They told him that if he wanted to be a leader and earn people’s respect, he should work his way up through a key manufacturing plant as a process engineer. Then, if he was good enough, he could apply to be a production supervisor and move up the leadership ladder.
Taking their advice, Erik toiled away at DuPont’s Victoria, Texas, site, working his way up into the role of production supervisor. With older, more experienced foremen reporting to him, he says he learned the difficulties of being a leader.
“It was humbling,” he reflects. “I learned that if I wanted people to want to work with me, I had to listen to them and understand their experiences.”
The most important lesson Erik would learn came at two o’clock in the morning from a foreman named Willy Wagner. “Clear as day, he was yelling, ‘You’ve got to come in right now! We have something to show you! You need to come now, or we can’t show you!’”
Grabbing his shoes and jacket, Erik rushed to the manufacturing plant in the middle of the night to see Willy and several operators standing at a production unit waiting for him. Waving him over, they started telling him that they had “stumbled on something big”.
Since 2013, Syngenta has worked to provide resource efficiencies, ecosystem resilience and knowledge transfer to help address the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Aiming to integrate social, economic and environmental dimensions to the management of natural resources, Syngenta’s Good Growth Plan aligns with the targets set by the UN to achieve a more sustainable future.
Syngenta’s goals under The Good Growth Plan:
- Make crops more efficient;
- Rescue more farmland;
- Help biodiversity flourish;
- Empower smallholders;
- Help people stay safe;
- Look after every worker.
At the time, Erik says, DuPont was using a crystal clean-up unit to purify the chemical products the company produced. The problem was that the machine’s complex machinery would become clogged, which required cleaning and ate into productivity.
Willy and the other operators had discovered that if they pumped more water through the centrifuge spray, the chemicals would come out purer while requiring little maintenance.
Erik was stunned. “The operators were doing highly innovative work, and faced this big challenge with more intuition than our engineers,” he observes.
“They made the plant run at higher rates, with higher performance and better quality, and it was important to listen to what they had to say.”
Working with them and supporting their findings, that late-night telephone call led to the development of Adipure, a purified adipic acid used in the polymerisation of nylon.
“It was an object lesson in listening,” Erik notes. “When you want to achieve a big goal, bring together the people with the right experience and they will find a way. It was because I recognised this, and collaborated with people, that I have been able to advance my career throughout the years.”
“Bring together the people with the right experience and they will find a way.”
Growing over time
Known for his record of operational and strategic leadership while at DuPont, Erik spent more than two-and-a-half decades with the company, holding a variety of leadership roles and working with Pioneer Seeds, DuPont Crop Protection and the Solae Company.
He’s been the CEO of Syngenta AG since 2016 and Executive Director since 2018, bringing with him experience in global leadership, manufacturing and technology.
“Syngenta is one of few companies with the scale to invest in leading-edge seed, crop protection and digital technologies that can drive step change improvements of technologies for agriculture. We’re prioritising sustainability through productive land use, keeping carbon in the soil and reforestation. We want to help the world in an environmentally sound way, and I believe we can do it,” Erik says.
Formed in 2000 by the merger of Novartis Agribusiness and Zeneca Agrochemicals, Syngenta is the world’s second-largest producer of seeds and agrochemicals, totalling more than US$13 billion (€11.7 billion) in sales in 2018.
Applying “world-class science”, the business is present in more than 90 countries, helping farmers improve their profitability and the sustainability of their crops.
Erik’s journey into the seeds and agrochemical business started when he was in his youth, spending his summers working with DuPont while studying chemical engineering.
“I liked being part of a great company developing chemistry technology to solve important problems,” he says.
His interest in agriculture and farming bloomed in 1999, when he was made head of DuPont Corporate Planning Group. Brought in to study the competition, he supported the purchase of Pioneer Seeds, because he “thought it was where the future of agriculture was going”.
DuPont was criticised fiercely for paying too much, Erik says, and the company’s then-CEO told him to run the agriculture division to cool the backlash.
“I believed in the technology despite what some people said and, over time, it ended up playing an integral role in the company’s success,” he says.
Erik successfully steered the business, while DuPont Pioneer became a major producer of GMOs and marketed its varieties of corn, soy and sunflower in 70 countries.
Erik was given the agriculture leadership opportunity following success in his first regional leadership role where, at age 30, he moved to Japan and was made head of the plastics business for DuPont in Asia.
“I was able to run and build a business throughout Asia, including China,” he says. “Being so far away from the headquarters, I had global support while also having free rein to run operations as I wanted. I got to know Asia well and how to do business there.”
Moving to DuPont Agriculture after that, Erik says he began competing with Syngenta. That experience gave him direct insight into the company, while also teaching him a few things about partnerships in business.
“We were collaborating with them at the same time, and I got to know their processes well and developed respect for their culture and capabilities.”
When he was in talks to take over as CEO in 2016, he says he knew it was the right opportunity for him.
