Peter Agnefjäll: 'As a Leader, I Do Not Limit Myself to My Formal Role'

Peter Agnefjäll: 'As a Leader, I Do Not Limit Myself to My Formal Role'
Peter Agnefjäll exchanged the CEO position of the world’s most famous Swedish housing giant, IKEA, for the role of Chairman of the Supervisory Board of supermarket group Ahold Delhaize. Agnefjäll discusses his onboarding and the practicalities of his position: ‘It goes beyond formal responsibility alone.’

He seemed destined for a lifelong career at IKEA. Peter Agnefjäll started in 1995 as a management trainee at what is now the world’s largest furniture retailer. Fast-forward eighteen years, Peter was appointed as the company’s CEO. However, Agnefjäll decided to spread his wings. After a sabbatical he became a member of the boards of the Norwegian branded consumer goods conglomerate Orkla and the Hungarian airline Wizz Air. Subsequently, the Malmö born Agnefjäll landed in a small village in Zaandam, the Netherlands, where Ahold Delhaize’s Headquarters is located. He started as a member of the supervisory board of Ahold Delhaize. Early 2021, he was promoted to Chairman of the Supervisory Board, where he succeeded the experienced veteran Jan Hommen. In this article, a conversation between Agnefjäll and Harvey Christophers, Managing Partner Risk Advisory & Lead Partner Sustainability at Deloitte, on his onboarding as a Chair.

Nice to meet you, mister Agnefjäll. How is your Dutch coming along?
‘Honestly, it could be better. I took some Dutch lessons early on, but it is a difficult language to master. Whenever someone from abroad starts to speak in Dutch, people in the Netherlands tend to reply in English. It just takes a lot of time to get your Dutch proficiency level more advanced than their English proficiency level. I do feel a little sad about it, because it would be lovely to fully master the language.’

Let’s talk about your new role as Chair of the Supervisory Board of Ahold Delhaize. You have already been on the board for two-and-a-half years and recently became its Chair, as successor to Jan Hommen. How have you experienced this transition period and how was the approach to your onboarding process? To what extent did COVID complicate things?
‘In the summer of 2020 I was asked if I was available to chair the Supervisory Board. Of course, I felt deeply honored. It is a great responsibility. I thought: If the rest of the board is supportive, it is an unique opportunity. I see it as an advantage that I was already a member of the board, so I already knew the company quite well. Also, I was familiar with the brands of Ahold Delhaize from a personal and business experience.
We had the opportunity to organize a very gradual and smooth transition, partly due to the fact that the former Chair, Jan Hommen, would stay on for six more months. Jan was highly responsive and gave me all the support I needed.
However, COVID has unquestionably affected the onboarding process. It became more and more difficult to meet with people. I believe that you can solve a lot during virtual meetings, but there are things that benefit from a personal conversation at the coffee machine.  However, we have learned how to cope with the new circumstances. Never underestimate the power of human adaptability. Remote working has all kinds of benefits, if only for sustainability purposes.

Do you think this ‘new normal’ will continue in the future?
‘It would be unwise if we do not draw lessons from the past year(s). I am convinced a some kind of hybrid workplace model will emerge. Do we have to travel across the Atlantic Ocean for every little thing? In my time as CEO of the IKEA Group, I had back-to-back meetings: Two days in India, followed by two days in China and it went on and on. But is that really necessary? We have to think about what can be done virtually, as well as what can be done physically. When is it necessary to shake hands with people? When is it necessary to travel to brands abroad? We do not need to fly across the ocean to discuss our quarterly results with an auditor. However, perhaps we do need consider travelling across the ocean to meet new business partners or talents.’

What has changed for you since your transition from board member to Chairman?
‘Now, to a greater extent, I am the key person between the Supervisory Board and the Executive Board and the executive. As Chair you are responsible for the board itself and its functioning and ensuring that it effectively supervises and advises the company and its management. So that is quite a big responsibility. Be that as it may, whether I am a board member or a Chairman, I have never felt limited to my role. Your formal responsibilities do not necessarily define your role and actions. You can and have to take initiative and be proactive. You are given the opportunity to make a contribution.
My philosophy is to be a leader with a warm heart, clean hands and a cool head. I care about customers, people, employees and our planet, that's the warm heart. Besides that, clean hands are very important. Never cross the line and always act the interest of stakeholders. Having a moral compass is paramount. Not only for myself, but also for the Board and the entire company. We want to do the right things the right way. And we must keep a cool head and make sure all facts are on the table when we make decisions.’

