The MGIncontri are back, the series of meetings with companies and managers designed to provide new inputs and food for thought to the members of the Community of the Master in Business Management. The new cycle of MGIncontri opened at the end of February, with Massimo Monti, CEO of Alce Nero SpA, who for the occasion decided to leave the control to the Masters’ students, asking them to interview him. An openness and a desire to put himself to the test that well represents an innovative company with a great desire to grow, which has always been close to BBS and to this Master.
Who is Alce Nero and how it works
The first question, concerning the 2006 joint venture with Denis Group for distribution in Asia, for which it was set as a condition that production should remain 100% Italian, was an opportunity to outline the company’s structure and its particular business model. Alce Nero SpA is a company in the Food sector, dealing with product development, marketing, sales and distribution of organic food. Production is 80% carried out by the 10 shareholders, based on a model that might seem very similar to that of a consortium. The shareholders-producers, companies in the agri-industrial sector, have a very close relationship with the farmers, either because they are cooperatives able to supply both the raw material and the finished product, or because they are extremely structured organic farms. Therefore, agricultural products have always been grown and processed in Italy and the only exception to this is limited to products that are not produced in Italy, such as tea, coffee and cocoa, which are purchased as part of fair trade. In an Italian tradition in which a lot of products are exported but very few brands, Alce Nero has chosen to bring its own brand to the world, with its super premium positioning, the choice to produce only organic and to present itself with a brand that does not recall Italianness in any way. A brand that needs to be explained, in short, and that would require investments in communication abroad too in order to be positioned. Hence the decision to look for a partner for Asia that would satisfy this need and the decision to do so by sharing the brand, with a group that had a long-term vision and an interest in investing in a sustainable brand.
What is ‘the organic’ and a look at the new products
The questions, all focused and relevant, allowed CEO Monti to expand from topics related to communication to those more centered on organic products and production choices. We discovered that “organic“, in agricultural production, is a much simpler concept than we think, since it is a process certification for which no synthetic chemicals or modified organisms such as pesticides and GMOs are introduced. Monti pointed out that the fact that the organic product has not undergone chemical treatments in the production process, does not mean that it is a product of excellence. Excellence, in fact, does not depend only on the production process or on the choice not to use pesticides, but also on the quality of the product itself and of the care taken in processing, elements that the organic certification does not consider. Another myth that Alce Nero’s administrator debunked during the meeting is the one concerning frozen products. Just as organic does not necessarily mean excellent, frozen does not necessarily mean inferior quality. Starting from a quality product and if the processing and transformation process is well done – explained Monti – frozen food can be definitely better than a fresh product that is a few days old. Energy consumption is a different matter, which has a negative impact on sustainability, but has advantages on other fronts. Primarily, there is the issue of waste: thanks to frozen products, less food is thrown away. Moreover, it is possible to have a product in season whenever you want, without having to bring it from far away to consume it at different times of the year. In light of these considerations, the company launched a line of high quality frozen foods: Monti explained the reasons for this choice and the difficulties in maintaining the tastiness of the recipes with few and selected ingredients. The CEO of Alce Nero also explained what the prospects for future development might be. One above all, the distribution of meat and fish, which remains, however, an open question on several fronts, including that of sustainability. In the future, new opportunities could also open up in B2B with ready meals for hotel kitchens, recipes made with premium products, but very easy to make thanks to modified atmosphere packaging. He also focused on prospects of growth for e-commerce as well, entirely controlled by the company, not present by choice on marketplaces, which today is worth a small percentage, but which will be the focus of future investments.
Japanese lessons and the opportunity of B Corp
Among the most interesting questions was the relationship with Japan, which Monti defined as “privileged” not only with respect to the company, but also on a personal level, and the opportunity to become a B Corp. What makes the Italian company Alce Nero so similar to the Japanese culture is undoubtedly the attention to food and quality that, in the case of Japan, is also reflected in the attention to the quality of the packaging. For the Japanese, the product with its characteristics and the packaging that contains it are always on the same level. A defect in the packaging in the Land of the Rising Sun is as serious as a defect in the product itself. A good training ground through which, said Monti, Alce Nero has learned to reach a remarkably high level: “if you survive Japanese audits, you no longer fear anything,” he said with a smile. As for the need to seek external certifications to demonstrate attention to people, such as the choice to become a B Corp, Monti explained that it is being discussed in the company, but that, from his point of view, “it is not a priority”. “The point is to make things, rather than certify them,” he explained, and that’s why Alce Nero’s reputation and history have been speaking of B Corp values since before that definition existed. A pride for the enterprise that was passionately conveyed to those present, inspiring an attitude more attentive to substance than form. The focus is therefore all on improving the things that can be improved, rather than certifying those that are already established practices.
How does one become a CEO?
Among the last questions, the one that perhaps for a young person still struggling with their studies is among the most important curiosities: how does one become the CEO of a company? Monti explained that it is useful to have a certain degree of familiarity with numbers, but also that at the center of everything there are always relationships. “To learn how to manage relationships,” he said, “there are no ad hoc study courses, but if you’re not suited to it, you absolutely must work at it.” For the rest, the CEO stressed, it takes determination, willpower and even a little luck. “But the real issue for all managers,” he concluded, “is knowing how to manage people. The real challenge is to make the most of a group of people who are very different one from the other, like a coach does with a team”. Because human resources are and remain a fundamental value.