This content is from: Research

The Pandemic Has Made Europe’s Top Executives Smarter… and Humbler

From supply-chain issues to unforeseen social and cultural hurdles, business leaders in Europe and around the world have learned hard and valuable lessons over the last two years.

As the world slowly begins to shake off the unprecedented effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, corporate executives around the globe have been forced to grapple with challenges that even the most forward-thinking business leaders couldn’t have imagined just two short years ago. For many of the top-scoring chief executives in Institutional Investor’s 2021 All-Europe Executive Team, supply-chain issues top the list.

“Supply chains around the world are in significant disarray,” said Nestlé’s Ulf Mark Schneider, the top-ranked chief executive in the food sector. “The consequences are rising raw material and freight costs.” Schneider said that the secret to overcoming these issues — and coping with an uncertain geopolitical environment — lies in increased agility and flexibility. For him, that’s not about knowing all the answers, but knowing he can delegate decisions to those who do: “We rely strongly on our people in the markets to know the best way to deliver for consumers, the company and society.”

At Lanxess, the German specialist chemicals company, supply chain issues have the potential to derail an upswing in demand across the board, from cars to construction, chemicals, and the agro industry. “This upswing has been dampened by current global sourcing restrictions of important raw materials and intermediate products leading to higher prices,” said chief executive Matthias Zachert. “We are also facing disruptions in international supply chains that limit production capacities worldwide.” Zachert tied for the top spot in the chemicals sector, alongside Geraldine Matchett and Dimitri de Vreeze from Royal DSM in the Netherlands.

Guillaume Faury, the top-scoring chief executive in the aerospace and defense category, said that from the very beginning, Covid threw the supply chain at Airbus, the European airplane manufacturer, into disarray. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, Faury drastically cut the company’s commercial aircraft production rate and scrambled to secure liquidity for other projects. “We adjusted our commercial aircraft production rates downward by around 40 percent within a few weeks, which helped give visibility and transparency to the supply chain,” he said. Now that demand for single-aisle aircraft has returned, Faury says that Airbus is working very closely with its suppliers to secure production volumes. “We have reinforced our ‘supplier watchtower’ to anticipate and help mitigate bottlenecks and issues as much as possible,” he said.

The pandemic heralded a kinder way of doing business for this year’s top-scoring chief executives. “Leaders need to be empathetic, agile and lead with integrity,” said Capgemini’s Aiman Ezzat, the top scoring chief executive in the software technology sector. “The experiences of the last 18 months have brought this into sharp focus for me.”

At Anglo American, Mark Cutifani, the top scoring chief executive in metals and mining, said that the coronavirus forced firms to reassess their goals and values. “Companies had to demonstrate that they were really there for their communities when they needed them the most,” he said. “I’m proud of how Anglo American rose to the challenge.” Cutifani took the “tough but necessary” decision to close mines at the start of the pandemic. Even during the closures, Anglo American guaranteed salaries for its employees in South Africa, as well as housing allowances and company contributions to medical and pensions funds. “Being a partner to our local communities is much more than simply providing employment opportunities,” he said.

Several chief executives said they see the pandemic as a test case for further interruptions on the horizon. “We continue to expect an elevated level of geopolitical volatility,” said Nestlé’s Schneider. Faury agreed. While production at Airbus is down, the company is ramping up its resilience for future shocks. “We learned a lot from this crisis,” he said, “and we concluded that maintaining the status quo cannot be an option.”



Mark Cutifani, AngloAmerican

What is the greatest challenge for your sector this year?

One of the greatest challenges facing our sector is continuing to operate while ensuring the safety of our employees. We have deployed a comprehensive Covid technology program designed to support of the health of our workforce. This includes the deployment of mobile applications to our workforce, touchless gate access systems, site testing labs and supporting case management systems, thermal cameras for temperature monitoring, and reconfigured smart watches to remind employees to social distance and to aid with contact tracing. We also developed and rolled out an extensive health awareness and broader support program called WeCare, which is designed specifically to help protect the health and well-being of our more than 95,000 people and our host communities.

