With Matts Johansen, the CEO at Aker BioMarine
Sometimes a lack of experience can actually be an asset. Before working at Aker BioMarine, I didn’t have experience in the fishery/biotech industries, as my previous jobs were in telecoms, a completely different business. So, the fact that I didn’t know much has been a positive thing. I have the opportunity to look at things with a new perspective and try more things in a different way.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Matts Johansen, the CEO at Aker BioMarine, a biotech innovator and Antarctic krill-harvesting company. As Aker BioMarine’s CEO, Matts is on a mission to improve human and planetary health. Matts leads a global krill company, which was named Norway’s most innovative business in 2017 and Europe’s most innovative business in 2018. With the health and wellness market on the move, Matts is determined to educate consumers about krill oil, which is a pure and natural source of omega-3 fatty acids that helps support the heart, joint, brain and more. From rolling on a board, to sitting in the boardroom, as a former avid skateboarder, Matts believes his business mind-set has been influenced by the do-or-die determination he developed while skateboarding throughout the years.
I think I have a very unusual career path to becoming a CEO of Aker BioMarine and learned some interesting things along the way. Before moving to Oslo to study economics, I was a skateboarder and snowboarder and that’s what I focused on in my younger years. I came from a relatively small city in Norway and moved to Oslo, the centre for snowboarding and skateboarding in Norway. Although I started studying while in Oslo, I was much more into going skating, so I didn’t focus that much at school.
But very quickly I was broke and I had to find a job. I started working for a firm that was owned by four of the biggest advertising agencies in Oslo doing fulfilment and preparation for major companies. At that job, I was doing the most basic stuff you can imagine. I liked the idea of having the freedom that making money gives you. I was also the kind of guy that was eager to help when someone asked, ‘can you take my shift tomorrow?’ or if the boss said, ‘can you help me with this?’, I always said yes. That’s actually something I am still preaching in this organization, the importance of saying yes to things. So, when you start saying yes to things, you become the go-to person.
I continued working hard and ended up going to the Czech Republic to work for the state-owned telecom company. The company was going to be privatized and they needed some international people to come over and speak to potential buyers.
I just took the chance and jumped on it. I was there for five years and it was a fantastic journey. I continued to say yes, worked hard and earned more and more responsibilities and continued the same when I moved back to Norway.
It is always a random chain of coincidences, but the key point is that I have said yes to the important things, even when there was big risk and high uncertainty.
It is maybe more of a realization, but we are always told that the key to success is having good people around you, everybody says that. But actually, I think most people don’t believe it.
Most people believe that they are the most important success factor. For example, if you do a good job, everything is going to work out for you. Some middle managers think that they are the most important person on their teams, and I think I was guilty of that. I wasn’t ever really focused on the idea that I absolutely needed to have the best people on my team.
Only when I took over as CEO at Aker BioMarine is when I really began to see that having a great team is what is really important. It’s all about having those really, really talented people around you. It was about three years ago, when I realized that it is the most important thing we have at Aker BioMarine. Finding and keeping these people is my role in the company. In fact, today, it is my number one responsibility. My job isn’t about making a decision here or analysing a risk there, it is about making sure that I get the best possible people to work here, and ensuring that those people utilize their potential to the fullest.
It starts a little bit with our mission, or purpose, which is improving human and planetary health. We are a company that is extremely focused on making the planet a better place. Many companies have corporate responsibility on the side, but for us, it is the core of what we do.
Secondly, we are in an industry in which no other company has been able to succeed in before us. In the 1980’s, the Soviet fleet fished krill, but it was never commercial, meaning that no one was able to make products that turned into a viable business. We were able to do that. Since inception a little over 10 years ago, we have grown the business to 160 million USD, with almost 40 percent growth every year for ten years.
The third element which makes our company so special is the diversity of people that work here. From the dedicated Norwegian fisherman (all work in key positions on all of our vessels), to the factory team in Houston, the R&D people with PhDs, our science team and even all the way down to the consultants working with business development and sales, our team is hugely diverse. All of these people bring so much value to our company. With all of their different backgrounds and areas of expertise, we don’t have just one way of looking at a problem, we are able to look at it from all angles. I think this has been a big part of our success from the very beginning.
From innovation and sustainable practices to science and education, we are continually pushing the boundaries in our company to engage in new and exciting projects. While we have numerous studies in motion and other initiatives taking place behind the scenes, we are very excited about a major project that has the potential to positively impact millions of people around the globe. For the first time, a clinical study that investigates how phospholipid-rich krill oil can benefit people with Lupus is underway. 5 million people worldwide are affected by Lupus and little headway has been made in the search for new drugs or biological products that can help people with lupus. In fact, only one new product has come out in the last 60 years.
