It all started in the NEMO science museum, an outstanding place dedicated particularly to educating and enthusing the young with different aspects of science and technology.

While buying gifts for the grandchildren, we noticed a display promoting a book by Julian Baggini entitled “How the World Thinks”, which I had recently bought but not yet opened. This takes an overview of philosophy around the world and ends with a final section putting it all together with a final chapter titled “a sense of place”.

The real impact of the term “philosophy” came in a discussion shortly before dinner with a senior European tanner and industry executive who was expanding on some of his international operations. He said that, while he thought the philosophy was correct, he was uncertain that he and his team had the implementation quite right. This was a more profound comment on a business approach than I am used to.

What is a “philosophy”? Does it differ from a mission statement, which more often than varies between the utterly banal or quite dishonest? It was only on the long train ride back to the UK when I realised that the event that we had been at was, in fact, the answer.

A private celebration

This was a dinner celebrating 200 years of the Dutch company Royal Smit & Zoon. It was held in the spectacular central courtyard, recently covered by a high glass roof, of the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. Here, some of the shipping records of the Smit & Zoon founder are held, creating a fitting and lovely direct link.

The dinner came in distinct elements, which were highlighted on social media by Francis Tsang:

  • First course – Legacy
  • Second course – Sustainability
  • Main course – Vision & Future
  • Dessert – Relationships.

Given this was a party, this is a powerful list. Not much was put on social media; this was clearly not a marketing event but more a private celebration. It was a privilege to be invited and the memory will be more profound than a few pictures on Instagram can ever convey.

It was a celebration of a company that has had to work hard to evolve and remain relevant in not one, but many periods of change. From the role of their initial product “stock fish” being eliminated by refrigeration to the balance of making against trading in an ever more specialist leather industry. It only made the shift into leather products in the late 60s so was not really a presence when I started in the industry and was deciding what processes, and chemicals, to use. In fact, I knew little about it until the start of this century.

The event was, even more, a celebration of a family which has navigated the business through this complex terrain. Marc Smit, who with his sister Valerie constitute the seventh generation of the company owners, explained the common ground he felt the generations had established in a 2021 video, including:

  • The responsibility towards each other and the company
  • The ground rule to not to take anything for granted
  • And the will to endure and leave a healthy company behind for the next generation.

A true philosophy

The description of the changes made by Smit and his father were remarkable and the move towards the wider thinking of corporate social responsibility as a fundamental tenet of the business is inspirational learning in how to think through turbulent times. Their major commitment to Leather Naturally has been transformative and, with it, their support for the Leather Working Group has meant that both organisations are making enormous contributions to keeping the wider leather industry on a sound footing to survive and prosper. No mean feat given the almost death wish that a sort of perpetual arrogance had been created in the industry.

So, all this is more than a goal or mission statement. It is a quite fundamental approach to doing business: a philosophy. A way of thinking which builds a culture and creates foundations that hold up every corner of the way a company evolves and faces disruptions and difficulties.

For Royal Smit & Zoon, this has created great partners and many admirers, it has built resilience and helped the entire industry to do the same. And it means the company is better placed to understand the fundamentally different thinking that drives some of the global disintegration we are currently seeing. Thinking whose origins are explained by Julian Baggini in “How the World Thinks”. We need more companies thinking like Royal Smit & Zoon.

Mike Redwood

Follow Dr Mike Redwood on Twitter: @michaelredwood

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