I had the great honor of interviewing the founder of Grupo Bimbo, Don Lorenzo Servitje. At 87 his mind is alive with ideas. His ability to express himself I found almost poetic.
Two things stood out in the interview: one, a deep appreciation for strong values and, a fundamental understanding of the importance of past relationships on the future.
(The assumption is that those willing to learn from the past will have more complex thought process. It may be that is that brain connections are influenced by family connections. That is the greater the connections between people, the greater the behavioral flexibility. Flexible people are also less likely to be blinded by emotional reactions. Some have suggested that understanding your families past, without judgment, is likely to reduce one’s level of anxiety.)
Talk about complexity, his company was established in Mexico City in 1945 and over time, Grupo Bimbo, has become one of the three largest bakeries in the world in terms of production and sales volume. They supply over one million points of sales in eighteen different countries, requiring them to deliver products daily to an outlet or a factory. The distant equivalent to traveling around the globe about 46 times a day. The company is committed to high productivity and responsible community projects such as reforestation. They reported sales of $5.9 billion dollars in 2006. They have 76 plants and operate three trading agencies. (As an exercise think of what it would require of you to see and lead successfully in a system of this complexity.)
As I understand it, Don Lorenzo Servitje also helped found the society for entrepreneurs, USEM. USEM organizes web seminars, distant learning and various kinds of meetings bringing new ideas to business people. http://www.usem.org.mx/ It was through this organization and its director, Francisco Gonzalez, that I was invited to interview Don Lorenzo Servitje.
My first question was: How did your family encourage him to be a leader?
Don Lorenzo Servitje said that he was not sure if his family thought he would be a good leader but that his mother had a very high opinion of him. Her ideas were based on some facts, as he was usually second or third in his class in school. He noted, that “I was not afraid to talk with people and I was able to perform well. My mother was my main interest as my father died when I was 18.”
I asked Don Lorenzo Servitje, “Are you the oldest son in your family?” He noted that, “I had an older brother but he died when I was four years old and then I became the oldest son. I also had a sister who was three years younger and two younger brothers. One was ten years younger and the other eleven years younger. They were like sons to me, in a way. Years later, one of them said I was like his father. The death of my father in 1936 forced me to go ahead. My mother and I had worked in the pastry shop with my father. Now, it was up to us to support the family. We were in the pastry business for nine years. I saved money. Then together with a friend, and a cousin, we formed the industrial business of Bimbo.”
I was interested in how much he had learned by running a small business, the pastry shop with his father. I told him that my son-in-law, Michael Mauboussin, (More Than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places) had explained business dynamics to me back in 1991. Michael helped me understand my family business by talking about how to capitalize and run a small lemonade stand. For example, I had never considered that a business had to continue to earn over the cost of capital for things the business owned clear and free, like the land the stand was on. Nor had I put enough energy into the ways one had to save to keep the stand looking good and to expand dynamically.
I asked Don Lorenzo Servitje if he had a vision of the future when he made the decision to invest in Bimbo. He said that he and his colleagues had developed experience between 1940 and 1945 supplying companies throughout South America. That experience, coupled with people who trusted him and planned with him, was the launching pad for the industrial baking business, Bimbo. He explained: “We took our savings and borrowed an equal amount of money to make this happen. It has grown over the years. During this period my mother remained as an owner of the company. Then she remarried at the age of 63.”
Don Lorenzo Servitje continued: “I was 26 when I married. We had eight children. There were six girls in a row and then two sons. The youngest son is an original thinker. He has a special gift for business. He went to Stanford and was the first in his class. He is far better than I am.”
I told him that we all hope that our children will do better than we do. If our children do better perhaps we have done something right. In essence part of collecting family stories is to encourage other people to do well by understanding how real people have become successful leaders and overcome hardships. It is encouraging for others to know that successful individuals have overcome difficulties like the early loss of a father.
We talked a bit about how the early loss of a father is a common theme in American politics today. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama grew up without their fathers’ influence. It would seem that both men want to be better fathers, both in their families and for their country.
(In my book I highlight that some of us are leaders by default we had to rise up and lead when difficult things happen. Others are natural leaders who rise up without trauma or serious losses. One way is not necessarily superior to another. I developed The Mindful Compass to point out that leaders are those who have a vision and are willing to act with knowledge, even if they have to act alone. Leaders have the courage to overcome challenges. If they are mindful of their impact on others and can also enable others to become leaders then they are mature leaders.)
