Navigating two World Wars and a continent under rapid change up until the new millennium, European multi-national companies have arguably had it harder to survive than their North American equivalents. Those that have persisted are defined by leadership that stayed ahead of the curve, seeking opportunities that few others have been so quick to capitalize on. But innovation can only go so far in success as a multi-national; people must see the brand’s commitment to upholding the values they believe in.
As Henry Mintzburg said, “Corporations are social institutions. If they don’t serve society, they have no business existing.”
For any global company, finding the right balance between profit maximisation for shareholders and maintaining close bonds with their consumer base is difficult to achieve. These three multi-nationals have lasted the test of time across three centuries because of how they serve both the local and global communities they operate in.
A brand defined by extraordinary events, charismatic characters, and of course, its cars, Fiat celebrated its first 120 years in 2019 with plans to grow. In 1899, a group of Italian businessmen and professionals from Turin joined forces to realize a mutual dream: an Italian automobile factory that could offer “democratic mobility.” The same year, the first Fiat model was put into production.
Over the next century, Fiat continued to expand production across Europe, dominating Eurasian and North American markets even amid the World Wars. But it was under the leadership of former CEO Sergio Marchionne that Fiat was cemented as a global leader in car manufacturing. With a leadership style bridging the personality of the Agnelli family, the genius and design vision of Dante Giacosa and the administrative foresight of Vittorio Valletta, Marchionne took the Italian manufacturer from the brink of bankruptcy to the New York Stock Exchange, after buying out the Detroit carmaker, Chrysler.
During his tenure at Fiat, Marchionne boosted the company’s value more than a tenfold by restructuring the auto business and separating assets. Among the biggest spinoffs was the 2015 listing of supercar-maker Ferrari NV, where Marchionne also served as CEO and chairman. The self-described “corporate fixer” also oversaw the Centro Ricerche Fiat in international research projects on green energy innovations such as the use of recycled materials and biomaterials. One such initiative was the Forbioplast project, which evaluated forest resources for plastic production in Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Perhaps one such forest scouted for the project was the 1000 hectares of sustainable forests in Scotland tended to by the Kronospan Forestry Ltd, a subsidiary of Kronospan, the leading wood-based panel manufacturer. Established in 1897 as a small family-run timber business, the Austrian-based multinational has developed a supply chain with over 40 production sites and 16 distribution centres in 30 countries.
Under Kronospan’s owner and CEO Peter Kaindl, the company has harnessed the potential of the integrated Single Market to both consolidate its strength in its native industry while diversifying itself beyond the primary sector. While most manufacturers were fearful of the risk of expanding outside Westen Europe at the end of the last century, Peter Kaindl pushed Kronospan towards owning dozens of wood-based panel manufacturing sites across what was to become the EU, including Latvia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary.
His hands-on approach enabled him to expand Kronospan’s small Austrian and Western European base of his father’s tenure into an international conglomerate with manufacturing centres across Europe – as well as plants and branches in the US – with billions of euros in annual revenue. But Kronospan has set itself apart from the rest of the timber industry as it has placed sustainability at its core of its operating model. In 1999 the company joined the Forest Stewardship Council scheme, which ensures that sustainable practices are used.
In 2003, Kronospan was one of the first organisations to sign up with the Carbon Trust in Wales for a pilot programme to manage carbon emissions. Kronospan also works with Business in the Community Wales which aims to address key social issues in the most deprived rural and urban areas of Wales, where its first international plant was established and has operated in the region for over 50 years.
A commitment to the local community that helped an industry prosper is also shared by Neuhaus, the Belgian chocolatier. Swiss pharmacist, Jean Neuhaus, established his first boutique in Brussels in 1857 after his trademark chocolate-covered medicine catapulted him into fame. Today, the building still houses the global production of its famous Belgian praline, as invented by his grandson. Today, CEO Ignace Van Doorselaere works closely with the family to continue their vision of selling 2,400 tons of ‘honest chocolate’ to over 50 countries.
Neuhaus has been endowed with a Royal Warrant Holder Seal by the King and Queen of Belgium in recognition of its service to both protecting Belgium artistry and working towards environmental sustainability. 100 per cent of Neuhaus chocolate is UTZ certified, the largest program for sustainable farming of cocoa in the world.Under Van Doorselaere’s oversight, from 2025 onwards, their entire cacao production will be 100% traceable and will meet the living and deforestation standards.
Like Fiat and Kronospan, Neuhaus has persisted as global bastions of a uniquely European artisanship—to do one thing, and do it well. But the leadership of all made important strategic decisions at key junctions in their journeys to remain viable and profitable to this day. The marriage of three centuries of good governance and commitment to sustainability – or as Kronospan’s Peter Kaindl might say, the ability to see the forest from the trees – is what separates these three multinationals from the rest.