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BUDAPEST, Hungary – The final hour in this year’s 2005 CIES World Food Business Summit may have been among the more unusual offered up by the organization. In past years, the speakers have ranged from Bishop Desmond Tutu to singer/activist Bob Geldof – in short, real star power.

This year, however, the closing address came from someone who few people in the audience had ever heard of before – Dr. Porntip Rojanasunan, a forensic pathologist from Thailand who did enormously complicated work there after the tsunami disaster late last year. (To put it another way, she is Thailand’s real-life answer to William Petersen’s fictional character on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”.) Her efforts were complicated by the fact that not only were there a daunting number of corpses to identify, but an enormous number of people to coordinate during the identification process.

Now, it would be entirely reasonable to wonder what, precisely, this person could offer an auditorium of C-level food industry executives. It would have been even more reasonable to ask this question during her slide show, during which she showed cadavers – and some very specific body parts – in various stages of decomposition so that she could demonstrate the art and science of reconstruction for identification purposes.

But as Rojanasunan spoke, we found ourselves thinking about whether or not industry executives ought to, in fact, take a forensic approach to their businesses. Forensic science, she said, forces one to search for the real, underlying facts of a case – not accepting conjecture or the easy solution.

And in explaining how she dealt with the people she worked with, Rojanasunan had a simple – almost deceptively simple – approach: “Ask good questions to good people and you will get good answers.”

Now that was a message that an auditorium of C-level food industry executives should have found worth taking to heart.

The final day of CIES 2005 was, in fact, a day for unusual messages:

  • The conference heard from two “outside the box” executives about their approaches to retailing. Ikea’s Jan Kjellman, managing director of the company’s foodservice operations, explained that the company originally got into the food business because “it is difficult to do business with hungry customers.” By providing economical and nutritious meals, he said, Ikea could keep its customers in the store longer and sell them more merchandise.

    There are some 175 Ikea stores with restaurants in 23 countries, and in fact has expanded to include four components: 1) family-friendly restaurants that are so successful that, for example, they sell millions of breakfasts each year; 2) a Swedish Food Market that sells a limited assortment of specialty items that allow people to make at home what they have eaten in-store; 3) the Bistro, located near checkout, where the store sells such items as 50-cent Hormel hot dogs; and 4) a staff restaurant that is designed especially to make employees feel cared for by management.

    In addition, Dieter Ammer, CEO of Tchibo Holding, described his company’s unusual business model. Tchibo started off in 1949 as a mail order coffee business and has since expanded into coffee retailing, selling baked goods in other retailing entities, and selling services such as insurance, mobile phones and financial services.

    In each case, Ammer said, there hasn’t been so much a strategy as a sense of opportunities. “Strategy is what you see when you look over your shoulder,” he said. Rather, the company looks for places in which the so-called Tchibo approach will bring real value to customers and build its brand equity.

    Mobile phone services was just such a case. Ammer said that the company saw a marketplace that was full of complicated offerings that only served to confuse the shopper. So the company took a complex business model and simplified it, taking a partner and then offering cell phone service for one low price – no contingencies, no caveats, no long term contracts to worry about. Just a lower price than everyone else in the market. The result has been high consumer acceptance, he said, because people said “that’s what we accept from Tchibo.”

    In addition, the company’s coffee shops are designed to be different from the Starbucks model. With rare exceptions, there is no seating; while Ammer said he much admired Starbucks, he has no interest in being a “third place” for consumers to hang out. So customers come in, buy their coffee and leave. Except that there is another component to the shops – a limited assortment of merchandise (perhaps two dozen SKUs, both food and non-food) that are kept in store for a week, usually according to a weekly theme. The prices are extremely sharp, the quality is extremely high, and it becomes difficult to keep many of the items in stock. (Think of Costco or Trader Joe’s, but on a much smaller and intensive scale.)

    Ammer’s central lesson: “Break the rules,” because by doing so, a retailer distinguishes itself in the mind of the shopper and differentiates itself from the competition.