I noted that Don Lorenzo Servitje also seems to have become the father for his siblings, family and company and perhaps for the people of Mexico.
Don Lorenzo Servitje then said, “I am too old. I am 89. I lost my wife six years ago. Carmen was 80. She left me without advice.”
I said “Perhaps that is a gift. It could be. Suppose she told you to marry again?” I said. And he replied: “I am faithful. She was a very wise woman and a very sweet woman. I have suffered many times because of the business. But I was a workaholic. She held everything together. She was a very typical housewife. She loved to be at home with the children. She was the queen of the house. I had no problems with the children or the home. She was a very responsible woman and I suffer in her absence.”
I was not sure that his wife Carmen would like it if he were suffering. I was sure I did not want him to suffer any more than necessary so I said, “I would like it if her memory made you happy.” He thought for a moment and said “Her loss is a very sweet pain.”
I asked him what he would say to the young people in Mexico that they might carry in their hearts as important principles. He said: “One, keep your faith, be good Christians.
Two, work hard and be wary of distractions and a frivolous life. Three, learning is important. I love to read lots of books. My life has been study and work. I am a very plain man.”
I noted that perhaps a simple man can see the simple truth.
Don Lorenzo Servitje said, “I see what I think is right and I keep on going.”
“Were your parent’s family religious?” I asked.
“My mother’s family was more religious than my father’s family. I know my extended family. I have pictures and stories as I researched my family back to 1770. They were mostly working in the fields. They were peasants.”
“What made you do family research?” I asked.
“I was traveling to Spain often. My family was from Spain and as a hobby I looked for the origins of my family in the records of the Churches. I learned many curious things about the family.”
I noted that in my years as a family therapist I had found that healthier and stronger people just automatically were more interested in family history and knew more about their family roots. These people are often more accepting of different kinds of people as they see all the variations possible in four or five generations in a family.
Don Lorenzo Servitje said “I talked with my children about their ancestors. Also I took my children to Spain to see where the ancestors lived. I also showed them where I lived when I was a young boy.”
It is not easy to go visit the homes of your very distant relatives. I told him about my visit to Ireland and how I had felt uneasy in a town where several generations ago the family I am related to had a fight between the older and younger brother. When I was in the town of the younger brother’s family I became ill. When I was in the older brother’s home town I was fine. Was I sensitive to a fight that occurred over a hundred and fifty years ago? Perhaps by going back to these two places I was more able to accept my own sensitivities. It takes time to understand and respect the difficulties people have lived with over the generations.
Then Don Lorenzo Servitje showed me some photos from his family research.
“Here you can see a picture in 1976, and then seventeen years later the same group of children has grown up. This is the place I was born in 1924. This is the house of my father. This is the wedding invitation of my mother. My brother was very handsome. Here is a picture of my brother and me and here is one of myself and my sister in the house where we grew up. Here is a picture 50 years later.
My sister died before my wife. My other brother died after my father. Yes, I lost two brothers and my sister, the youngest one died two years ago. Such is life.
Here is a picture of my wife when we were young. One of my granddaughters is a painter. Here you see a picture of a grandchild and then you can see into the past and there is my wife.” I said, “Your granddaughter is an artist who paints dramatically the connections between people. Some might say its all in the genes.” I did not have time to elaborate on this thought but I did think she must understand the family emotional process at a deep level where the past is folded into the future. The past does not determine the future but it influences and reminds us of our connections to others.
My interview with Servitje concluded when he had to leave for a meeting.
I said, “Yes, people still need you. I appreciate so much the time for this interview and meeting you in your home. I think this interview will demonstrate the importance of family for a life well lived.”
Don Lorenzo Servitje’s Mindful Compass Points
(1) The ability to define a vision: Don Lorenzo Servitje allows us to see how his vision for a larger company arose out of his experiences with his family’s smaller pastry business. It was not that he started with this vision. It happened as part of his personal growth with others. When he had an opportunity to expand into the industrial arena he had also built a trustworthy team which he kept with him over the years.
