FlyTitle: Schumpeter

A locked-down world, as seen from the study of Unilever’s boss

从联合利华老板的书房看封锁的世界

经济学人双语版-从大后方发来的战报 A dispatch from the home front

ON MARCH 13TH Alan Jope, boss of Unilever, a consumer-goods conglomerate that makes everything from Dove soap to Knorr soup, ordered the firm’s 60,000 office workers in all countries bar China to work from home. The 56-year-old Scot took a train to Edinburgh where he joined his family. Sitting in his study, he recently spoke to Schumpeter via an online video-chat that he uses to run a business empire. In a world gone awry, it all felt rather normal. Mr Jope, in his habitual casual garb, looked relaxed. Despite the gravity of the covid-19 pandemic, remote working is “dead easy”, he says; without commuting, he has more time to liaise with underlings around the world.

上月31日,从多芬香皂到家乐汤料无所不包的消费品企业集团联合利华的老板乔安路(Alan Jope)下令,除在中国以外,公司在所有国家的六万名办公室职员都改为在家办公。这个56岁的苏格兰人乘火车到爱丁堡与家人团聚。近日,他坐在书房里与本专栏记者攀谈,用的是他用来管理商业帝国的网络视频。在乱成一团的世界里,这感觉已经再自然不过。乔安路和往常一样一身休闲打扮,看起来很放松。他说,虽然新冠肺炎大流行很严重,远程办公却“极容易”;因为无需通勤,他反而有了更多时间与世界各地的下属联络。

That is good news, and not just for Unilever. Since January the company has been on the front line of the covid-19 outbreak. As one of the world’s biggest consumer-goods firms, it sells food, hygiene products and other more or less essential staples to 2.5bn customers in 190 countries. Without continued availability of its wares the pandemic’s toll would almost certainly be even greater.

这是个好消息,而且不仅仅是对联合利华。自1月以来,该公司一直战斗在新冠肺炎疫情的前线。作为世界最大的消费品公司之一,联合利华向190个国家的25亿顾客销售食品、卫生用品,以及其他多少可算生活必需品的商品。没有这些产品的持续供应,这场大流行病造成的损伤几乎肯定会更加惨重。

Listening to Mr Jope it becomes clear how many rules of business the pandemic has shattered. The impact on production, consumption and generation of profit is even greater than on office work. The nature of the top job, which he has held since January 2019, has changed, too. In the past the hallmark of a good boss was a strategic mind. The covid era is all about the here and now.

从乔安路的讲述中可以明确一点:这场流行病已经粉碎了太多商业规则。对生产、消费和生成盈利的冲击甚至超过了对办公室工作的影响。他从2019年1月起担任公司CEO,如今这个职位的性质也发生了变化。以前,一个好老板的标志是战略思维。但在新冠病毒时代,处理好眼前的情况就是一切。

Like many a boss, Mr Jope thinks in categories. For his firm, the pandemic has come in three waves. It began with the lockdown in China. The stoppages then spread to northern Italy, the rest of Europe and America. Now they have reached poor places such as the Philippines, India and Africa. He has four guiding principles: look after people; look after supply; look after demand; look after cash.

和许多老板一样,乔安路的思维很有条理。对他的公司而言,这场大流行病的冲击分为三波。首先是中国的封城。随后,意大利北部、欧洲其他地区和美洲相继停摆。现在又蔓延到了菲律宾、印度和非洲等贫穷地区。他有四个指导原则:照顾员工、照顾供应、照顾需求、照顾现金。

First, people. Unilever is trying to safeguard the physical and financial well-being of its 155,000-strong workforce. Besides sending office staff home, factories are operating in “Fort Knox mode” to prevent the spread of infection, he says. Sales teams are ordered to contact customers virtually. Unilever will maintain pay levels for up to three months for all who work for it either directly or, like cleaning and catering staff, through contractors.

首先是员工。联合利华正努力保障其15.5万多名员工的身体和财务健康。他说,除了让办公室职员回家工作外,工厂正以“诺克斯堡模式”运作以防病毒传播。销售团队被要求以虚拟方式联系客户。联合利华将在长达三个月的时间里保持所有员工的薪酬水平不变,包括直接雇员和通过承包商提供服务(如清洁和餐饮)的员工。

Second, production. For Unilever, China and Italy have been laboratories. They offered valuable insights into dealing with lockdowns and “deep cleaning” of factories. When the authorities locked down Lombardy, they at first banned lorry transit. After companies warned of the risk this posed for the supply of food and basic necessities, the order was relaxed. Countries are realising how important it is to keep products moving across borders and within them, Mr Jope says. The firm is not too exposed to cross-border snags. Almost all its products are made from ingredients sourced in the country of production. It scarcely uses air freight, and seaports mostly remain open. Mr Jope says he has so far seen limited disruption at the base of the supply chain, among farmers or packaging firms (but concedes this may change if lockdowns last for months). The biggest bottleneck in many places, he says, is a shortage of lorry drivers, who are “critical”.