What was the toughest business decision you made in the last year?

The decision to implement mine closures at the beginning of the pandemic was tough but absolutely necessary. At Anglo American, we worked to alleviate the pressure on our employees during the lockdown — in South Africa, for example, we guaranteed basic salaries and housing allowances and continued with company contributions to medical and pension funds throughout the national lockdown period. We also reached out to local community leaders to make sure we became part of a broader support process and program to keep people safe. Being a partner to our local communities is much more than simply providing employment opportunities.

Have there been any unexpected opportunities for your business in the last year?

The extraordinary events of the past year have helped people to understand the extensive support we provide in our host countries, beyond the mine gate. Across the world, our operations play a vital role in our host communities, and, in many instances, we drive the development and maintenance of essential infrastructure and services including roads, health facilities, medication, education, clean water, and energy, which were more crucial than ever during the pandemic. 

What geopolitical situations do you expect to impact your business in 2022, and how?

We continue to live in uncertain times, and the pandemic and new waves of infection pose a risk for economic recovery and the demand for our products. We can also see much more geopolitical complexity as the role of major nation-states changes. We believe we need to play a higher-profile role in bringing people and communities together, and to both encourage free and fair trade and build consensus on big-ticket change programs that are in all of our best interests. Increasing political polarity needs to be balanced with decreasing friction in trade and people helping across geographic and social boundaries, and business can be a key facilitator of constructive dialogue. 

What’s the most important lesson you have learned in your career?

That people are at the center of all we do and everything we deliver, and that “Re-imagine mining to improve people’s lives” are not simply words on a piece of paper. Living our purpose is about people believing that they can and do make a difference.    



Aiman Ezzat, Capgemini

What is the greatest challenge for your sector this year?

The sector has been performing well overall, and the demand for digital, cloud and data/AI services has significantly accelerated in the last 12 months as these technologies become critical to the transformation and competitiveness of businesses across the world. We continue to operate at over 90 percent work from home, and although after 18 months we’re operating very smoothly, many of our colleagues are longing for the ability to meet and share experiences. In some areas, we’ve also started to face some constraints around the availability of talent in a fast growth market.

What was the toughest business decision you made in the last year?

In 2020, it was a balancing act of resisting the pressure in a fast-moving, uncertain market and maintaining the pace of investment. First, there was the investment in our people, not only in terms of their development but also in protecting them from Covid and supporting their personal needs. Then there was our investment in new digital and cloud-based offers, so that we could roll out our new strategy in preparation for the return of structural growth in client demand for technology. Our goal was always to come out of the crisis stronger, and we are achieving that. 

Have there been any unexpected opportunities for your business in the last year?

We have been implementing our strategic plan to transform the group for a number of years now, which includes diversifying our client base, our offerings portfolio, the talent and commitment of our people, and the agile platform we built in terms of delivery and operations. The events of 2020 generated a unique opportunity to accelerate the deployment of our hybrid working model, what we call the new normal. We proved our ability to have our employees work more remotely on projects, with greater acceptance from our clients and team leaders. This game-changer means we can now deploy our talents on any project, so that, for example, an engineer from Madrid can work on a project in London. At Capgemini, 90 percent of employees are currently teleworking, although this proportion is expected to fall to between 40 and 60 percent post crisis. We want to make remote work for anyone and anywhere a reality, which will support numerous opportunities for our business and our team members. 

What geopolitical situations do you expect to impact your business in 2022, and how?

This world is becoming more technology-intensive, with demand in all sectors and regions accelerating due to the pandemic. We don’t expect the geopolitical situation to derail this megatrend; in fact, technology has become pervasive and is fundamentally transforming businesses and society at large. We see investment in technology and new forms of partnership as a key enabler for progress and efficiency — for example, in speeding up the green transition; enabling smart city living; connecting remote communities; or pioneering vital new solutions for healthcare. 

What’s the most important lesson you have learned in your career?

