When Flemming Bjøernslev took over as president and CEO of Lanxess Corp. and head of the North American region, he gave himself 100 days to get to know the company and the people. This January, the time was up — and by then, Bjøernslev had visited all 14 major sites in the United States and Canada.
“In my first couple days, I went out and took the pulse of the company to assess where we stood in order for me to prepare myself and the employees to take the company to the next level,” Bjøernslev says. “As an international corporation, we have global targets and the board at headquarters expects us to contribute to that target.”
He felt strongly about getting to rub elbows with the 1,500 employees of Lanxess Corp., the North American division of Lanxess, an $11 billion leading manufacturer of more than 3,000 products in the areas of rubber, plastics, intermediates (such as alcohols, acids and higher olefins) and specialty chemicals.
Bjøernslev came to Pittsburgh after serving as CEO of Lanxess Central Eastern Europe in Slovakia and now has the task of taking the learnings from his prior CEO role and transferring them to Lanxess’ North American business to continue to push the company forward.
Bjøernslev is optimistic about the current opportunities in the U.S. and how that will contribute to Lanxess’ business domestically.
“We are seeing a lot of manufacturing returning to the U.S.,” Bjøernslev says. “That gives me great comfort that the U.S. industries are moving forward to a better, brighter future, especially in the areas of mobility, urbanization, agriculture and water.”
Lanxess caters to all those areas and the current outlook has Bjøernslev excited that the business in North America will pick up rapidly, helping get Lanxess on the path to the next level.
Here is how Bjøernslev has come into a new role and put himself and Lanxess in a better position to succeed.
Take first steps
While Bjøernslev isn’t new to the CEO role by any means, he was still entering a new geography and new division of Lanxess when he came to Pittsburgh in October 2012. In his initial three-plus months, he had to familiarize himself with the business.
“In those first 100 days, I had to get to know the company and the people here in North America, which is Pittsburgh and our other sites,” Bjøernslev says.
He started with a couple of town-hall meetings and round-table discussions held department by department to interact on a more individual level with employees.
“I consider that extremely valuable to get to know the individuals and for them to get to know me and listen to what my vision is as we move forward,” he says. “I also visited all the major sites we have in North America. Again, we did a mix of town-hall meetings and round table discussions.”
Bjøernslev had a two-fold approach to his new CEO role, both internally and externally.
“The internal approach best practice for me has always been to sit down with the people and have them present their roles and responsibilities within the company in order for me to assess where we stand from a corporate point of view,” he says.
“The external part is presenting Lanxess to the outside world — customers, business partners and other relevant organizations we interact with.”
It is crucial that a new CEO put himself or herself out in front of the company’s stakeholders and offer the chance to get to know and understand one another.
“The key is to just take the hurdle of getting out there, getting to know the people, introducing yourself, introducing the company, introducing the target and tell a little bit about yourself,” Bjøernslev says. “That has been the focal point, and it is the best practice based on my experiences in previous jobs.”
Bjøernslev has learned that listening to the people who help drive the business every day is vital to understanding what direction to go in next.
“You have to listen to the people you are going to work with in the new position,” he says. “You have to watch the environment very closely and most importantly, listen to your gut feeling and be daring as you move along and make decisions.”
The worst thing a new CEO can do is hesitate in making those crucial decisions.
“We are all human beings and when you make a decision, you normally base it on experiences,” he says. “If you’re somewhat uncertain, human beings have a tendency to avoid making a decision. If you want to move forward in a new position, you have to make a decision, because avoiding a decision is not going to get the job done.”
Get to the next level
Lanxess is driven by innovation and technology paired with people excellence, both globally and locally. What Bjøernslev has found is that the company’s production and product base is extremely quick with regards to innovation, technology and the right ideas to make new products that will propel the company.
“At the end of the day if you take the people excellence, the topic of safety and blend that with the innovation and technology driven culture we have here at Lanxess, those are the keystones in order to create success that will take Lanxess North America to the next level,” Bjøernslev says.
When looking at what opportunities existed in North America, Bjøernslev saw the automobile market as a crucial player in Lanxess’ future with the ability to offer new products in rubber and plastics.