Let’s have a closer look at Ahold Delhaize. I believe it is fair to say it is almost considered to be a federally structured organization with many great local brands. A brand such as Stop & Shop is different from Albert Heijn. How do you find the balance between the needs of the local brands and the expectations of the corporate whole?
Ahold Delhaize is a family of great local brands, which helps to best serve the local needs of the customers. The brands are as close to the customer as is possible and required. While at the same time, those local brands can benefit from Ahold Delhaize's global scale. Naturally in such a way that we do have all kinds of benefits of scale. It is actually a constant balancing act. Things like pricing and marketing are led by the local brands. And purchasing, sourcing, technology, and distribution are examples of things that offer advantages to tackle as a global group. The company has successfully been doing this for years and I believe this is a powerful model.

Unlike in other parts of the world, corporations in the Netherlands are governed by the two-tier board structure. What is your experience with this structure? Do you see any limitations to the model or any benefits?
‘I think the answer should be "both". In any case, it is different. Having said that, this model was not new to me. IKEA had a Dutch holding structure and we operated in accordance with the Dutch law. I was used to working for a company owned by a foundation, whereas Ahold Delhaize is a publicly listed company. That was the main difference I experienced. This creates a different dynamic. Of course, we adhere to the formal requirements of the two-tier model, and in addition we very much focus on collaboration and creating a strong Supervisory Board team. Occasionally, I like to speak of a ‘one-and-a-half tier’ model; by taking a more Dutch approach and tackling it pragmatically.

Is that typical Dutch behavior? To be pragmatic?
‘Well, maybe not uniquely Dutch. Perhaps pragmatism is more likely the case in relatively small and open countries such as The Netherlands and Sweden. For a small country to manage in a big world of business, you benefit from having a pragmatic approach.  

The board of Ahold Delhaize is becoming more international. Simultaneously, the company owns a significant amount of Dutch brands and its heritage is in the Netherlands and Belgium. Do you think the Dutch culture is still prevalent within Ahold Delhaize? And if so, is that a positive thing?
‘The company definitely has a specific culture, or rather a culture based on the strong heritage. We will always honor our history. So yes, we have our Dutch-Belgian background. But at the same time, we are a very international company, with six major consumer facing brands in the US, to name an example. It is quite difficult to have a Dutch-Belgium culture and be successful in North Carolina. The Food Lion brand that operates in that area fits in well, with their specific company culture. At IKEA we always said: We are Swedish. However, when we are in Italy, we speak Italian with a Swedish accent. Thanks to all the local brands, spread all over the world, we are bringing in an international and diverse background. This is an advantage because different perspectives help us to see things in a different light.’

Recently, Ahold’s Supervisory Board has become considerably more diverse. In your role as Chair, what do you do to make sure you have the right combination of skills and backgrounds?
‘Our present-day Board consists of competent and diverse members: both people that have been here for a long time as well as newcomers; people with varied and diverse backgrounds, seniors and younger people; men and women; retailers and digital experts. Consequently, I would say we have a good mix of people. That is of course no coincidence. This is policy. As mentioned, we want to bring different perspectives to the table because this serves our purpose and leads to better results. I am committed to continue this policy.  

Sustainability is a topic that comes up in every annual report or interview. How do you see your role in transforming the company into an even more sustainable business?
‘Apart from its role in digital transformation, Ahold Delhaize has a sustainability strategy that is at the heart of the company, which touches upon many topics, such as healthier eating, product transparency, eliminating waste, and climate change. I share a strong conviction with the company that what’s healthy and sustainable should be accessible and available to all. My role is to guide, challenge and oversee decisions that are made. All of which are inspired by doing the right thing for people and planet. From sourcing locally and ensuring farmers and other community and neighborhood producers get a fair deal, to working with distributors to improve the overall food supply chain.

We talked a lot about transition, transformation and change. What will never change in this company?
‘That is a good question. I believe almost everything is subject to change, except for the company’s passion for customers, serving them in every way. Besides that, surely we have our own values and culture and these will ultimately serve as the glue that binds us together. Flexibility helps people to succeed.’

This interview was published in Management Scope 08 2021.

This article was last changed on 29-09-2021