  • Self-described “social entrepreneur” Mel Young explained why he believed that it is not in business’s best interests to do nothing about a world in which over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. “This is not sustainable,” he said. “It is in all of our interests to change it.” And, he asked, “Does business want to do business in a world that is falling apart?” He suggested that such a world breed snot just discontent, but, in the end, violence – and creates an environment that is very bad for business. And he urged the executives to find ways to help solve problems of poverty and starvation and homelessness now, before greater damage is done to the social fabric.

    Young said that “big business has a role to play, but it is not about handouts, it is about sustainability. Business has the creativity, the enterprise to make things happen.” He said that in his role, trying to create entrepreneurial opportunities for the poor and homeless, he has found that business is much easier to deal with than governments, “since business understands what we’re about. We’re about outcomes.”

Not your standard, run-of-the-mill retailing conference, to be sure. But the notion that the mind works better when challenged and stretched seems to be at the core of the CIES mission.

To read MNB’s previous coverage of CIES 2005, go to:

KC's View:
One of the things that we try to do when attending CIES is take a little time to soak up the great locations where the occur. Not so much to see museums or tourist destinations, but to walk the streets and look at the architecture and marketplaces and people, just getting a sense of the place.

It is always fun. Over the past few years, we’ve been to cities like Stockholm and Prague, Rome and Dublin, Barcelona and now Budapest. Some people, especially in the US, probably don’t attend CIES because they believe it is some sort of foreign boondoggle…they see the names of these cities and figure that the cost can’t be worth the result. But we’ve always found that exactly the opposite is true…that it is in breathing a different air and seeing unfamiliar sights that we get new ideas and feelings about the business we run and the businesses we write about; but maybe (hopefully) that’s one of the things that makes MNB different from other sites and services. (We know it is one of the things that makes CIES unique.)

We spent much of Saturday strolling through Budapest, down cobblestone streets, through parks and historic squares and along the banks of the Danube, and we found it harder to get a sense of the place than usual. But then we happened along the Elizabeth Bridge, where traffic had been stopped and a rock n’ roll festival was unfolding.

We bought ourselves a beer at a stand and walked over, watching both the band and the audience. The band, the energetic leader of which looked liked he’d watched too many Billy Idol music videos, was playing a mixture of American and (apparently) Hungarian tunes. But even the lyrics we didn’t recognize and understand had a strong sense of familiarity about them. It actually was sort of funny when he did the songs in English and gave certain words unusual pronunciations – when he did Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up,” for example, one line came out ”my hands are shaky and my knees are veek”, but we got the point.

It was even more interesting to look at the audience. Young and old, fashionable and not, goth and preppy and punk and attractive and unattractive and mostly in between, they were moving to a common beat, even if some of the moves left something to be desired. And we remembered that 16 years ago there were no supermarkets in Hungary, that it was just 1989 when the Popular Socialist Republic of Hungary became the Hungarian Republic, and 1991 when the last Soviet troops left the country. Not that long ago.

Together they moved on the bridge, in the shadow of the old Royal Palace and the Liberation Monument, to the sounds of rock n’ roll. Unthinkable less than two decades ago. And now, commonplace and yet uncommon in the thoughts and feelings it provoked. The universal language.

We thought of a line we heard recently: “If people fought less and sang more, the world would be a better place.”

Later, there would be extraordinary fireworks. We would wander back down to a restaurant by the Danube, Dunacorso, where we would watch people and trams go by and enjoy wonderfully spicy Pancakes Hortobogy-style (crepes stuffed with ground beef served in a paprika sauce) and Veal Paprika with Dumplings, washed down with Tokaji ice wine to start and then by the thick, rich Egri Bikaver (Bull’s Blood) wine. We would then enjoy espresso and a caramel ice cream sundae at the legendary, historic Gerbeaud tea shop.

But for the moment, we were content to sip our beer and listen to the sounds of rock n’ roll and freedom. And even, when the spirit moved us, occasionally boogie-voogie.