Interview – 14. Okt 2020
IT IS THE CUSTOMER JOURNEY
THAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE
Massimo Ferri, former CEO of a leading company in wholesale of electric products, on the importance of numerical targets, why human relationship with customers is fundamental and how to choose the right external consultant
What was your route to become CEO? Was it planned? Have you had to fight to get to that position or did it simply happen?

When I was young, I didn’t consider the role of a CEO as a career option, it didn’t seem it like an attractive job. I started in financial roles and took advantages while covering interim roles that gave me the opportunity to understand the company from different points of view. I had to reinvent myself in those roles and work hard to adapt my skills – this was very useful. The economic situation during the last 20-30 years has made my experience in financial roles sought after. I had to apply „the numbers“ to a range of business aspects. Today, more than ever, companies are assessed through a finance lens which has led many with a finance background into leadership roles. My curiosity, the desire to have a wider role and my cross functional experiences, have given me the right skills to take on the CEO role.

MOST CEOs LOVE TO DEFINE CHALLENGING TARGETS AND CONTINUOUSLY TRY TO EXCEED THEM. WHAT IS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH CHALLENGES?

I always thought that targets should be numerical and many people and colleagues thanked me for having „forced“ them to relate their goals to numerical targets as a way to assess success. Since taking on a CEO role I’ve had to rise to challenges which are less easy to put a number on. This doesn’t faze me though as I have always liked a challenge as a way to measure myself. I started with the challenges very early on as my family were not able to help me much as a boy. I studied and worked at the same time because I didn’t want to depend on anyone and I wanted to earn my own opportunities. I continued this into my career, always looking to raise the bar on my own achievements. One of the interesting aspects in the role of CEO is precisely in the variety of challenges I face. In recent years, the President of the multinational company I worked for, has launched many challenges and has taught me to not only enjoy the challenges, but not to accept them passively – it’s OK to challenge a target. Today I work for a non-profit entity and I have to deal with an environment different from the standard business which brings new challenges. I continue to welcome any new challenge, even outside of the office; recently I decided to start playing the piano again after a year without ever touching the instrument.

HOW MUCH HAS THE ROLE OF CEO CHANGED IN THE LAST 10 YEARS? HAVE THE GOALS OF THE COMPANIES CHANGED OR IS TURNOVER STILL THE KEY MEASURE OF SUCCESS?

When I first started turnover was the only parameter but then the company felt the pressure of the stock markets and new priorities emerged. There was the moment of Working Capital and then of Cash Flow and EBITDA. I remember when the company made a major acquisition everyone’s effort was concentrated in reducing the debt which was followed by specific actions with suppliers and banks. Over time, the drivers of the business have become increasingly sophisticated. I must say that in the distribution sector, the size of the turnover is in any case a parameter that cannot be forgotten.

ITALY IS A COUNTRY WITH A LOT OF DIFFERENT CULTURES AND A GREAT VARIETY OF CUSTOMS EVEN IN BUSINESS. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE THE KEY THINGS TO CONSIDER WHEN WORKING IN ITALY?

Italian people have a lot of imagination, a remarkable ability to reinvent themselves and a lot of passion. A great CEO will steer this potential in the right direction. There is also the general attitude of Italians of the need to address the objectives. New challenges are always met with enthusiasm and commitment.

THE COMPANY YOU MANAGED HAS ITS CORE IN SALES PROCESSES. HOW DID THIS COMPETENCE CHANGE WITH THE ADVENT OF NEW TECHNOLOGIES?

The human relationship with customers is fundamental but must be based on other values. Today the customer has a wide range of information that makes him a savvy buyer and less easily persuaded. Customers know their rights, they know the prices, they easily reach alternative suppliers. It is the customer journey that makes the difference because the product or service sold is easily found on the market by other suppliers. You buy from a company for all the mechanism behind it: for long term success the relationship must be more and more with the company and not with individual people.

Technology is important and helps but in the multinational company, for which I managed the business in Italy, I suffered from the lack of a centralised approach. The big mistake is to think that technology is a local matter. The big companies that invented a business like Ebay, Amazon, Alibaba, teach us the power of a central hub.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE SYNGROUP WHEN YOU NEEDED TO IMPROVE THE COMMERCIAL PROCESS?

Each member of the Comex Executive Committee chose a company that could follow us in the development path of the sales network and then we assessed them for the best fit. Syngroup was presented by the CFO, but collectively we chose Syngroup because we saw both a commercial expertise and an attention to the numbers.

WHAT ARE THE OBSTACLES AND MAJOR CONCERNS OF EMPLOYEES INVOLVED IN PROJECTS WITH EXTERNAL CONSULTANTS?

In other functions, certain aspects of development are easier to introduce but in sales there are specific issues to do with a salespersons natural focus on results. When introducing development, the good seller is reluctant to listen because they already bring results while the less good one is more inclined to improve. The resistance to change in commercial processes is very strong. You have to think in small steps to keep all the resources on board.

TODAY YOU’VE TAKEN ON A MANAGEMENT ROLE FOR AN IMPORTANT ITALIAN NON-PROFIT ORGANISATION. HOW DIFFICULT IS TO MOVE FROM HAVING "PROFIT" OBJECTIVES TO "NON-PROFIT" OBJECTIVES?

From a personal point of view, it is a new challenge, especially after working forty years in traditional sectors. In addition, my commitment is „pro bono“ and it still seems strange to have obligations and commitments without being paid! People in the non-profit sector have extremely low wages because they are compensated by the mission; this is fine in my case, but not for the resources that are in the middle of their careers and so this can bring challenges. I put in a lot of effort to bring the management logic of traditional sectors to the non-profit. Numbers and adequate reporting are particularly important because the companies that finance non-profit sector want transparency. In a sense, I went back to the finance role but with an experience that allows me to have the „helicopter view“ that is increasingly needed in leading roles.