Tag: volatility

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

In order to succeed in an unpredictable market, companies must respond quickly and effectively to sudden-death threats and rapidly identify and exploit golden opportunities. During periods of relative calm, managers must excel at active waiting by monitoring the emerging situation, identifying and managing potential risks, building slack resources and maintaining internal and external flexibility. Successfully doing any of these is hard enough, but excelling at all of them is daunting. Few companies have done it all as successfully as the jet manufacturer Embraer.

Today, Embraer is the fourth largest aircraft manufacturer in the world, with over twelve thousand employees and $5.5 billion revenues in 2009. By the end of the 1990’s, the company had emerged as one of Brazil’s largest exporters. Over the 1990’s, Embraer won a 40% share of the global market for regional jets, while the market leader Bombardier lost nearly half of its market share over the same period, and number three Fairchild Dornier filed for bankruptcy.

To understand Embraer’s success in the 1990’s, it helps to start at the beginning and understand the company’s origins. The story begins in 1941, when the Brazilian government created an Aeronautics Ministry to

To understand how companies thrive in turbulent markets, Martin Escobari and I studied ten Brazilian companies that thrived despite Brazil’s turbulence during the 1990s.  Brahma (brewing and beverages which through a series of acquisitions created Anheuser Busch InBev), Embraer (aircraft production), Votorantim (diversified conglomerate specializing in basic industries), Banco Itaú (banking), Natura (cosmetics), América Latina Logística (logistics), Promon (engineering), Sabó (auto parts), Pão de Açúcar (food retailing), and Aracruz (pulp and paper).

We paired each of the ten with a comparable firm that was less successful in managing turbulence. These paired companies provide a valuable contrast to our more successful firms. The similarities among the more successful companies, as well as the differences between them and their less successful peers, form the foundation for the findings in this book.

There are a few things to note about the companies we studied. First, they represent a broad cross-section of the economy. Most studies of management in turbulent environments have focused on U.S. information technology companies, primarily in the period between 1980 and 2000. By sampling across a variety of industries we hope to glean general insights about managing in unpredictability that would not emerge from a

My last post provided a brief overview of Brazil’s economy and long history of economic turbulence. Even by Brazilian standards, the 1990’s were extremely turbulent. The best way to illustrate the impact of shocks on companies’ ability to build long-term competitiveness is to imagine yourself as the CEO of a Brazilian company in the 1990’s. These are the challenges you would have faced.

The decade began with President Collor freezing all financial assets for eighteen months. This asset freeze caused a liquidity crisis, and companies in certain industries such as retail and consumer goods witnessed sales plunge 30-50% within a few months. Collor simultaneously eliminated an extensive list of preferential incentives and protective tariffs for Brazilian companies, thereby exposing them to direct competition with some of the most competitive and efficient global competitors. In contrast to Mexico’s gradual integration into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) over ten years, these changes took place over the span of months in Brazil.

Four years later, Brazil’s government launched a new currency as part of its Real Plan, and inflation dropped from a monthly rate of 47% in June to 3% in August of 1994. You might think that is good news, but inflation

Before introducing the Brazilian champions that succeeded despite volatility, it is worthwhile pausing to discuss the Brazilian economy and economic history as context for the companies that succeeded in the 1990s out of that country.

Brazil has been described as a slumbering economic giant waiting to awake. It is the fifth largest and most populous country in the world, the ninth largest economy (in terms of purchasing power), and the largest market in South America, accounting for up to 60% of South America’s total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the 1990’s. Brazil is highly integrated in the global economy. The country is among the world’s top three exporters of tobacco, sugar, orange juice concentrate, soy, beef, chicken, iron, and tin. China is the only country that received more foreign direct investment among the developing countries between 1998 and 2001.

Much of Brazil’s trade was done with the United States, and Brazil was a larger trade partner to the U.S. than Italy, Spain, or India throughout the 1990’s. Despite its impressive accomplishments, many commentators argue that Brazil has failed to fully realize its potential. “Brazil is the country of the future,” as the old joke goes, “and always will be”. Annual growth in GDP averaged a modest 2.5% between 1980 and 2000 versus 10.2% for China, 7.8% for South Korea and 5.7% for India.

Brazil’s progress in recent decades has tended to come in jubilant bursts, including president Juscelino

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.