“The U.S. market is still the biggest market in the world for miles per person driven,” he says. “What I have realized over here is that Americans love cars. With our product portfolio within plastics and the fact that we are the leading manufacturer of synthetic rubber in the world, more than 50 percent of our turnover is generated in the automotive and tire manufacturing industry.”
Lanxess currently has an initiative it calls Green Mobility. Green Mobility relates to two major areas — lightweight construction of automobiles and green tires — which Lanxess hopes will drive the growth of the business and improve the auto industry at the same time.
“Car manufacturers are continuously focusing and forced to focus on reducing CO2 emission, reducing fuel consumption and that’s why they have to reduce the weight of the cars,” Bjøernslev says. “By using our high-performance plastics, you can reduce the weight of a car up to 30 percent. That is something that the Motor City is very interested in.”
The second area of interest for Lanxess is what it calls the green tire. The company has been supporting an initiative within the European Union, Brazil and Korea surrounding tire labeling.
“There is a requirement to label your tire as a producer based on three factors: rolling resistance, noise reduction, and wet-grip capabilities,” Bjøernslev says. “We are convinced that Americans who love to have a choice will be embarking on this tire labeling issue because so far in the U.S. you have never had the chance to decide what kind of tire you would like under your Cadillac, Ford or Chevy.
“We’re convinced this will be a topic for the U.S. industry in the future and we will support that.”
Bjøernslev hasn’t wasted any time in making decisions about where to focus the company moving forward. That decisiveness has been a result of listening to what is happening around Lanxess globally.
“First and foremost, you have to listen to your customers,” he says. “Secondly, make sure that you assess the entire value chain. You want to make sure that you reach out and listen to the customers of your customers. You want to make sure that you’re integrated in the right manner in order to cost-effectively and profit-effectively cater your products to the market.
“You have to make sure that you read the signs of your time, meaning the trends in the marketplace. You have to live in a global world. Today, it would be very risky to only focus on the U.S. or North American market.
“You have to take into consideration what the drivers are internationally, in Asia and in Europe, because although we sell a lot of products here in the U.S., we export to other parts of the world and vice versa.”
Bjøernslev says as time goes on, he plans to continue to focus on having the right set up in the company to get Lanxess to that next level of growth.
“We are cautiously optimistic as to future development,” he says. “What we have to do now is make sure we have the right organizational set up in order to cater our products to the market.
“What I found here was an excellent foundation. What we want to do is capitalize on that and make sure that we participate in the new market dynamics within the North American chemical industry and beyond … with the advancement of our products.”
How to reach: Lanxess Corp., (800) 526-9377 or www.lanxess.us
Get to know your employees and understand your company.
Listen to key stakeholders and the business environment.
Take your learnings and make decisions about direction.
The Bjøernslev File
President and CEO
Education: Bachelor’s degree in international management, FOM University of Applied Sciences, Essen, Germany
What was your very first job, and what did you learn from that experience?
I was a shop assistant at a green grocer. It taught me that hard work and dedication pays off.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Never tell yourself that the target has been reached, because there is a big risk that you turn complacent.
You mentioned you are a car guy, what is your favorite car?
I am the proud owner of a 1969 Porsche coupe. I’m a Porsche guy but old Porsches.
Who is someone in business that you look up to?
I’m a great admirer of a man named Ferdinand Piëch. He is the head of the supervisory board of Volkswagen. Volkswagen is currently No. 3 in the world and the target is to be the No. 1 car producer. First with Porsche, then Audi, then Volkswagen, Piëch has continuously been building Volkswagen to be one of the leading car producers in the world and that’s been done with innovation and technology. I find it fascinating the consistency he has had in achieving the position Volkswagen is in today.
What has been your favorite country you have spent time in?
I have a bunch of favorite countries, but my takeaway lesson from traveling the world has been that the key is the language. I speak four languages fluently: Danish, German, English and Spanish. I speak half Slovak because my fiancé is from Slovakia. I have a couple of favorite cities: Vienna, Austria; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and I’m increasingly starting to like Pittsburgh, because it’s not a major city like New York, but it’s also not a village. It’s the right size and it has a lot of culture.