Key to Success and Weathering the COVID-19 Storm: Shared Human Values
As Thunderbird alumnus Raphael Rique ‘16 has built his career in international trade, he has learned that while understanding and respecting differences is important, it’s actually alignment on shared human values that drives business success.
“I’ve always been fascinated by dealing with different cultures and languages in business,” explained Rique, who was born in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, spent most of his childhood in Santiago, Chile, and finished high school and his undergraduate studies in Porto Alegre, Brazil.
“I started working full time during my undergrad. That’s what you do in Brazil. I was working in imports/exports as I was studying international trade. I could see the theory in class and practice it at work.” Responsible for international business negotiations, Rique traveled to the U.S., India, and Dubai.
“I got to see firsthand how cultural differences impact business,” he explained. “For example, in India, it’s uncommon to say ‘no’ outright, because business people always want to satisfy their customers. I didn’t know that was part of the culture, and it was very different than the more direct approach taken in the U.S.”
Armed with the lessons he learned as an undergrad in school and at work, Rique started his own import/export business. “We did back-to-back exports – for example from India to the U.S. We also exported agricultural products like rice and sugar from Brazil to Africa.”
But the corporate world called to him, so he took a position managing a procurement project in China.
“My boss was a T-bird. He suggested I go to Thunderbird to learn how to do business in different parts of the world,” Rique said. “My uncle also, although not a T-bird himself, had heard great things about the school and suggested I apply.” So after wrapping up the project in China, Rique started the 21-month MBA program in August, 2014.
“I’ve always been fascinated by dealing with different cultures and languages in business.” – Click to tweet
Lessons in Human Empathy and Critical Thinking
“At Thunderbird I learned that being successful in global business is not only about professional skills but also about human empathy,” he explained. “It’s about respecting differences – different kinds of thinking, different ways of dressing, different behaviors. My classmates were outside the standard ‘this-is-what-a-businessperson-looks-like’ pattern I was used to in Brazil. They all were different with very rich backgrounds. And I admired them greatly. I learned to see the deeper value in people beyond the surface.”
It was an exercise in demystifying preconceptions, he said. “I never expected I could learn so much from people from so many different backgrounds.”
At the same time, Rique picked up those ever-so-important hard and soft skills. “Thunderbird taught me critical thinking,” he explained. “That wasn’t a skill I learned in my undergraduate studies. At Thunderbird our assignments had us looking for interrelationships, trying to see things from different angles.” Critical thinking was a skill that would serve Rique well throughout his career – perhaps never so much as now, as he helps his company navigate the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis. (More on that later.)
“At Thunderbird I learned that being successful in global business is not only about professional skills but also about human empathy.” – Click to tweet
It’s Not Just Business
After graduating from Thunderbird in 2016, Rique was accepted into a rotational management program with Continental Grain Company – a global investor, owner and operator of companies across the food, agribusiness, and commodities spectrum.
“My first rotation was at a feed mill in Guayaquil, Ecuador,” he explained. “I had never been to Ecuador before. It was a professional and a personal challenge but I knew I could do it because of my Thunderbird experience.”
“It’s a very hierarchical society in Ecuador,” Rique said. “People call their work superiors ‘engineer’ even if they’re not actually engineers. It’s a term of respect. People called me ‘señor’ (sir).” At the same time, the many ideas Rique wanted to quickly implement were ignored. “I realized I had to gain people’s trust first.”
So Rique worked hard to build personal connections – the foundation of trust. “Every day we had coffee time. I took the time to make chit-chat with my colleagues. I asked them about their families, their personal interests, and their career trajectories. We got to know each other as human beings.” Then, the ideas that had been ignored four months earlier were received well, and implemented.
“The many ideas I wanted to quickly implement were ignored. I realized I had to gain people’s trust first.” – Click to tweet
The Secret to Success: Shared Human Values
After a year and a half in Ecuador and another year and a half in Lima, Peru, Rique was invited to return to Brazil to work for Continental Grain’s private equity fund, Arlon, which makes investments in middle market businesses across the food and agriculture supply chain. “I was assigned to work at Grano (one of Arlon’s investments, a leading manufacturer of packaged frozen vegetable products) to develop a new business and take care of the sourcing side,” Rique explained.
In his current role for about a year, Rique said it has been his best experience since Thunderbird. “I work with an excellent team of people who share human values. Alignment on values is the most important driver of performance. It’s more important even than salary.”
The results speak for themselves. Grano has become a high performer company in Arlon’s portfolio, Rique said. “The company has become a Brazilian frozen vegetables leader through diversified distribution networks, solid B2B partnerships, a consolidated and integrated commercial strategy, and detailed costs controls.”
That success, Rique said, reflects the commitment of the team. The ‘secret sauce’ he explained, is three-fold:
- It’s not an unhealthy competitive environment. “It’s not about each individual’s ego and trying to be better than everyone else,” he said.
- Everyone is aligned on and engaged in the company’s vision and purpose. Everyone collaborates to fulfill that vision. It’s a team effort.
- Maintaining that kind of culture has been a process of natural selection, Rique said. “The people who were all about individual performance naturally left because the environment wasn’t conducive for them anymore. Then eventually there was no one left to support that kind of bad behavior.”
Power is quite distributed under the new CEO’s leadership, but the commitment-to-the-team culture starts at the top. “The CEO gathered the company’s directors and we talked about our personal lives and how we had reached where we are. We shared our fears and our traumas with open hearts. We really got to know each other,” Rique explained.
On an ongoing basis, the CEO sends inspirational and motivational videos to the company thru WhatsApp, and hosts annual meetings where colleagues talk about their professional and personal goals.
“Grano has become a high performer company in Arlon’s portfolio. It’s a reflection of the commitment of the team.” – Click to tweet
A Solid Foundation to Weather the Storm
Shared alignment on values and a common purpose has not only led to Grano’s growth. It’s also enabling the company to weather the health and economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic.
Prior to the crisis, about 40 percent of Grano’s sales were to the food service industry. As people stayed home to avoid COVID-19, demand from Grano’s food service customers fell by 80 percent. To mitigate that loss, Rique and his team approached a new channel – the protein industry – to co-pack their tailor-made protein products with Grano’s vegetables. “We’re trying to get out of food service and work with companies that have a big presence in retail where demand is relatively flat,” Rique explained.
Devaluation of the Brazilian currency, more than 30 percent this year, has also impacted Grano. “We import vegetables not harvested in Brazil to sell to retailers here. As the Real devalues, those imports become relatively more expensive. Yet we can’t pass the cost increases on to retailers. So we’re trying to hedge that impact by opening up new export markets, where we get paid in hard currency.”
Rique said Grano looked to partners in countries hit earlier by COVID-19 to learn their best practices. “We interviewed the CEOs of companies in places like Europe with earlier outbreaks of the virus. Best practices we adopted included restrictions for truck drivers making deliveries into the factory. They’re not allowed to get out of their trucks so we bring them meals and drinks to have in their trucks while they wait to be unloaded.”
“Shared alignment on values and a common purpose enables Grano to weather the health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic.” – Click to tweet
Whether exploring new avenues for sales, mitigating currency devaluation, or protecting employee safety, these are the kinds of ideas that can only come from a team of people committed to each other and the mission, with the open-mindedness and critical thinking skills to come up with answers to problems that no one has ever faced before.
“Through my life I’ve learned that there’s a positive side to every life challenge,” Rique said. “Your path is made from the choices you make – how you confront challenge, how you choose to learn and grow through difficulty, how you’re motivated by frustration.”