The Paris headquarters of Danone, the international manufacturer of dairy products and bottled waters, wanted to communicate corporate values to its employees and involve them in its expanded mission, striving to improve the health of its people, society at large and the planet itself. I was hired to write its White Book, outlining its new directions, interwoven with profiles of employees who embodied the Danone way and mission.
Here’s one of the profiles that I wrote:
Crisis Management in Argentina
Sitting in his office in Spain, Joan Sintes thought twice about picking up the ringing phone. He was about to leave on vacation. But his manager’s reflex kicked in and he reached for the receiver. “We’re thinking about sending you to Argentina,” said the voice on the line.
“Don’t you have anything further away?” Joan joked. Or half joked. He and his family had just returned to their hometown of Barcelona, where he was the Human Resources Director of Danone’s Fontbella water division. Joan and his wife, Elena, were connecting with old friends, and their children were making new ones. To move again would be a big disruption. Besides, did they really want to deal with a country in turmoil?
“Argentina had been upside down since the 2001 monetary crisis,” Joan explains. “So I thought, ‘What am I going to do in this mess?’”
Fifteen years earlier, he had started with Danone France as an agricultural engineer in the dessert division. With the company’s focus on the social aspects of work and on-the-job efficiency, he made the move to human resources. Given carte blanche to act, he wound up revamping the entire worker classification system. Along the way he acquired “a preference for working with people instead of machines.”
After a stint in the Catalan head office, Joan was chosen to take care of the European reorganization of Danone’s biscuit division, working from Paris, in 2000. He brought a fresh perspective to the job and quickly identified a major impediment to the process. The unique setup of each production line made it difficult to transfer its practices to another country.
At the time, biscuit production was going through several changes, with plants being relocated. “When French production lines would get to Italy, people would not know how they worked,” he explains. “Things were supposed to go quickly but nothing was written down.”
To preserve each line’s special know-how, Joan developed “a novel method to transfer competencies from one country to the next.” An integration team was formed at each site, and then an overall team was set up with people from all the sites. Hungarians, Belgians, Italians, Frenchmen, Spaniards and Englishmen all sat at one table with a common goal: to share their knowledge. This led to smooth transition during the reorganization, and helped Joan to slide into a general management role in human resources.
Along his career path, he took to heart the Danone insistence that the company and its people have a dual economic and social responsibility—to use their expertise and resources to help people and society where they could. So Joan and his wife decided to accept the Argentina challenge.
Any reservations they had were dispelled when they arrived in Buenos Aires, in 2005, and discovered the warmth of the Argentinians, as well as the open work culture of Danone Brazil. “People here live in warm closeness, with everyone knowing each other,” explains Joan. “There is no rigid job hierarchy. A trainee can go and talk directly to the General Manager.”
Although the financial crisis had just ravaged the country’s economy, Joan was pleased to see how Danone had responded to the situation. When the crisis hit its peak, and many foreign investors jumped ship, Danone’s management team resolved to hold their course.
Management decided that no one would lose their job, so they looked for creative ways to keep the business operating until better days came. One of Danone’s first and most important responses to the crisis was to develop a new, basic liquid yogurt product that would be readily available and affordable to the destitute. Every aspect of the food was carefully evaluated, including portion size, formula and weight.
To resist rampant inflation and defeat unscrupulous black-market profiteers, the retail price was printed on the package. As a result, the new dairy product was never priced beyond the means of the poorest.
While the launch of the new product helped Argentinians generally, it also rescued the people inside Danone, as the company was able to maintain its production volumes. “We saved all jobs and kept people from going hungry,” says Joan.
By demonstrating its commitment to Argentina, Danone in return received the country’s, and the consumers’, respect and support. As conditions generally improved, Danone actually enjoyed double-digit growth, capturing a 75 per cent share of the yogurt market.
Joan insists that Danone’s unrivalled brand awareness is the reward for having stayed with the people of Argentina during hard times. The shared experience has made everyone in the company stronger. He says with pride, “I doubt that there is any better business unit than our group of 4,000 people. We now have the largest production unit in the Danone world, with 1,000 people in Longchamp, south of Buenos Aires.”
As the Human Resources Manager of the dairy division, Joan has returned to his agricultural engineer roots. He responds with gusto to the challenge of dealing with the 3,000 people who take care of the logistics and sales in a web that is spun over 5,000 kilometres. But he relishes even more the new social challenges the he and the company can now tackle, using the bounty from Danone’s rising prosperity.
In 2007, the Danone Foundation was founded, to give financial support to community help organizations and projects, particularly ones that protect children from being forced out of school to go to work. Foundation volunteers also get involved in school projects dealing with the environment and nutrition. As well, Danone volunteers get together on their own time, on weekends, to do good works, such as collecting tools and refurbishing buildings for those who need a helping hand.
This may be the greatest legacy of Danone’s crisis intervention in Argentina: The raised social consciousness of its people, who are willing to act on behalf of the company and on their own to ensure a better life for everyone.
“At Danone Argentina we believe that children are the future of the country,” says Joan. “We know there is no sustainable commercial success in a country that does not itself succeed.”