Lupus is a very serious disease where the immune system attacks healthy tissues and breaks them down. Big pharmaceutical companies don’t prioritize lupus which is why we simply could not pass up the opportunity to be part of this major study and initiative. More about the study and science can be found here.
It is in our human nature to make sure we don’t fail. You often see that within organizations, it is human nature to say no because you don’t want to take risks. For example, if you have a project you want to start, an idea you want to act on, or the desire to change something for the better, you want to succeed. If you try to do it and fail, in most organizations, you will be in a worse spot than where you started. Therefore, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
That’s why I think as leaders, you have to encourage people to say yes more often. I don’t like prioritizing initiatives and being put in a situation in which I sometimes have to say no. During our management meetings, I would rather discuss, how can we do it all? If you have an amazing opportunity, you should go for it. Instead of re-prioritizing, reorganize and do it all.
In my own experience, communication is essential and at Aker BioMarine, we communicate a lot. We have a team meeting every month to share everything we are working on, we have breakfast clubs where we discuss topics and ideas, and we have a company Facebook platform where everything is shared. Still, I am often astonished by the hunger for information from the organization. Even things that I think might have been very clearly communicated are often not. It is one of the bigger challenges, but it is also incredibly important. Learn to over-communicate. As the CEO I spend a lot of time on that, just talking about the things that we do.
The guy who actually saw something in me in 1996 has enabled me to work harder and absorb as much information as possible. This person is Magne Egne and he has since become my mentor. We worked together for four years and he was always the guy I would go to for advice, and today, I still do. The relationship has grown tremendously and since I found my path into my role as CEO, we now we have more mutually beneficial discussions on topics. But I think for me it has been very helpful having this person to follow me through my career as he really knows me. He helped me raise my confidence, and was there to discuss things with me. Most importantly, he helped me make those important decisions for the future of my career.
It is probably a good thing that people don’t tell you too much before you become a CEO. I think you just have to figure it out for yourself. I think if I was given directions and advice beforehand, it wouldn’t be my journey and it wouldn’t be as successful as it is today. I had to come up with my own experiences and figure out my own style, which I believe is positive, optimistic and solution-oriented. I am sure many people think when you are CEO you have to be hard, reserved and detached, but if I tried to do that, I would fail, it is not who I am.
But if I look at my own experiences and recognize things I wish I had a better understanding of before coming into this, the first realization is what I previously mentioned, making sure you have good people around you. That is number one.
The second revolves around believing in your abilities. Earlier in my career I met people who had problems with me not having an education. When I spoke to different HR departments and they asked what my ambitions were and what I wanted to do, I always said “I just want to go as far as I can.” One person actually told me to adjust my thinking and lower my expectations. He basically said that I didn’t have the grey hair factor, I didn’t look like a typical CEO and I didn’t have an education. That could have broken me at that point, but it didn’t. You should always do what you believe in, not what you’re told. This talk was ten years ago, ten years after I left school, which is why what I did, or in my case didn’t do at that time. You have to look at what you accomplished in the outside world in the last five years.
Third, you need to take risks, calculated risks, especially if you have a growth company and you want to try to do something exciting. As a CEO, I feel that I should carry those risks on my shoulders, making it easier for the organization to feel comfortable in pushing the boundaries. CEO’s shouldn’t put pressure on their team if something goes wrong. I think it makes people unwilling to take risks. To me, this is why the CEO plays an important role in carrying the risks within a company.
Next, be nice to everybody. I think that is a very important, but much overlooked asset. At the end of the day, people will go the extra mile and support the CEO (and other team members) if you are nice. In order for me to get my team to work above and beyond, they need to like me and respect me. If you are nice to people, they are nice back.
And finally, sometimes a lack of experience can actually be an asset. Before working at Aker BioMarine, I didn’t have experience in the fishery/biotech industries, as my previous jobs were in telecoms, a completely different business. So, the fact that I didn’t know much has been a positive thing. I have the opportunity to look at things with a new perspective and try more things in a different way.
There is a movement for everything now, but very simply I believe a lot in businesses actively changing the world for the better. The growing take-up and success of the United Nations’ Sustainability Goals within the business community provides us a glimpse of what is possible, and it is something I really believe in. Change has to come from commercial businesses.
There are so many good quotes in Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Make Friends and Influence People, but the one quote which resonates with me the most is, “You can’t win an argument. If you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.” I like that theory and agree with it. You can only humiliate your opponent by being better at arguing your case. Your opponent may have given up, but he still doesn’t agree, and now he dislikes you! It is all about getting others to believe in what you believe and maybe even make your idea become someone else’s idea.
I would like to sit down with Richard Branson. I think he has a similar attitude towards life as me. He epitomizes rock and roll. He is fun and is involved in many different things. Most importantly, he challenges the status quo. He would be fun to talk to and I feel like I can learn a lot from his stories.