Leaders need to be empathetic, agile, and able to lead with integrity. The experiences of the last 18 months have brought this into sharp focus for me. Covid-19 laid bare the importance of strong and authentic human leadership, of leaders who could balance the talent experience with that of business continuity and manage their teams in situations unheard of before. Leaders who were agile and could foster that same learning agility among their teams to adapt and thrive in changing times were sought after. 



Guillaume Faury, Airbus 

What is the greatest challenge for your sector this year?

The first challenge is clearly linked to the pandemic. There is still uncertainty remaining with the different Covid variants, different vaccination rates and international traffic levels that remain low. Even though the path to a full air traffic recovery will not necessarily be linear, we see the demand for single-aisle aircraft increasing again, as demonstrated by our good commercial aircraft delivery performance in the first semester of 2021. As a result, we have been shifting our attention more toward securing the ramp-up steps of our A320 family, so that we’re able to deliver the aircraft needed to meet customer demand. Secondly, our industry has entered into a period of accelerated innovation which is likely to reshape the sector over the coming decades. Connectivity, artificial intelligence, advanced materials, digitalization, sustainable fuels, and electrification are just some of the prominent examples. In a nutshell, technology leadership will be essential for all companies of the aviation sector to secure future competitiveness and the decarbonization of the sector, which is both a major challenge and opportunity for the industry. Airbus has been mobilizing substantial human and financial resources for years to improve the ecological footprint of flying, and we’re committed to taking a leading position on decarbonization. This is reflected in our ambition to bring the first zero-emission commercial aircraft to market by 2035.

What was the toughest business decision you made in the last year?

[When the pandemic struck], we adjusted our commercial aircraft production rates downward by around 40 percent within a few weeks. The much lower production volumes consequently also triggered the urgent need to adapt our global workforce, which we managed to do by working together with our social partners and by limiting the social impacts as much as possible. At the same time, we had to work hard to contain costs and limit cash consumption. But we managed to achieve an industrial and financial balance that allowed us to gradually rebuild our balance sheet starting in the second half of 2020, and this has continued in the first half of 2021. Looking back, we demonstrated our resilience during the deepest crisis the sector has ever known by working together with our Airbus teams, customers, suppliers and industry partners.

Have there been any unexpected opportunities for your business in the last year?

It is obvious that last year, we mostly saw unexpected risks rather than opportunities. But yes, we’ve learned a lot from the crisis and have reassessed our organizational, manufacturing and development priorities. We concluded that maintaining the status quo cannot be an option, and that the current lower production volumes are a precious window of opportunity to prepare the Airbus of the future with clear objectives: Build more resilience as a group against disruptive changes that will inevitably happen from time to time. Be able to develop and industrialize innovative products much faster than before. Drive our competitiveness. At the same time, we have accelerated our ambition to lead the decarbonization of our industry.

What geopolitical situations do you expect to impact your business in 2022, and how?

When it comes to the geopolitical situation, let me start with some recent positive developments: The return of the U.S. to the Paris climate accords, China’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2060, the suspension of tariffs between the E.U. and the U.S. regarding the WTO dispute on large civil aircraft, and the avoidance of a “no-deal” Brexit scenario. However, the tight and often uncoordinated international border restrictions during the Covid-19 pandemic have reminded us that some of our core values, such as the freedom to travel and international collaboration, can be fragile at times. At Airbus, we believe that because of our truly global footprint, all of the major challenges as defined by the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals can only be achieved in the spirit of international cooperation, long-term partnerships and fair economic competition, which is based on innovation instead of protectionism. In the context of the 16th U.N. Sustainable Development Goal of “peace, justice and strong institutions,” let me also emphasize that our defense business at Airbus, which mainly supplies E.U. and NATO member states, is making a vital and often overlooked contribution to a more sustainable world. Let’s not forget that peace and security are prerequisites for sustainability. 

What’s the most important lesson that you have learned in your career?

