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First Chapter

* * * * *

Journey

Supertrade

 

Supertrade, the global cash register and business electronics company, was founded in the 1950s in a garage by three creative young engineers fresh out of university. All three came from families in the retail trade and had spent many unhappy hours behind cash registers, managing inventory and doing accounts. They had ideas about how those hours could have been made happier, or at least less tedious, through the use of then modern technology. And they were determined to turn their ideas into reality and from there into a profitable business.
   They succeeded admirably. Jack, the wealthiest, put up enough family income to get the business started. His contribution also ensured he became the business’s first CEO. Fortunately, he performed this role well in the start-up. Wilbur had a real knack for sales and his family knew a lot of people in the trade, enabling the company to rack up sales quickly. Mike, was shy and quiet but could do incredible things with a set of tools, enabling him to make sexy prototypes of all their concepts. Indeed, Wilbur could often sell dozens of “new” products before they even existed thanks to Mike’s prototypes.
   The American post-war financial boom sent Americans to the shops, which led to a fabulous growth in the retail industry. That led to more shops, a great many of which purchased Supertrade cash registers and any other business devices the ever growing research and development team could devise. For instance, the firm eventually became a leading producer of barcode scanners.
   Throughout its first decade, Supertrade grew through innovation and the opportunities inherent in a growing economy. It expanded into other markets and became a global giant. As luck would have it, Jack’s eldest son, Jack Junior, was a wizard with numbers and acquired bachelor’s and master’s degrees in finance. So, when his father retired, Jack was a natural to take over the company.
   He also transformed it from an engineering-oriented firm with tight profit margins to an efficient multinational with bigger margins. And while an increasingly bureaucratic culture stifled innovation, the company expanded by purchasing strategically interesting innovative start-ups and marketing their products better than could their founders. As a result, Supertrade continued to demonstrate slow but steady growth.
   However, two things happened at the dawn of the new millennium. Firstly, Jack Junior overestimated the business acumen of his eldest son, who was given the reigns of the firm at just about the same time as the dot-com boom was turning to bust. Jack III, lacked the financial skills of his father and the engineering prowess of his grandfather. Indeed, his only real demonstration of creativity was in the company cars he bought himself, including a slew of Ferraris, and the ‘research trips’ to Hawaii, Phuket, Bali and the Caribbean. Jack III also had a nasty temper, which struck fear in the hearts of all who worked with him.
    Without clear leadership, the company became ever more bureaucratic as managers were reluctant to make decisions that might invoke the wrath of Jack III. At the same time, ever more powerful PC computers, the rise of the Internet and the galloping pace of new technology were changing the face of the retail industry. Supertrade was not keeping up. The company completely failed to see the radio frequency identification (RFID) revolution in retail and missed out on an incredible opportunity. And when it did launch its own products, they were perceived as overpriced and lacking the functionality of more innovative competing products.
   With this lack of innovation came reduced income, increasing operational costs and profits that shrank into losses. Competitors out-innovated Supertrade both in implementing new technology in their products as well as streamlining processes for efficiency. As a result, the company had to lay off staff and sell off promising, but unprofitable business units just to survive. It wasn’t pretty.
   About this time, Jack III learned the hard way that the only thing more dangerous than driving drunk or texting while driving is texting while driving drunk. He wrapped his favourite Ferrari around a telephone pole three times and his last text message was a sad, misspelled status update on Facebook, which remained online for two years after he died. Fortunately, besides Jack, a telephone pole was the only fatality in his pointless and unnecessary accident.

