Bent Axelsen

SVP Global Business Excellence for Sales and Marketing in Yara

Bent is passionate about creating music and he has just finished recording a commercial excellence song for Yara. Besides music, Bent loves spending time with his family and cross-country skiing, preferably in combination.

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Creating traction

If you want to move a company – especially a large one – in a new direction, you must create traction on all levels. However tempting it may be to run a fast top-down change program involving only eager executives, people on all levels need to be engaged and mobilized for change to truly materialize. Bent Axelsen, SVP Global Business Excellence for Sales and Marketing in Yara, is well aware of this. As a current change leader in an organization spanning 17,000 employees in 60 countries, he has closely followed every step of Yara’s current journey towards a new, farmer-centric focus. “It’s really important to have a proper diagnostic phase, to truly understand what the problem is before you start solving it. That is absolutely key,” Bent says. “It’s also very important not to design something only in the headquarters and make too many assumptions based on that. Spend sufficient time talking to people on all levels in the organization to really understand them and ensure that you come up with something that is valuable and relevant to them,” he continues.

“Spend sufficient time talking to people on all levels in the organization to really understand them.”

During the past year, Bent and his team have visited 12 different countries, representing different parts of Yara’s business, spoken to 300 people and conducted a survey with 1,100 respondents across the global organization – all with the purpose of understanding how best to create organizational buy-in and traction. “If you can combine the skill of really listening to the pains of people; their challenges and the improvement potentials they see, but also learn from their practices, then those can become best practices in your organization. If you couple that with a solid fact base that can open people’s eyes, then you get traction,” concludes Bent.

From problem to solution

Yara was founded in 1905 to solve an emerging famine in Europe. The company’s two founding entrepreneurs found a solution to extract nitrogen from the air and produce nitrogen fertilizer, helping farmers to increase yields and improve product quality. Today, Yara is world-leading within its field and reaches 20 million farmers worldwide. “What inspires me the most is to be able to do business with a purpose. When I started, fertilizer was an environmental problem. Now it’s a part of the global solution,” says Bent. “This is also why a lot of people are now applying for jobs in this company, because they see the very special profile of Yara,” he continues. “We realized in the mid-nineties that it’s not really about us and the product, but really about the crop that the farmers are growing. How can we maximize the yield, how can we increase quality with a crop solution?” says Bent. “In 2015, we updated our strategy, saying: It’s not really the crop that is buying and using the fertilizer, it’s the farmer. And so, we started to move the focus to include the crop and the farmer. Because the farmers have other needs than pure agronomic ones, and there is always an emotional aspect related to how you make decisions. That is why we have expanded our focus.”

28 ways forward

On a global scale, Yara is not the cost leader in fertilizer, and in order to maintain its premium position in the industry, the organization must therefore be very clear on its point of differentiation and have a bulletproof plan on how to win on content rather than price. The answer, as defined in Yara’s new strategy, lies in combining the organization’s supreme crop knowledge with a complete product portfolio and application competence, fueled with digital solutions. “By understanding the needs of each farmer, we can respond with something that is both valuable and relevant to them and ensure that they can make even more money and become more profitable using our products in a sustainable manner. If the farmer is making more money, then our channel customers and Yara will make more money in the long term. It’s a win-win-win situation,” explains Bent. With the overall strategy in place, Bent and his team set out to create traction and buy-in for a new module- based program aimed at delivering on the strategy, while simultaneously collecting vital insights and sentiment among people on all levels of the organization across countries, business units and functions. “You really need to engage the whole organization. It’s not enough only to engage with the business unit managers, corporate management and country managers. What is this program doing for a sales representative, a sales manager, a marketing person, an agronomist? Be clear on the benefits that it will yield to those who are actually going to deploy it. That is crucial,” says Bent.

Eventually, Yara’s strategy materialized into 28 different modules with the overall intention of maximizing the impact of the new strategy and helping people on the ground reach their objectives. For 2019, nine out of the total 28 modules have been activated – to create focus and really address the things and the markets with the greatest impact. “These modules are not for top management; they are really about giving the sales people, the marketing people and the agronomists a toolbox that can help them achieve their targets in an easier way. It can help them prioritize not only what they are going to do next year, but also next month, next week and the next day. That way, everything we do becomes more intentional,” says Bent. Looking back, he is pleased to see that – despite working in a highly decentralized organization – people throughout Yara have in fact turned out to be very positive and welcoming towards their new toolbox, which enables them to work smarter and learn more from the available data.

Maximize the yield

In the years to come, Bent expects Yara to continue its journey towards becoming an even more value-based company, responding to people’s needs and desires rather than just selling single products. He also predicts Yara to become more professional as a company by working smarter and more intentionally – for example by introducing digital solutions as a way of communicating with millions of farmers worldwide. However, as demonstrated in the roll-out of Yara’s new strategic focus, if you want to move an organization in any which direction, you have to start in the right place. “I can only advise other people who want to set the right direction to be very hands-on in the beginning, engage and talk to a lot of people and be out there to really feel the challenges and the needs in your organization. That’s how you maximize the yield,” concludes Bent.

Originally known as Norsk Hydro, Yara is one of Norway’s largest companies with 17,000 employees, operations in 60 countries and a turnover of around USD 13 billion. Yara’s largest business area is the sales and marketing of premium fertilizers.