Athletic Visionary Tasked to Continue a Legacy – Rolf Blaser, Chief Executive Officer of A. Baur & Co. (Pvt.) Ltd.

Rolf Blaser is an experienced Leader in a variety of industries such as Healthcare, Retail, FMCG, and Consumer Electronics. His accumulated work experience in Switzerland, Germany, France, Benelux, and since 2008 in India, makes him an expert in cultural diversity. Rooted in Sales, Marketing and Retail he has become a successful leader with a proven track record. Given his extraordinary skills and experience, he found his destiny with A. Baur & Co. (Pvt.) Ltd. as the Chief Executive Officer.

Rolf was born in Switzerland and entered life in an unamusing and average environment. In a family of four, he is the younger brother, growing up in a three-bedroom apartment in a village not far from the city. As the standard is in Switzerland he masters six years of elementary school before completing three years of high school and graduating at the medium level of the three-level Swiss high school system. At this time, one says, is when the course is set for the future and the life, when a young adult at the age of 16 years has to decide, what he or she wants to become and which profession to go for. Being qualified and prepared for a banking career, Rolf decides to live, not for life, and starts the much more fun salesmen apprenticeship where emotional intelligence is superior to intellectual intelligence and abstract competencies. So far, his life could not have been more of an average Swiss life than it was.

This also gave him the time to focus on sports, more than on his professional career. Spending his entire teen ages, a full decade, as a semi-professional cyclist, he only won a few races but never really made it to the consistent elite of the extremely competitive bicycle racing scene in any of the discipline’s street races, piste (cycle drome) or cross-country (off-road). One had to do long and deep research to find his footprint in the history books of the sport. But spending his teenage years with intensive sports, rather than puberty activities, this competitive and physically exhausting hobby, penetrated with little success but dealing with ‘not giving up’ and trying again and harder, shaped his personality at that decisive point in life and left behind ambition, determination, and readiness to spend hard work for reaching pinned up ambitious targets.

After his cycling career, Rolf had a lot of time at his hands, which made him retrospect, reflect and ponder on his future. The approach he took was to look at people he admired for their personality or success and try to figure out what it would take him to get there. He very soon realized that he had an educational gap to apply for jobs in those leagues. Without much hesitation, he decided to quit his paid job and go back to study at the University to become an Economist by education, which later in his life opened many doors. Tasting the ‘drug’ of success, Rolf was now on the fast lane to successfully offer himself promotions and additional responsibilities at infrequent intervals. As this would not be enough, Rolf added an Executive MBA in Communication from one of the most coveted management Universities in Europe, from the University of St. Gallen.

After spending ten years with Sony and 15 years in the Consumer Electronics industry, Rolf had the desire to enter a new terrain and joined Johnson & Johnson where he was directly guided to the career forge and went through many departments and positions, and with every change one step up. Having a good life and a great job, the most eventful holiday of his life happened in 2007, when he went to Bangalore to visit one of his Indian friends, a St. Gallen University Alumni, for a two-week exploration trip. During this holiday destiny made him meet the women of his life, who became his wife only one year later, now he is a resident of India. 

After five years in Bangalore and another five years in Delhi, Rolf was headhunted to become the CEO of a company he had never heard of and he could hardly find any information on the internet, apart from a very outdated homepage at that time, A. Baur & Co. (Pvt) Ltd. Listening to the head-hunter and the Board of Trustees of Baur’s shareholder, he realized soon, this is a dream job, where he can continue his life in Asia, which he learned to love, and he is now working for a company deeply rooted in Switzerland but founded and headquartered in Sri Lanka. “The beauty of this job is to be one hundred percent aligned with culture and code of conduct while operating in the super exciting Asian environment” – Rolf mentions with a smile on his face. The icing on the cake was to learn about the reputation and outstanding history of Baurs, only after getting more familiar with Sri Lanka, its economy, and industries.

After four years in Sri Lanka, Rolf did not only contribute to his employer’s wellbeing, he also did not lose any time to integrate into society and traveled the country to explore its beauty. His favorite beaches are in the North-East, but the South is more accessible from Colombo. Further, he acquired Kitesurfing skills from Kalpitiya, after the first lockdown in 2020 permitted interstate travel, a sport he wouldn’t want to miss anymore. He also integrated into the business community, by actively participating in the executive board of ICC-SL (International Chamber of Commerce) and SLCPI (Sri Lanka Chamber of the Pharmaceutical Industry). 

He further Chairs the ICC Policy Committee and serves as Hon. Secretary at the SLCPI as an office-bearer. Further, Rolf participates in the community as an active member of the Hill Club, Colombo Club, Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, Colombo Swimming Club, Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, and a few more. Rolf was elected to the Council of the Swiss Abroad (CSA) in 2021, as one of a total of 140 members of the Organisation of the Swiss Abroad (OSA), the “Parliament” of the “Fifth Switzerland”. Rolf represented 24 countries in the OSA, including Sri Lanka. Rolf also serves as Chairman of FAIRMED India, Chairman of Swiss Emmaus Leprosy Relief India, Advisory Board of the Luxury Connect Business School India, and the International Advisory Board of the Genesis Foundation India.

