Driving Business with Common Sense

The president of Ebro Foods speaks at EMBA session at IESE


Antonio Hernández Callejas

Austerity, tenacity, perseverance, love for work, leadership and future vision are among the values that have guided the life of Antonio Hernández Callejas, president of Ebro Foods. Born into a business family, at five years of age he moved from the Spanish region of Navarra to Seville, where he launched Herba, the largest rice factory in Spain.

At age 16, he started working in the family business. After earning a degree in economics and business at age 21, he jumped into the world of business. “I had to depend on the philosophy that already existed at Herba, but at the same time create value and forge new business paths. I focused on R&D and internationalization,” he said, speaking as part of the Executive MBA Global Leadership Series held on May 17 on IESE’s Madrid campus. Hernández Callejas told the EMBA participants that in order for a business to prosper, many times you have to “anticipate future events.”

He highlighted two professional achievements. In 1989, Ebro bought 60 percent of Herba, which helped accelerate the growth strategy of the company. Hernández Callejas was appointed CEO and his first assignment was to transform Ebro into the world’s leading producer of rice.

More than a decade later, in 2001, his second important opportunity arose. Ebro completed the buyout of all shares of Herba and Hernández Callejas was named vice president of the firm. In 2005, he was appointed president and CEO of Ebro Group and began managing, in addition to rice, the dairy and sugar businesses.

A sustainable business

He next planned a radical change in the business model. To be sustainable, the company had to be global, brand-conscious, profitable and secure. “You can´t be afraid of change,” he said. For that reason, he decided to shed the dairy and sugar businesses and focus exclusively on rice, incorporating pasta and sauce businesses into the group’s activities. “We were lucky with our strategic plan,” he said.

Gradually, Ebro Foods bought factories and local brands in countries such as Portugal, Belgium, the United Kingdom and the United States. Today, the company is the world leader in the rice sector and the second-largest global pasta maker. Ebro Foods has activities in more than 30 countries, with 93 percent of sales from outside Spain, a turnover of €2.1 billion, an EBITDA of €300 million and a debt of €240 million. “Over the last eight years, we have managed to become a more global company that is more cohesive and respected among multinationals. We have moved from being an industrial group to a brand-conscious group,” he said.

This year, Ebro Foods implemented a new strategic plan. “We want to strengthen and secure everything we already have because emerging markets represent a threat to our activities.” Another goal is to maintain growth without diverging from the essence of the company. “Continually reinventing the business and integrating initiatives throughout the rest of the organization is vital,” he said.

Prudence and common sense

For Hernández Callejas, common sense andprudence are essential for leading a business. “The company, without common sense, will follow paths that are not beneficial,” he said.  In this sense, he outlined some of the guidelines that define his management at Ebro Foods.

He puts significant emphasis on detail, even when taking on large operations. “I am also in favor of fostering creativity and listening to those around me; speed; agility in taking decisions; and being accessible,” he said.

In addition, he is in favor of optimizing the full potential of the firm, setting an example when taking action and supporting interaction among collaborators. “I want people to feel comfortable in the company, to have a good time,” he said.  In fact, respect for teamwork is a basic part of his philosophy. “I have always rejected a financial view of the firm. I support maintaining a business culture without constraints,” he said.

Antonio Hernández Callejas is a discreet business leader who was awarded the Knight of the National Order of Merit by the president of France in 2007.