During his interview with The CEO Magazine, Erik acknowledged that the biggest challenge for Syngenta and the agriculture industry going forward will be addressing the impact of climate change, recognising that seasonal weather, water availability and crop productivity are changing for the worse.
“We all like the idea of natural or organic food production, but without technology, we cannot feed the world and deal with climate change because the organic yields are so much lower. Organic agriculture needs much more land, which means more emissions and deforestation,” he says.
“Seed and crop protection technology from companies like Syngenta is needed to improve yields, especially as climate conditions get more severe. However, there are elements of organic farming, such as more crop rotations, that make sense to adopt broadly, in combination with the right technology.”
This is why Erik has focused his attention on China for the past three years.
With 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of the world’s arable land, he says farmers and consumers there are concerned about the safety and quality of the food they are producing and would therefore benefit from better agronomical advice, seed and agrochemical solutions.
“If you look at China, the agricultural yield isn’t even close to the global standard. Everyone there is concerned about food produced with old pesticides, degraded soil, polluted water and carbon-intensive production,” he notes.
“With our technologies and assessments, we can help Chinese farmers to improve their agricultural economy. That’s something that will benefit China and the world.”
Globally, Syngenta is promoting seeds and agrochemicals that will increase yield and encourage more efficient use of land and resources, reducing or eliminating the need to till soil.
“We’re producing products that can kill weeds or pests without having to stir or unsettle the soil. If you’re tilling the soil too much, you’re bringing up carbon that gets released into the atmosphere that causes climate change and harms future yields,” Erik explains.
“Reducing soil tillage also improves the ability of the soil to hold water.”
With more than seven billion people alive today, Erik says the world needs to be prepared to feed a population expected to grow to more than nine billion by 2040.
“On top of that, the climate is changing, and agriculture must change because of it,” he adds. “The world demands sustainable solutions, and we will deliver them.”
“The climate is changing, and agriculture must change because of it.”
Erik says that these challenges aren’t a problem for Syngenta, because “the key to good business is ensuring that a concern for the environment and a concern for business are the same thing.”
“Increasingly, we’re looking at how our products and agronomical services to farmers can help them farm sustainably and improve their finances. They obviously need financial incentive, but they also have to think about the environment. If you can align the two, there’s no reason they should be in conflict.”
Erik believes considering the environmental impact will be important in the next decade, as consumers and therefore food companies become more conscious of the impact of what they eat.
“If we help farmers to think ecologically today, they will also improve their profitability over time. Environmental and financial sustainability go hand in hand.”
Asked about the political impact of speaking about climate change, Erik says he isn’t concerned about the blowback that may accompany his outspokenness on the topic.
“It’s important for everyone to know about its impact and talk about it. Businesspeople and government officials must do a better job because the science is clear – carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing every year. That’s not good. The science is so clear and it’s disappointing that the urgency isn’t higher.”
“You can observe other planets where carbon dioxide is captured and it keeps heat inside the atmosphere. Venus, for instance, has high CO2 levels, which create an atmosphere so hot that life cannot exist. And we don’t want that to happen to the Earth. We must admit that this is a big issue and deal with it. Companies must deal with it. Governments must deal with it. We must tackle this problem, and it’s my job as a CEO to speak out about it and ensure Syngenta is part of the solution to decrease greenhouse gas emissions,” Erik explains.
“If we help farmers to think ecologically today, they will also improve their profitability. Environmental and financial sustainability go hand in hand.”
“There’s the danger that it might slip away, and the large-scale melting of ice becomes so great that we’re stuck in a heating loop. It’s at that point where you can’t deny any longer that global warming will have serious effects on our lives and the lives of our children. This is about what legacy we want to leave behind. The Paris Agreement was a crucial step, but there’s a difference between saying you’re going to do something and actually doing something. As a business, it’s our job to get something done.”
A global variety
Erik says that Syngenta is a global company devoted to solving global problems. “We think globally: we’re based in Switzerland, are Chinese-owned, the US is our biggest, and Brazil our second-biggest, market,” he says.
“We have 28,000 people working for us, and they’re all committed to creating and bringing technology to help farmers safely feed the world
and care for the planet.”
Determined to build a “positive” reputation for the industry, Erik says Syngenta is reaching out to NGOs, governments, academics and businesses to create a vision and solutions for sustainable agriculture.
“It’s easy to be organic and stop using pesticides, but then yields are lower and deforestation increases. The fundamental question of our time is, ‘How can we deliver food in a way that is accepted, embraced, safe, highly regulated and science-based that makes agriculture part of the solution to climate change?’ Climate change is making the answer trickier, and we at Syngenta can help prevent and reduce its impact while feeding the world.”
As well as tackling the impending climate crisis through its products, Syngenta is reducing its emissions by implementing an environmental management system to track its energy efficiency. Using continuous and permanent targets, the company “will set more demanding goals” once existing ones are met. The company has already undertaken audits in more than 30 sites to ensure it is more than meeting emissions standards as set by the EU, covering more than 80% of its total energy use.
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