An EMBA to align strategy and execution

How IMD put Arni Oddur Thordarson on the path to growth

Having a good strategy is all very well but without execution it's just words on paper. That's why learning how to align the two on IMD's EMBA program proved so valuable to Arni Oddur Thordarson - and to his business.

Thordarson, 42, is co-founder and CEO of Eyrir Invest, an Iceland-based investment firm with assets worth EUR 426 million.

"In our early years we were involved in a number of restructuring projects, including the privatization of the banking sector" he said. "But after I came back from IMD in 2004 we changed our strategy and started to focus on industrial companies that are already technical leaders and have the potential to become global market leaders in their respected fields."

He described the firm's approach as one of partnership rather than simple provision of funds. "We provide stable ownership because we are in it for the long run. It's about sustainability: we pay attention to things like the quality of the earnings. We encourage our companies to invest in innovation and market penetration on a global scale to be able to continue to increase values for customers and shareholders."

Thordarson cites Marel, the food-processing equipment business in which Eyrir is the majority stakeholder, as an example. "We have a good and focused strategy in an excellent and fast-growing industry. Our growth is not opportunist nor coincidental. But having a good strategy is not enough. To be successful you have to align strategy and execution. Good execution needs outstanding management, right organization and good processes among other things."

The success of this approach can be seen in Marel's growth. In 2006 the business, where Thordarson serves as chairman of the board, laid out a two-phase growth strategy that would see it increase market share from 4 percent to a market-leading 15-20 percent, and broaden its customer base from the fish industry to include the meat and poultry industries as well. In the first phase, Marel would concentrate on acquisitions and on consolidating the fragmented industry. Marel, as a global market leader, would have the scale and scope to capture market share by penetrating new markets in South America and Asia in a profitable way and ahead of competition.

To put this in context, the market of selling equipment and solutions to the meat, fish and poultry industries is worth some EUR 4 billion. The market is growing at a rate of 5-6 percent annually, faster in emerging countries than in developed ones. By 2010 Marel had revenues worth EUR 582 million and profits before interest and tax of 11 percent. In the first half 2011 the revenues grew by 19%, all internal growth. This places it a little ahead of the game when it comes to reaching its goal of revenues worth EUR 1 billion by 2015.

It is also ahead of its competitors thanks the way it handled the economic crisis of the past three years. Innovation is too important to cut in pursuit of short-term savings, Thordarson said. "So during 2008-10 we kept the innovation level up very high even though we were cost cutting. The result is that our equipment prototype line is now excellent and we are in a much better position than our competitors."

Thordarson is also pleased with the way that he has developed his own personal leadership strengths. "My primary aim in doing the EMBA was to change from being a finance expert into a business leader. I had been a banking and investment professional for years, but I wanted to broaden my knowledge base as I moved into leadership. IMD's program was an important part of that."

He recommended an EMBA to other emerging leaders. "The most important thing when choosing a program is being clear what you want to achieve. For example, if you work a lot with technology companies you should choose a course and school that emphasizes that."

But the right school is about more than the academic program, he added. "IMD is a top international school, but one of the other reasons that I chose it is its environment. I love skiing, and after a hard week of studying I really enjoyed being able to spend the weekend in the mountains. You cannot forget the importance of play. Studying is very tough so you have to be able to have fun as well."

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