Monthly Archives: September 2010

This is the last post in my blog for the Financial Times. I will take a break from regular blogging, but I will from time to time post new materials on my website.

Identifying opportunities early is necessary, but not sufficient, to seize them. A company must also be able to strike decisively when the time is right. Managers at Brazil’s Banco Itaú recognized that the privatization of state banks freed a new set of valuable resources – customer relationships and locations which had not been obtainable previously, and Itaú spotted the value in these banks before its peers. Equally important was top executives’ willingness to declare the acquisitions as the main effort and redeploy whatever human and financial resources were required to seize the moment. Below some key insights:

  • Mobilize best people for golden opportunity. As with experiments, it is critical to put the best people on the best opportunities. Itau’s CEO commissioned one of the most senior members of his team, a Senior Vice-President and Board Member, to spearhead the analysis of opportunities created by the privatization process. And this SVP, in turn, quickly appointed some of the bank’s most promising executives to form a fifty-person task force to evaluate the opportunity and create a post-acquisition plan in case Itaú decided to make an acquisition. Make no mistake, the managers appointed to lead this initiative were not corporate rejects whose careers were stagnated, rather they were among the most promising managers in the company, responsible for running its most profitable lines of business. Assigning them to this opportunity represented a real commitment on the part of Itaú executives.
  • Rapid approval processes. Sometimes, seizing a golden opportunity comes down to signing a deal

My last post discussed how managers can collect information to spot emerging opportunities in turbulent markets and illustrated these points with the case of Brazil’s Banco Itau’s acquisition of privatized banks in the 1990s.  Information are most likely to reveal new opportunities to the extent it is real-time, combines first-hand observation with statistical data, shared across silos in the organization, and drawing on multiple data sources within and outside the firm.

In addition to gathering data, managers can also design and run experiments to actively evaluate opportunities. Typical experiments include pilot projects, minor acquisitions, and prototypes of new product development.  Despite differences in form, successful experiments share a few common characteristics, which Banco Itaú’s experiment with the Argentine market illustrate.

Even in the most volatile environment, companies do not face a constant rush of golden opportunities. Instead, periodic golden opportunities are interspersed among many smaller chances. The trick is to keep in the information flow, talk through alternative scenarios, and keep discussing possible opportunities as a management team to decide identify the most attractive.

In the case of Itaú, the golden opportunity came with the privatization of state-owned banks beginning in the mid-1990’s. The Federal Government decided to privatize most public companies in telecommunications, energy, and banking to attract capital to these sectors after years of underinvestment. Roberto Setubal – a member of one of the families that controlled the bank – was appointed Itaú’s CEO in 1994 in the midst of this privatization. In addition to a variety of operational positions in the bank, Roberto Setubal had received a masters degree in engineering from Stanford University, and apprenticed under John Reed, the legendary former CEO of Citibank. Setubal’s breadth of experience helped him to quickly realize that the privatization process was a decisive opportunity for the bank’s future.

Between 1995 and 2002, Itaú purchased eight large banks. Major competitors, including Banco Bradesco and Unibanco, were less aggressive in acquiring assets during the privatization period. Itaú’s ability to see this opportunity was not the result of luck. Rather, the top management team had actively gathered and processed data to identify and evaluate potential opportunities:

A bias for action counts as a cardinal virtue in business. In turbulent markets, however, a bias for action can cause companies to chase every opportunity as if it were the chance of a lifetime or responding to every threat as if it could destroy the company. Frantic activity dissipates an organization’s war chest and focus and leaves it poorly positioned to seize golden opportunities when they do arise. (There are other risks to a bias for action, as I argued in an earlier post). Managers require discipline to say no to potential distractions to maintain reserves for golden opportunities and major crises when they arise.

