Research shows that, on average, we begin forming opinions about people within seven seconds of meeting them. Are they trustworthy? Do they have authority? Are they competent? Do I want to be their friend? Seven seconds and—snap!—we immediately size them up and determine what box to put them in.
When it comes to people of certain nationalities, however, we form opinions about them without even meeting them. We put entire groups of people into a box, assuming how they are going to act, regardless of never having met them. You see it in the media on a global scale all the time. Americans are just as guilty of generalizing and stereotyping people of other countries as they are of us.
That was the case two years ago when I shared with our Board of Directors that we were considering acquiring a company in France.
“Be careful, Bob!” they warned. “The French climate for business is a challenge and we don’t know many successful acquisitions in France.”
I respected the input of our thoughtful directors but also sensed that these were good people that we could work with if we established the right foundation in the deal structure.
Last week, we officially announced the acquisition of our second company in France. Hema, in Quimper, designs and manufactures technology for filling canned meats and edible oils among other things. They join our PneumaticScaleAngelus division to establish a global provider of filling technology. Just a little over a year ago, we acquired our first French company, Arcil (now known as Synerlink), a Paris-based manufacturer of fresh dairy packaging.
“I have waited 39 years for you,” said Hema team member Phillippe Martin after the required meeting of the Works Councils, “It is hard to put my feelings into words but I think is ‘At last!’”
Works Councils are standard throughout Europe. They are comprised of a team of elected company representatives who serve as the voice of the employees to senior leaders. In France, the Comité d’Entreprise (Works Council) is mandatory in any company with 50 or more employees. During an acquisition process, the Works Council is available to consult with a Works Council of the company hoping to acquire them and can offer an endorsement or their disapproval of the potential buyer. Company leaders then consider their response before finalizing the transfer.
We invited Hema’s Works Council to visit with the Works Council of Arcil in Paris so that they could talk frankly amongst themselves and hear what Arcil had experienced since joining the Barry-Wehmiller family more than a year ago. Mike Redwood, Barry-Wehmiller’s Director of International Culture and People Development, said this gesture was incredibly well received for its openness and transparency.
“This opportunity is very rarely offered to Works Councils out of fear of what might be said about the prospective company. When Hema team members heard the potential buyer was American, they were concerned. In France, American companies have a reputation of being tough in their leadership style and inhuman, just interested in making the most money as quickly as possible.”
After the Works Council meeting, Hema’s Council members voted unanimously in favor of Barry-Wehmiller acquiring Hema.
“When we heard more of the project, we became less concerned and eventually relief,” said Phillippe. “We thought it would be a good opportunity for Hema to enter a large American Group, which was an industrial group and not a financial one. The more we learned, the more we knew that this was good news.”
It was good news to us too as it meant we now had 100 new team members whose unique gifts, talents and personalities will add to the rich experience of the global company that Barry-Wehmiller has become. I shared our vision of Truly Human Leadership with the people of Hema and offered our commitment to helping them find meaning and fulfilment through their work.
“That’s the first time in my 39 years of professional activity that I heard from a leader the word ‘human’ so many times in a speech,” said Phillippe.
“I really wish I would be younger because I am near to retirement and I would have loved being able to live this new Hema adventure for the many years to come. I have a great deal of hope for Hema’s people. We feel a lot of love and care from Barry-Wehmiller.”
My sense is that our two very successful French acquisitions have changed our perspective about the French. And, thus far, we seemed to have changed the perspective of our new French team members about American business.
My perspective remains the same. No matter where you go, people are just people, all in search of the same thing: They want to know that who they are and what they do matter.
As a truly human leader, it’s my responsibility—and my privilege– to show them that they do.
Welcome aboard, Hema team!