The early death of his brother and then his father were pivotal events. They are high stress events for everyone. Most difficult for families is dealing with and adapting to the loss of the primary wage earner. It is a threat for most families. Many people have found their lives torn asunder following the loss of a father. The fact that his family could keep going and did so well testifies to the resiliency in the larger family system. In his case the loss may have forced him to make responsible decisions at an early age. His decisions to work in the family pastry shop were made as much to support his family as they were to build his career.
Obvious Don Lorenzo Servitje became the leader of his family, and business yet he gives a great deal of credit for success to his mother, his other business partners and to his son in the next generation. His wife was in the middle of it all and was a very wise woman who was his responsible partner in life. Although he misses her mightily he keeps contributing to society in many unknown ways. It seems in his nature to play down the work he does and to build up others.
Caring about others is a very deep value that also resonates with his religious values. Therefore we hear consistent values which are being converted into actions. There is little interest in finding love and approval but more in getting any job done well.
Don Lorenzo Servitje is a leader with instinct. He seems to know just what the best action to take is, and then he just does it. His common sense attitudes lead him to spend time and energy investigating the past generations of family members. This is an unusual action for a person to take in our society. It is the sign of a leader who can look way beyond the short term. Here is a leader who knows that if something is important then he must find the way to do and have fun in the process. He discovers his family roots and shares this knowledge with his children, taking them to Spain to see where past generations of the family lived and walking in their footsteps.
It is easy to see how he can inspire others in his work settings and also in his family. He seems to deeply enjoy his work. He also gives his Christian religion a great deal of credit for all he does and hopes that future generations will also keep true to these time tested values.
Mature leaders look beyond charisma to find sustaining principles and values promoting courage and steadfastness in their lives. Don Lorenzo Servitje leads by example.
(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: Overcoming obstacles is not something that Don Lorenzo Servitje focused on. We know that he overcame the early loss of his father without bitterness or longing. His attitude of just doing what needs to be done, despite the difficulty, gives us a glimpse of man who chooses to do his work without focusing on the difficulties. He seems to be a contented man who is at ease with himself and with all kinds of other people. Any obstacles are overcome without making them into a big deal. I could see this in his ability to change his attitude about the loss of his wife. He was able to focus on her positive qualities and to let go of the sadness saying, “Her loss is a very sweet pain.”
(3)The ability to connect and use systems knowledge: Few people have shown the ability to build a successful family and business network as complex as that of Don Lorenzo Servitje. *(I wondered how much his business ability was influenced by his ability to deeply understand his multigenerational family.)
Apparently from an early age Don Lorenzo Servitje was able to perform and be at ease with people. He recognized the importance of his family relationships on his ability to function well. He was clear that his mother’s ability to see him in a positive light was significant for him. There is no way of knowing exactly what enabled him to understand the importance of the family history.
We can call it intuition or common sense to understand that the past has an impact on the future. Many people indulge in short term thinking about the family believing that only this generation is important. People move away from those they consider difficult people or hard to reach family members. In the business world this tendency to cut off from the problem people in the family could convert to a tendency to walk away from difficult decisions, or to refuse to deal with difficult people, or with difficult jobs.
(4)The ability to be separate: Although Don Lorenzo Servitje did not talk about the usefulness of being alone to think, plan and take time to reflect on deeper values, obviously he has done so. Nothing tests people’s ability to stand alone more than loss. Even if one overcomes the sadness due to loss once, it does not mean that people will be able to do so in the future.
There are many reasons people find to carry on after the loss of a spouse. With eight children, many grandchildren and great grandchildren, the love and fun of his family life is displayed thought his home. Clearly the quality of the relationships surrounding him is a major factor in his well functioning life. Another factor is that he loves his work and other projects.
Don Lorenzo Servitje has lived to see many of his closes family members die and has found the needed reasons be a resource to the remaining family members. Some people might have become more sensitive to loss with age. But here is a man who has the ability, the resiliency to deal gracefully with loss.
Those who have been able to deal with the loss of loved ones have had to learn to stand alone. Although some may call this an assumption, I suggest that the ability to stand alone is increased when one has dealt well with the death of a loved one.
Don Lorenzo Servitje has had to deal with the death of family members from the time he was a young man, obviously he has done so in many ways which have transformed the losses into reasons for carrying on and honoring those who have gone before.