On prompting him on what changes he brings to Sri Lanka, Rolf explains that his mandate is not to bring change but to continue the 124-year long legacy of Baurs, being a highly reputed company, standing for many ground-breaking innovations in Sri Lanka. It will be difficult to ‘quantify’ the high reputation, but if one looks at the list of innovations, the extent becomes tangible. 

Baurs was the first company dedicating all its efforts solely to the fertilizer business when they started in 1897 and respectively pioneered in organic manures (e.g., guano, blood and bone meal, etc.) as well as chemical fertilizers such as sulphate of ammonia, superphosphate, nitrate of potash, etc., combining the old and the new. Baurs further innovated the Sri Lankan Railway, as the first company transporting its cargo on rails and they even had their own private rail tracks to load and unload the wagons directly from the stores.

The list of innovations has almost no end and there are many ‘first’ attributed to the company in Sri Lanka; first advisory based fertilizer distribution, first tractor used in agriculture, first fully electrified tea factory, first underground parking in the Baurs headquarter building, first Estate Bungalow without windows (designed by Geoffrey Bawa), first basmati rice grown in Sri Lanka, and the latest innovation is the launch of the first biopesticide in Sri Lanka, registered last year in 2020.

Baurs was also instrumental in eradicating the malaria epidemic, which infected more than 500,000 people, causing 80,000 deaths at a time when Sri Lanka had a population of 5.5 million in 1946. The insecticide which decimated the malaria mosquito led them into the healthcare industry and there was no looking back. Accordingly, the mandate Rolf is tasked with is to continue this legacy and bring innovation while keeping the Swiss value system high in his company. If one looks at the leadership history of Baurs, one will easily realize that there was always a Swiss National at the helm of the company, with only one exception. Rolf Blaser is the 15th Chief Executive in the history of Baurs, and his nationality might not be by chance. It was always believed that keeping Swissness would be better done by a Swiss. It went to such an extent that two of the former CEOs even held the office of the Swiss Government in Sri Lanka as the Honorary Consul before Switzerland opened its Embassy in Colombo.

Rolf considers many similarities amongst the two countries Switzerland and Sri Lanka. Both governments believe in fundamental democratic values, but might be at different stages in their journey. Switzerland has four national languages and sometimes struggles to integrate the culturally different parts of the country. Integration has an entirely different meaning in Switzerland, where 25% of the population, or 2 out of 8 million population, are foreign passport holders. 

“Like Sri Lanka to India, Switzerland is towered by its dominant neighbor Germany. Even though there might be certain similarities of languages etc. the Swiss consider their country fundamentally different from its big ‘brother’, if not to say better. Maybe this statement holds true for Sri Lanka”, Rolf whispers with a smile on his face. He added, “Also, Switzerland is surrounded by giant economies like France, United Kingdom, Italy, etc., positioning itself as a unique ‘island’ in the center of Europe, with far less economic power than most of its neighbors, mainly driven by the size of the population. To maintain political neutrality and economic independence remains a difficult but important task being in the position of an underdog, while surrounded by giant economies. The solid Swiss economy is grounded in a very strong small and medium enterprises sector. Even the important geopolitical location can be compared with Sri Lanka. Where Switzerland is connecting the most important North-South corridor in Europe, Sri Lanka’s position in the even more strategic East-West passage is connecting two worlds.”

Rolf further mentions that the Swiss militia military system might have an underestimated impact on its culture, where compulsory military service applies to all male Swiss citizens, with women serving voluntarily. This means more than half the population goes through the army training and drill for a few months in their late teens, followed by repetition courses lasting a couple of weeks per year over more than a decade. This leaves a sense of rule obeying citizens, with advanced skills in strategy, organization, project management, and a certain level of resilience. “Also, equality and respect will enjoy increased acceptance gained through such military training experience. This systematic culture driver might be difficult to adapt elsewhere but is important to understand the context, Rolf underlines”, having gone through the same military training and repetition courses himself. Swiss soldiers and Swiss guards were high in demand in the later middle age up till the 19th century, when their proven battlefield capabilities made them sought-after mercenary troops. Today the Pontifical Swiss Guard at the Vatican is the only reminder, and as mentioned before the militia system has a deep impact on the Swiss culture.

“Also, the Swiss Apprenticeship Model might be closely looked at by the Sri Lanka Skill Development Ministry. I will be happy to connect you with the Swiss Ambassador”, mentions Rolf with a twinkle in his eyes. 2/3 of Swiss school leavers opt for an apprenticeship, which is more than just vocational education, it’s an integrated solution and has the main aim to serve the industry and its requirement of the workforce. Therefore industry and education go hand-in-hand to produce those skills required. In 2015 Switzerland won 13 medals in the WorldSkills Competition and in 2019 even 16, out of which 5 were gold medals. Baurs brought exactly this model to Sri Lanka in early 2021, when launching the VET by EHL by the Swiss Hotel Management Academy (SHMA) a 100% subsidiary of A. Baur & Company. VET by EHL, or Vocational Education and Training by École hôtelière de Lausanne, brings four innovations to Sri Lanka in one go, all tailored to the Sri Lankan market and requirements. EHL is the oldest and presumably best Hotel Management School in the world, now represented by SHMA in Sri Lanka. 