第二个重点是生产。对联合利华来说,中国和意大利充当了实验室。它们为应对封城和工厂的“深度清洁”提供了宝贵的洞见。当政府封锁伦巴第大区时,一开始是禁止卡车通行的。当一些企业警告这会威胁食品和基本必需品的供应后,禁令得以放宽。乔安路表示,各国正意识到保持产品跨境和在境内流动有多重要。联合利华受跨境障碍的影响不太大。该公司几乎所有产品都在生产国采购原料。它极少用到空运,而港口基本上都还保持开放。乔安路说,迄今为止他只在供应链的底层——农场或包装公司——发现有限的生产中断(但他承认,如果各地封锁持续几个月,情况可能就不一样了)。他说,许多地方最大的瓶颈是卡车司机不足,他们的角色“至关重要”。

As for consumers, his third priority, they have been forced to shop less in all. Moreover, the sheer scale of panic buying in some places in recent weeks has led Unilever to turn monthly sales forecasts into weekly ones. Consumption patterns are not uniform. America and Europe have witnessed shelves stripped, mostly in big supermarkets. In developing countries people flock to neighbourhood shops. Demand is shifting online just about everywhere, but internet shopping is “totally overwhelmed”.

至于他的第三个关照对象——消费者——则普遍被迫减少了购物。此外,最近几周在一些地方出现的恐慌性抢购潮来势汹汹,促使联合利华把每月销售预测改成了每周销售预测。消费模式也各不相同。美国和欧洲的货架被扫荡一空,主要发生在大型超市。而在发展中国家,人们则涌向社区里的商店。几乎所有地方的需求都在向线上转移,但网上购物“完全不堪重负”。

Cash is the fourth concern. Unilever is in decent shape. Its debt is moderate, at less than two times EBITDA. It notched up €52bn ($58bn) in sales last year. Most important at a time of a corporate cash crunch, it had €6.1bn in free cashflow. Like other consumer-goods giants Unilever bolstered it over the past decade by being robust with suppliers. It is not alone. The payables (roughly, what is owed to suppliers) of eight big consumer-goods multinationals, including Unilever, has risen from a median of 9% of sales in the 2000s to 16% last year, in part thanks to longer payment periods.

现金是第四个关切点。联合利华的状况不错。它的债务水平适中,不到EBITDA(息税折旧及摊销前利润)的两倍。去年它实现了520亿欧元(580亿美元)的销售额。最重要的是,在企业普遍现金紧张的情况下,它坐拥61亿欧元的自由现金流。和其他消费品巨头一样,联合利华在过去十年里以强势姿态对待供应商,以此加强了自己的现金流。这种做法并不少见。包括联合利华在内的八大消费品跨国公司的应付账款(基本上就是欠供应商的款项)占销售额比例的中位数从本世纪头十年的9%上升至去年的16%,部分原因是延长了付款期。

Now Mr Jope is giving some of it back. On March 24th the firm said it would extend €500m of cashflow relief to suppliers and customers, by speeding up payment to small and medium-sized vendors, and offering credit to small retailers that rely on Unilever. The chief executive says that if many other big companies pay their suppliers more quickly, it would considerably ease the financial strains felt by the small fry. Unilever’s relief up and down its supply chain presents a big shift in a business model of wringing efficiencies through ultra-lean production and distribution. But it has little choice. Although sales of some products may get a boost from panic buying, overall Unilever will not benefit as self-isolating consumers shop less, he thinks.

现在,乔安路正在做出一些回馈。3月24日,公司表示将加快向中小型供应商付款,并向依赖联合利华的小型零售商提供信贷,从而向供应商和客户提供总额五亿欧元的现金流救济。这位CEO表示,如果许多其他大公司也加快给供应商付款,会大大缓解小企业的财务困境。联合利华援助供应链上下游的举措表明,通过“超精益”生产和分销来压榨效率的商业模式发生了重大转变。但它别无选择。乔安路认为,尽管部分产品可能因恐慌性抢购而销量提升,但随着消费者自我隔离而减少购物,整体而言对联合利华不利。

Apart from changing Unilever’s business, covid-19 is also reshaping its boss’s role. For decades, CEOs have fancied themselves as grand strategists, like generals who believe strategy is to war what plot is to the play. Reputations were burnished with bold, cunning moves, such as mergers and acquisitions or spin-offs. The running of day-to-day operations, including supply chains and staff, were about as glamorous as stage management.

除了改变联合利华的业务,新冠肺炎也在重塑其老板的角色。几十年来,CEO们一直把自己想象成伟大的战略家,就像将军们相信战略之于战争好比情节之于戏剧。他们以大胆、巧妙的谋略美化自己的名声,例如兼并、收购或分拆。而日常的运营,包括供应链和员工,则如同剧务一般乏味无趣。

Strategic retreat

战略撤退

No longer. Mr Jope says that right now strategy is not the main priority. His “operational brains”—the HR, supply-chain and operations chiefs—are more important than ever. His country heads are crucial to running businesses on the ground, including negotiations with panicky governments. Internal communication is critical. One day strategic opportunities will resurface. But right now is not the time for distractions. At least most of them: before saying goodbye he lets slip, slightly bashfully, that his next appointment is a virtual party organised by some of his younger employees. ■

俱往矣。乔安路表示,目前战略已不是头等要务。他的“运营大脑”——包括人力资源、供应链和运营负责人——比以往任何时候都更重要。他的地区主管们是在前线经营业务的关键,包括要和焦虑不安的地方政府谈判。内部沟通至关重要。总有一天,战略机遇会再次浮现。但现在不是为它们分心的时候——至少大部分都不能。在道别前,他略带羞涩地透露,他下一个约见是由一些年轻员工组织的虚拟派对。