Word from the CEO, Mia Brunell Livfors
Zoom in and zoom out
In 2021, we achieved Axel Johnson’s best profits ever. We also continued moving forward at the high pace required to reach our transformation goal, despite the fact that the year began and ended in the shadow of the pandemic.
It is a fantastic message of strength. Hopefully now we can become completely accustomed to pandemic restrictions, but our ability to successfully manage rapid change will be crucial in the future, in a historically uncertain political and economic environment.
In 2021, our companies improved their profits across the board. Not least, the industry group Axel Johnson International had another very strong year and touched SEK 1 billion in profit after another year of improved profitability, with both organic growth and acquisitions as well. In addition to the positive earnings trend, a large number of investments were also made. Among them were two particularly transformative deals. Firstly, Dustin’s acquisition of Centralpoint, which makes Dustin a leading player in the Benelux countries.
The second was Axfood’s acquisition of Bergendahls Food – a deal we have been considering for a long time. Axfood also had a really strong year, with higher growth than the market. Hemköp took important steps forward and Willys was the first Swedish food player to reach break even in e-commerce.
KICKS has shown great strength as it managed rapid channel changes between stores and e-commerce, which led to an all-time high for sales and enhanced profits. Restaurant wholesaler Martin & Servera showed that you could quickly switch gears during a strong summer and fall as people returned to restaurants in large numbers. Åhléns took significant steps forward after a difficult 2020. Both the Outlet format and e-commerce grew and the year ended strongly. On the transformation side, our investment company Novax as well as our solar company AxSol made exciting acquisitions that increase our presence in areas such as food, health and solar energy.
TRANSFORMATION BASED ON MEGATRENDS
To succeed as well as our group has in 2021, a constant focus on improvement in every detail is required. An obsession with efficiency at every step and a desire to improve every part of the customer experience. It determines the results here and now. But to be successful over time, in addition to focus on detail, something else is required: the ability to zoom out. To see and relate to the long movements and trends that characterize our time. Of these, digitalization and climate change are the most crucial trends, with all the issues that fall under these umbrella concepts.
On the digitalization side, automation and AI are central development themes in our operations. During the year, our companies invested more than ever in fixed assets, most of which were in new highly automated logistics centers. Axfood’s investment in Bålsta is by far the largest, but Martin & Servera, Åhléns and KICKS are also investing in highly automated warehouses, which will create scale and flexibility between e-commerce and deliveries to stores.
With the help of AI, we can optimize our decision- making in many areas, such as purchasing and pricing, and sharpen our ability to understand customers. We can also become more resource efficient and reduce our climate impact, not least by optimizing logistics.
SUSTAINABILITY WORK FOUNDED ON FAMILY OWNERSHIP AND BUSINESS ACUMEN
Axel Johnson’s focus on sustainability has been part of our DNA for decades. Our owners want to build companies that combine business and societal benefits. It is not just an ethical stance, but also a way of securing financial sustainability. A business that does not create a positive net for society risks both customers’ trust and society’s acceptance. Therefore, we are also convinced that over time it is a good idea to take greater responsibility for climate impact than what is required of us here and now.
For several years, we have successfully reduced our CO2 footprint in our own operations, through less environmentally damaging transport, investments in energy efficiency and in renewable energy production. But for commercial activities, direct emissions are a small part of the total impact in the value chain. Changing how everything from IT products to food is produced in global supply chains is a large and difficult task, and a task that can only be handled in collaboration with other players. We must acknowledge our dependence on others, but never use that dependence to back away from our share of the responsibility.
Sustainability efforts require commitment and conviction, but even more important are honesty and business acumen. We need “warm hearts and cool heads”, as Dustin’s CEO Thomas Ekman has put it. Because when we widen our gaze, we see a number of trends that sometimes conflict with each other. For example, an increased price focus among consumers, which can sometimes conflict with sustainability. This is something everyone who works on market terms has to relate to, but based on our long-term value-based ownership, we have a clear direction that helps us make wise and responsible choices, even when the short-term financial calculation is difficult to assess.
“We must acknowledge our dependence on others, but never use that dependence to back away from our share of responsibility.”
Axel Johnson enters 2022 with a strong forward impetus. And we are on our way to becoming a more diversified company. Food accounts for more than 70 percent of our sales. But we also have strong industrial operations and emerging business areas in fields such as solar energy and health.
We have a fantastic corporate culture with leaders and employees who truly live up to our ambition to be both long-term and impatient. A culture that affirms new thinking. But also the desire, through the thousands of decisions we collectively make in our everyday lives, to contribute positively to the societal challenges we see when we zoom out.
Just this desire to play a constructive role in society will be central in the times to come. Because in March 2022, we are facing an unforeseen humanitarian catastrophe caused by the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine. Of course, we follow the development closely as it affects our operations. But we must also act ethically and responsibly to contribute as a company to support our society and to alleviate human suffering.
With 149 years of history for the family business Axel Johnson, I am still hopeful that the best is yet to come.