Feike Sijbesma, the CEO of Royal DSM, participated in the first Room for Discussion interview of the year, on the 15th of January.
In all honesty, many people, including myself, did not fully grasp the magnitude of Royal DSM. Their products are part of our daily lives without us even remotely realizing it. From almost all the food in your fridge to your waterproof jacket, at some point in their production, a Royal DSM product was involved. To be more precise, Royal DSM is a supplier of a multitude of production materials for daily-use products. You can, therefore, see the company as an important player from the shadows that dictates the colour of your OMEGA enriched eggs. As such, it seemed rather expected that the first questions were intended to get to know the man behind it all.
Calm and confident, Feike Sijbesma steps on the stage. Filled with a calm atmosphere and moderate attendance, the E-hall was preparing for a civil and entertaining discussion with “the Dutch Elon Musk”. Modest about his powerful position, and with training in biology and business that seems to fit his position perfectly, Mr Sijbesma likes hockey, reading and is still uncertain about binge-watching series on Netflix. He sees himself as a biologist first and considers evolution and transition as primordial for the long-run success of a company. Those principles seem to be exactly the recipe that he used for Royal DSM since 2007.
The Transition of Royal DSM
Starting from coal production and one of the most polluting companies in the Netherlands, and now being at the upfront of the nutrition, health and sustainable living industry, it is clear that DSM has seen a clear change of direction. With a complete rebranding and acquisition of more than 25 new businesses, Mr Sijbesma has lived up to his adaptive strategy. Citing Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, he believes that, as in the living kingdom, the fittest company is the one that survives.
A believer in the change towards sustainability and cyclical economies, he sees power in conducting a business model that is going to make the world a better place. His adverseness towards defining the performance of the firm from the point of view of financial indices further stressed this point.
With transition often comes resistance. When asked about leadership strategies in these circumstances, Mr Sijbesma turned out to be rather keen on rhetoric. He stressed that gradual and long-term processes are often more stable and that “seducing” people is a very important part of his strategy. As an advisor for the Chinese premier, he stressed cultural understanding and listening to others’ points of view, as it is easy to fall into the trap that you have it better figured out, when in fact everybody has their shortcomings.
Holding a multitude of external positions, such as being a member of the Global CEO Council and Co-Chair of the High-Level Assembly of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (CPLC), Mr Sijbesma has a rather broad perspective that influences his daily business decisions. He discussed how believing that you left the world a better place than how you found it is one of his daily driving factors. This personal mantra also influences his involvement in sustainability and the partnership with the United Nations’ World Food Programme.
Asked about the problems that our world is facing right now, Mr Sijbesma said that despite many problems, world hunger seems to be one that he does not understand. Torn between the feasibility of ending the problem and understanding that a corporation is not a charity, he did not give a concrete solution of how to do so. However, he puts his hopes in the initiatives and determination of the new generations.
Furthermore, while answering questions about increasing carbon pricing, he stated that there is a need for an increase in price that will provide a real incentive for companies to change the behaviour. He believes that without a significant increase, companies do not consider finding an alternative that will reduce carbon emissions.
Throughout the interview, a theme of “great power brings great responsibility” could be sensed. Mr Sijbesma seems to fully comprehend that, stating that people that are able to influence something and do not recognize that responsibility could be a bigger threat than we realize. He seems to truly be an optimist regarding both our generation and the future of our planet. His cordiality and respect towards both the audience and interviewers defining his strong, but understanding persona.