Like many of you, I have often seen throughout my professional life that true success stories are never written by one person alone, but by a team of people. And last year, in the middle of the crisis, I was once more deeply impressed to see how much a company like Airbus can accomplish when it works as one dedicated team. Team Airbus has demonstrated resilience and delivered good results, and I am convinced that together, Team Airbus will deliver on our company purpose: to pioneer sustainable aerospace for a safe and united world. 


Ulf Mark Schneider, Nestlé

What is the greatest challenge for your sector this year?

Supply chains around the world are in significant disarray. The consequences are rising raw material and freight costs. At the same time, we cannot let this derail our long-term agenda. For Nestlé that means continuing to rise to [meet] changing consumer demand. We are continuing to innovate at a fast pace and to sharpen our strategic focus through disciplined M&A. We are not letting up on our sustainability ambitions either.

What was the toughest business decision you made in the last year?

Sending a lot of people into work every day, even during the worst days of the pandemic. We knew right from the start that an uninterrupted supply of food and beverages was going to be key. People expected and needed to see the shelves stocked. For those who could not work from home, we left no stone unturned to guarantee their safety. That included our headquarters, which remained open throughout the pandemic. This was a signal to our factories, suppliers, and customers, as well as our people around the world, that we are with them.  

Have there been any unexpected opportunities for your business in the last year?

The pandemic accelerated many trends that were already underway, such as e-commerce, working from home, pet adoption and the demand for health and nutritional benefits. E-commerce for food came of age during the pandemic, and many consumers will continue to buy online. Nestlé continues to expand and personalize the online experience for our consumers across categories such as coffee, pet care, nutritional health and meal kits. By mid-2021, our e-commerce sales reached almost 15 percent of total sales, up from 8.5 percent in 2019.

What geopolitical situations do you expect to impact your business in 2022, and how?

We continue to expect an elevated level of geopolitical volatility. Nestlé meets these challenges with increased flexibility and agility, particularly in our supply chains. Our focus is to continue to serve consumers with much-needed food and beverages whenever we can. 

What’s the most important lesson you have learned in your career?

There have been many, but certainly one I learned early on is to give people breathing room. You should be clear on what you expect them to achieve and by when, but then let people figure it out their way. This is certainly the case at Nestlé, with so many very different consumer preferences around the world. We rely strongly on our people in the markets to know the best way to deliver for consumers, the company and society. 



Matthias Zachert, Lanxess

What is the greatest challenge for your sector this year?

We have seen global recovery in most of our end markets, especially in the automotive industry but also in the construction, chemical and agro industries. This upswing has been dampened, however, by current global sourcing restrictions of important raw materials and intermediate products, leading to higher prices. We are also facing disruptions in international supply chains, which limit production capacities worldwide. Fortunately, we have managed to keep our supply chains intact so far. I am incredibly proud of the entire Lanxess team for overcoming these challenges so well. 

What was the toughest business decision you made in the last year?

We had several difficult decisions that needed to be taken: cutting growth investments with high returns, stopping sales force expansion projects, and last but not least, putting our stock repurchase program on hold. In March/April, ample liquidity became a prime focus in the capital markets, and consequently we had to adjust our growth expansion plans. But we are taking them up again, as you can see from the announcements made over the last months. 

Have there been any unexpected opportunities for your business in the last year?

Well, we have fortunately developed some ideas that could open up potential growth markets, such as battery chemistry. We have started a cooperation with Tinci, a leading global manufacturer of lithium-ion battery materials. Starting next year, we will produce electrolyte formulations for them in one of our plants in Germany. The battery business offers huge growth opportunities, which we try to participate in. 

What geopolitical situations do you expect to impact your business in 2022, and how?

Even if some trade relations seem to normalize, I continue to be concerned about the tendencies towards protectionism in some regions. But we have already been responding to this for several years and have expanded our production in the important local markets. The pandemic has also shown how vulnerable global value chains are. We must also strengthen these and place our sourcing on a broader basis.

What’s the most important lesson you have learned in your career?

There have been a few. Most important is to keep learning, don’t stand still, and challenge yourself and your team on the status quo, because you can always improve. And you must never lose passion for what you’re doing. 

Related Content