When conducting research on Brazilian multinationals, I learned about the sport of spearfishing, which serves as a graphic metaphor to illustrate  the importance of disciplined opportunism. Spearfishermen dive underwater without oxygen tanks, armed only with a gun with a single spear. Once submerged, they surround themselves with kelp, which both attracts fish and hides the fisherman from his prey. Then he waits, motionless in the murky water, conserving oxygen and energy while waiting for the right fish to approach. A good fisherman can stay underwater for up to four minutes, and during this time needs the discipline to let the small fish swim by, while preserving his spear for the big prey, which can be as large as a person. At the right time, the fisherman shoots his spear with deadly accuracy. If he succeeds in spearing the fish, he must then reel it in and quickly kill it before surfacing with his catch.

Not a sport for the impatient or faint of heart, spearfishing provides a graphic metaphor to illustrate the process by which companies can effectively wait for, identify and seize opportunities in a turbulent market. The

Consolidation of the Brazilian banking sector in 2001 reached the final stage in the seven-year cycle, which began with the implementation of the Real plan. During this cycle, the competitive environment has been altered by the privatization of basically all the state-owned banks, the restructuring of the federally-owned banks, the absorption of many large private-sector Brazilian banks, and by a free market for international banks…Itaú is clearly one of the winners in this consolidation process. Olavo Setubal, chairman of Banco Itaú, 2001 letter to shareholders

Setubal had good reason to feel proud. Between 1995 – the first year after the Real plan stabilized Brazil’s inflation – and 2001, Banco Itaú (Itaú) posted an average return on equity of 21%, grew its asset base from $25.1 billion to $34.8 billion, and enjoyed the highest market capitalization of any private sector bank in Latin America.

Itaú’s performance was particularly impressive when compared to its rivals. Itaú posted significantly better returns on equity than other Brazilian banks. Itaú’s performance allowed it to avoid the fate of Mexican and Argentinean banks, which were for the most part displaced or acquired by multinational banks once their markets were opened to foreign competitors.

Banco Itaú, however, had not always been one of Brazil’s premier banks. The bank was born in 1945 as Banco Central de Crédito, and for its first twenty years remained a credible, but small regional player. Between 1964 and

In turbulent markets, companies can enhance their agility and minimize risk by orchestrating a network of resource providers. The story of Promon, a Brazilian engineering company, illustrates the advantages of orchestrating a network.

Promon initially grew on the back of government funded infrastructure projects that were the mainstay business of Brazil’s engineering firms during the 1970’s and early 1980’s.  This all changed when a fiscal crisis in 1986 prevented the Brazilian government from commissioning new projects and forced it to renege on existing contracts. Most Brazilian engineering firms collapsed in the face of this sudden-death threat and disappeared.

Promon survived and thrived while its competitors floundered, in large part, because the company successfully transformed itself into an innovative systems integrator for the telecommunications, power and industrial segments. As an illustration, one joint-venture formed by Promon has 82 employees who supervise a project with 1,907 workers representing 573 separate subcontractor companies. Promon rolled out this system throughout the 1990’s. System integration projects increased from less than 20% in the late 1980’s to over 90% by the end of the 1990’s.

The company developed sophisticated skills for forging and managing partnerships, which allowed it to increase net revenues (including both revenues for services and the value of goods and services procured under its responsibility) from $10 million in 1987 – the year after the Brazilian government’s fiscal crisis – to $852 million in 2008, while decreasing total staff from 4,000 to approximately 1,360 professionals over the

Leading in turbulent times

This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Don Sull is professor of management practice in strategic and international management, and faculty director of executive education at London Business School. This blog is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs, managers, and outside directors to lead more effectively in a turbulent world.

Over the past decade, Prof Sull has studied volatile industries including telecommunications, airlines, fast fashion, and information technology, as well as turbulent countries including Brazil and China, and found specific behaviours that consistently differentiate more, and less, successful firms. His conclusion is that actions, not an individual’s traits, increase the odds of success in turbulent markets, and these actions can be learned.

Don Sull’s blog: a guide

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