a funcionar, porque el trading internacional y la soja y todo eso vino mucho después. Pero de todos modos, ellos ya insistían ya, y le hablo del año 60 y 70, con que había que pensar eventualmente en el core business.

Q: What can you tell us about the company’s organizational scheme at that time? Considering it was not a holding company, were companies independent?

A: We had what we called ‘product managers’, who were responsible for, say, the textile area here and in Brazil. We had product managers here in Argentina, in Brazil, Uruguay and Peru. The company had gradually organized itself in a quite independent fashion. Management was totally independent; we had a board, which, unlike current boards, played an active role, and managers reported to it. When I got back some time after 1950, I joined the board. I was assigned the food and trading areas, more specifically, the industrial food area, which included trading. That’s how I got my business training. Of course, when I moved up to the vice-presidency and the presidency, I was expected to know a little about everything. As a result, I started to involve myself in all aspects of the business. However, at that time, we were already contemplating the need to focus on our core business.

Q: Had you been considering this idea for a long time?

A: Yes.

Q: Many analysts claim that it is recent development.

A: No, we had been considering it for quite a long time. As a matter of fact, we had already undergone two consultancy periods. First, in 1960, we used an English firm called Urwich; and then, at the end of 1990, McKinsey. Already with Urwich we had begun to design of the final management system. Back then, we decided on the product manager design because it was the only way to avoid entanglement with top management involvement.

Elaborating and implementing the product manager scheme took us quite a long time. We sought local people and the task proved hard, since there was no such easy thing as identifying and recruiting a product manager from a large company; it was an unknown practice at the time. Training people was a huge effort because it entailed a gradual teaching process. We worked with Urwich for almost 10 years; as a British firm, it had a more flexible understanding capacity –unlike its American counterparts– and this facilitated communication.

In those days, explaining Argentina or Brazil to an American was extremely difficult. Thus, we stuck with Urwich for a long time. They would tell us that “sooner or later” we would have to focus on our core business. However, they were also well aware that we were not in a position -in terms of market and business- to center on our core business and disregard other profitable business opportunities. Furthermore, there was no certainty that our core business would turn out to be successful, since international trading and soybeans came much later. Anyway, they already insisted on planning for our core business – even back then, I mean, in the 1960s and 1970s.

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