We have lost our winning mentality, says marketing professor Stefan Stremersch. In order to change that, he stepped out of his academic comfort zone and wrote the entrepreneurial book Kiezen voor Winst [Choosing profit], an immediate bestseller.
Had you expected it to be so successful?
“It’s written in a popular style and it contains lots of examples. But normally, a book like this only sells a thousand copies over the course of its life cycle. We’ve already reached that number and the book was only published on 23 September. I wrote most of it last summer, over a period of four weeks in Benalmádena, between Málaga and Marbella. That was a really nice creative process. From the heart, emotional. And not so much based on analysis.”
The book focuses on financial profit. Isn’t that a bit shortsighted?
“This isn’t a capitalist book. It’s fine to choose for happiness, sustainability and employee satisfaction. But to be able to fulfil those ambitions, you need to be financially profitable. That’s the attitude that I’m writing about. I don’t believe in the Olympic ideal: it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts. If you want to run a marathon, I feel that you need to set yourself a goal. Obviously not everyone has to run under three hours. But someone who drinks ten beers the night before, thinks ‘I’ll see how it goes’ and then collapses halfway – well, I don’t have much respect for someone like that.
People often ask me: why does an organisation need to make a profit? If we no longer understand that, we have a big problem. Look fifty years ahead. There’s a huge welfare shift towards Asia. If we end up being totally outmaxed in spending power, that will have real consequences for our technological potential and for the quality of our care. I’m appealing for a new wave of ambition. Without that ambition, we are the East Germans of the future.”
Aren’t entrepreneurs always trying to make a profit? What’s going wrong?
“Only half of Dutch companies make a profit. The percentage that makes a substantial profit – say 200 thousand euro a year – is much smaller: ten percent. Circumstances are difficult. You find that people don’t have sufficient skills to make important choices. And that’s necessary when your business is under pressure. Entrepreneurs suffer from tunnel vision, don’t look around them enough and lose confidence in their own ability. I try to provide tools to help them regain that confidence.”
You developed a so-called IDC decision model. What do businesses need to do?
“We looked at over three hundred businesses in Belgium and the Netherlands. What was very noticeable was that the businesses which were profitable last year fulfilled three conditions. Inspire: look beyond the walls of your own organisation to the successes of others and learn from them. Diverge: be open to diversity in your own team. And converge: take action. I’ve explained that model in the book.”
Was it your idea to use this cover?
“This was the first suggestion from the publisher. And I liked it.”
So you’re saying: success is a choice. Isn’t that too easy?
“We’ve established a correlation and we see that businesses which don’t work according to the IDC method make significantly less profit. But you’re right; it isn’t a scientifically tested success formula. One of the best known management books ever, In Search of Excellence by Peters and Waterman, was later analysed to see whether the ‘excellent companies’ they’d identified were still performing better than average companies a couple of years later. That wasn’t the case. My method isn’t a miracle pill that will transform a company verging on bankruptcy into a market leader. But it helps you think about what you’re doing as a company.”
What do colleagues feel about you having written this book?
“Erasmus University doesn’t officially honour this kind of work, unlike publications in a top journal. Some people don’t see the point of it or even look down on it. You often find that the discussions in the international academic world – insofar as it is relevant and that’s sometimes debatable – are far ahead of the practice. And yet it’s important to combine the two. By writing a book or doing some consultancy work. Fortunately much more attention is being devoted to that now, particularly in the Economics faculty. And it works both ways. The practice learns from me and I learn from practice. Writing this book gave me lots of new insights and ideas for a new academic project.”
Stefan Stremersch (1972) is professor of Marketing at Erasmus School of Economics and the IESE Business School (Spain). In his book Kiezen voor Winst, he wants to help organisations make strategic choices. An English version will be published in December 2016.