Fortunately, perhaps, Jack III had no children and left such a bad example of management, that it was firmly decided to exclude the offspring of the founders in a search for a new CEO. The board looked at external people and internal people and after much consideration, decided on Jane, a technical genius who had shown remarkable aptitude for people management. She had risen fast in the company and, when invited by the board to present her case for being CEO, knocked their collective socks off with her ideas. Since she would also prove cheaper than hiring from outside and had first-hand knowledge of the many challenges facing Supertrade, it was clear she was an excellent choice. And she was indeed.
   Nevertheless, solving the company’s myriad problems would not be easy and Jane was not even sure where to start. However she was sure that the solution would involve innovation. There was no other way that Supertrade could not only catch up with, but surpass, competitors. The company had made its name a half century before through innovation. It was time to take that route again. The challenge facing Jane was how she could transform the now bureaucratic giant back into the agile innovator it once was.
An R&D person by profession, Jane did what she did best. She researched. She read books and talked with self-proclaimed experts, of whom she believed there were way too many, the majority having less understanding of organisational innovation than she did!
   Fortunately, an intriguing solution presented itself to her before long. In responding to a congratulations note, regarding her promotion, from an ancient, eccentric and brilliant professor of social psychology, Jane explained her situation. She knew the quirky professor would enable her to see her problem in a different light. She was right.
    In fact, he wrote to her about the Temple of Ideas: a curious structure of buildings atop an obscure mountain in a South East Asian country not necessarily known for impressive creativity and innovation. The Temple of Ideas was something like the monasteries of long ago. It was a place were creative people could seek refuge to meditate and learn. It was a place where novices in organisational innovation could learn to become Masters of Innovation. It was a place of antiquity and beauty. A place to think, to study, to learn, to grow.
    But the Temple of Ideas was unlike a monastery in two key respects. Firstly, it was open to men and women. And secondly, while monasteries are known for strict rules, the Temple of Ideas was more relaxed in that sense. After all, many creative people are rather rebellious.
    Sadly, for Jane, the ancient professor did not know – or perhaps he refused to say – where this temple could be found. Indeed, few people knew of its location. For only those both creative and determined enough to find the temple were worthy of becoming Masters of Innovation. Or so she was told.
    Jane was inspired and she began her search for the Temple of Ideas. It was not an easy search and it was nearly a year before she identified what she believed to be its location. Then she booked a flight to Bangkok, arranged for a chartered aeroplane, a Range Rover and a guide to get her to the mountain.

* * *

As it happens, I was in the gatehouse at the foot of the mountain when Jane arrived, dishevelled, hot and tired. “Do you know the Temple of Ideas?” she asked of me.
    “Indeed, I do,” I happily informed her. “But tell me, please, why you are looking for the temple.”
    “Why should I do that?” she asked eyeing me more carefully.
    “Because I am the temple’s gatekeeper today,” I explained.
    Satisfied, she told me the story of Supertrade Industries and of her desire to become an innovation master so she could transform the company from being a dim example of mediocrity to being a shining example of corporate innovation.
   “Ah, yes. You definitely want the Temple of Ideas. It is there, at the top of the mountain,” I said pointing. “I will take you there.”
   “That’s not necessary,” she said. “I have climbing experience. I can get there myself.”
   “I’m sure you have and you could,” I said. “But it is necessary and a part of the learning process.”
   “Oh, are you an Innovation Master?” she asked.
    “Perhaps. I have much to learn,” I answered. Then I changed the subject. “It’s late in the afternoon. We can start early tomorrow morning. It will be a new day with many possibilities open to us. Do you have a room in town, or can we put you up here for the night?”
    “I have a room in town,” she replied as she glanced inside. The gatehouse is an attractive, creatively decorated old building, if I may say so myself. I suspect she would have liked to have stayed there.
        “Very good,” I said. “I will meet you here at dawn.”
“Great,” she replied. We shook hands formally and she walked away.

Appearing out of the early morning mist she arrived, decked out in appropriate climbing clothes and a designer rucksack on her back. I invited her into the gatehouse and spread out on the table a map. It displayed the myriad possibilities for getting to the top of a mountain littered with stairways, chairlifts, ladders, rock faces and much more. However, there was no clear path to the top and it was obvious we would have to use a variety of means to get to the temple of ideas.
    “Oh my, there is a lot here,” she remarked. “Is this like a maze with just one path to the Temple of Ideas?”
    “No, don’t worry. There are many paths to the top. And you can even change your path as you climb. But it is wise to start with a plan. Otherwise, you could easily find yourself not achieving your goal. Now, how would you like to do this?”
    Jane opted for a route that combined efficiency with some pleasant walking and fine views. We noted her route on the map, pocketed it and walked through an elegant, very old stone gate to a long flight of stairs. We began climbing as the mist started to clear. I could just make out the Temple of Ideas at the top of the mountain. It is always good when your goal is in sight.
    It was indeed going to be a good day.

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Publication Date: 1 December 2010
ISBN/EAN13: 9491156004 / 9789491156007
Page Count: 230
Binding Type: US Trade Paper
Trim Size: 6" x 9" / 15.24 x 22.86 cm
Language: English
Inside colour: Black and White


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium