Seven Ideas for Reinventing Europe

Business leaders define key challenges at GAR 2014


(Left to right) Adrian Woolridge, senior editor The Economist, Ana Maiques, co-founder Starlab, Aymar de Lencquesaing, president EMEA and SVP Lenovo Group, Luis Cantarell, executive vice president EMENA, Nestlé / Photo: Javier Arias

The 2014 Global Alumni Reunion brought together leaders from the public sector, academia and the world of business last week. Under the banner "Changing Tack: Shaping Europe as a Global Reference," executives from global and European businesses debated the role of companies in igniting growth and restoring Europe to global competitiveness.

"Europe is the most fantastic place on earth," said Jürgen Stackmann, CEO of SEAT, with "unparalleled diversity and a unique tradition based on quality and values." The challenge to businesses, he said, is to harness this value proposition and convert it into competitive advantage on a global scale.

Echoing this enthusiasm, panelists debated the big issues facing Europe today, identifying seven key concepts.

1. Innovating In Spite of Austerity

Amparo Moraleda, non-executive director of several companies, insisted that austerity is "not incompatible with innovation." The key, she said, is that companies have the flexibility to adapt or change strategy in times of crisis.

Describing innovation as a "mindset," Aymar de Lencquesaing, Lenovo SVP and president of Europe, the Middle East and Asia (EMEA), urged companies to keep a focus on the continuous optimization of every part of their business. "The cemeteries are full of organizations that don’t innovate," he said, adding that a deep connection with the end-customer should be an integral part of the innovation process.

Executive vice president of Nestlé Health Science and Nutrition, Luis Cantarell, agreed and called on Europe to facilitate "greater freedom of brain-power to move across borders, or risk productivity."

2. Embracing Failure

Ana Maiques, co-founder of StarLab, juxtaposed a European "fear of failure" with the U.S. entrepreneurial paradigm: "Failure is a part of success, and we need to learn to embrace that. The key to success as an entrepreneur is having vision, commitment – because the road is long –, and passion, which spurs innovation."

She also called for Europe to do more in terms of building key competencies, such as robotics, coding and "entrepreneurship" into school curricula.

3. Digital Flexibility

The panelists described technology and the Internet of Things as major drivers of innovation, and urged Europe to embrace flexibility in policy-making to keep apace with the digital revolution. "The framework is there," said Cantarell, "but we have too many strategies. We need to be hungrier for ideas."

4. Internationalization and Culture Adaptability

Defining "internationalization" as the key to growth, President of Deloitte Spain, Fernando Ruiz, pointed to a need for "courage, innovation, professionalization and readiness on the part of executives." A country’s competitive advantage, he said, stems from its values and culture, more than its natural resources.

Amparo Moraleda agreed, adding that readiness to change strategic direction was a safeguard to continuing prosperity during recession. She cited the example of Melià International, which transitioned from a cost-management culture to an inclusive model in which "the entire organization is involved in generating revenue." To combat the "extended crisis," she added, companies need to create added value for shareholders in the media to long term.

5. Zero Tolerance on Corruption

On the topic of corruption and the rise of populist movements in Europe, Julio Rodriquez, executive vice president of global operations at Schneider Electric, stressed that businesses and investors need "stable and predictable regulatory frameworks."

Moraleda agreed, adding that the recovery of trust hinges on a zero tolerance approach to corruption and a breadth of support for responsible leadership. We should be watchful however, warned Ruiz, that extremist views don’t use the issue of corruption as a springboard to "call the entire system into question."

6. Agility to Embrace Change

David Mills, CEO of Ricoh Europe, warned that the digital economy will grow seven times faster than others, but that up to 65% of leaders were not ready to leverage this momentum. Calling on Europe’s business leaders to be "more agile," he stressed that, "change is the only constant."

This was a view that was picked up by co-panelists, Jürgen Stackmann, chairman of the executive committee of Seat, and René Aubertin, CEO of Haier Europe. Aubertin agreed with Mills that going global means embracing matrixed organizational models, with a focus on agility.

7. Focus on the Local

Aubertin stressed the importance of building local leadership teams for local markets. "Globalization is about identifying, understanding and negotiating cultural pitfalls," he said.

Stackmann pointed to European diversity of culture as a competitive advantage, and a unique value proposition. Nonetheless, he brought the final session to a close by calling for Europe to come together as "a unified source of strength and power to withstand the pressure-cooker of global competition."

A record 3000 alumni from around the world attended this year’s event live. And an online community followed the sessions via Twitter, converting the #IESEGAR into trending topic three times during the course of the day. Next year’s alumni reunion will be celebrated in Munich, where IESE has recently opened a new campus.