Baurs brings world-class content and learning methods to the country. Secondly, the modules are divided into 4 disciplines with 3 levels each, totaling twelve 6 months of courses. These modules can be taken as required; they call it “Learn as you Go”. Passing a single module will result in a Certificate by EHL, 3 levels in the same discipline lead to a diploma. The third innovation is the application of the Swiss Apprenticeship Model, where employed staff in the hotel and restaurant industry are spending 2 days per week in the classroom for vocational education and apply the fresh knowledge immediately while working 3 – 4 days a week. The fourth innovation by SHMA is the ‘No Wall’ concept which is a breakthrough from the traditional hotel school infrastructure set-up. The entire Diploma Program is based at partnered hotels, exposing students to world-class facilities and real-life practices. Theoretical classes are held in hotel conference venue settings with state-of-the-art technology, accommodating students with 5-star service, where practical training is staged at some of the top-ranked restaurants in the country.

Rolf requests to put his work experience in context and explains that he led two companies in India as CEO or Managing Director over the period of ten years. Both companies were either Italian-owned or Italian-managed. Italy, he explains, is culturally much closer to India (maybe also Sri Lanka), than it is to Switzerland. Accordingly, Rolf took a very ‘local’ approach in managing these companies and was highly successful with both of them, bringing sustainable growth in the top and bottom lines. Now the situation in Sri Lanka is quite different. Baurs has been successful for over 124 years because of its Swiss Value system and approach to conduct the business while integrating into the local culture. Compliance, ethics, and morals are only a view of Baur’s core values, garnished by respect, trust, reliability, quality, and innovation. 

An important fact why Baurs can focus on such noble principles by letter and spirit is its ownership. The single shareholder, being a Charity Foundation registered in Geneva, always prioritizes sustainability over profits in all its strategic decisions. Short-term profit has no place in the agenda of the shareholder nor the agenda of Baurs. That showed very clearly when the COVID19 pandemic emerged, Baurs was fast in confirming job security and refrain from salary cuts, unlike most other conglomerates in Sri Lanka.

Baurs’ culture and leadership style also show uniqueness, when observing the reaction to the recent chemical fertilizer and pesticide ban. Considering that Baurs is the largest private fertilizer company in Sri Lanka, this decision has far-reaching consequences, not only for Baurs. Being repeatedly blamed for hoarding fertilizer can not be further away from the truth. Immediately after the initial announcement by H.E. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to ban chemical fertilizer and pesticides, Baurs established dialogue with leading agriculture institutes around the world, to collect advice and expertise on best practices and latest technologies to tackle such kinds of challenges, to convert from traditional agriculture to organic agriculture.

Switzerland has the 6th highest penetration of organic farming in the world, with 16.5% of agricultural land being organic farmland. Switzerland also has the 2nd highest per capita consumption of organic food with 400 US dollars spent annually and is the 7th largest organic market in the world, retailing 3.429 U$ billion in 2019. The market share of organic food & beverage in Switzerland is 10.4% of their F&B shopping basket, the second-highest share in the world. Therefore, it should not come as a surprise to find some of the leading institutes for organic agriculture in Switzerland.

Baurs has decided to go above and beyond, and contracted the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) together with the School of Agricultural, Forest, and Food Sciences (HAFL); both organizations are world leaders in their respective fields of research and development of organic agriculture. FiBL & HAFL will study the Sri Lankan agriculture ecosystem to come up with scientific but practical solutions to support the farming industry in mastering the conversion from conventional to organic. FiBL/HAFL will coordinate their efforts together with other organizations with domain knowledge on the subject matter, which also includes locally available academia and practical expertise. Both organizations confirmed their commitment and agreed to send their most senior cadre in organic agriculture for a 10-day visit to Sri Lanka. This team not only brings the best academic expertise to Sri Lanka, but they also come with a very wide range of practical project experience gathered from around the world with a special focus on developing economies. While meeting all stakeholders in Sri Lanka, they will also visit sites and facilities which are influencing factors in organic agriculture. Using the opportunity, Baurs has requested the team to conduct a training/crash course in composting and organic farming, as this is the very need of the hour. As such, Baurs’ reaction to this sudden ban should not surprise them, as they remain loyal to their approaches and core values. “Organic agriculture is surely a topic that needs follow-up in the near future”, stated Rolf.

Google has chosen Zurich as its first research and development center, outside the US. Even IBM opened its first European research branch in Switzerland in 1956, today one of 12 research centers around the world. Rolf’s experience with Sony Switzerland, where he worked for about 10 years in total, was that this technology giant, in the 1990s, used the Swiss market to explore and test new technologies in mass products, given the affinity of Swiss consumers to technology. 

Switzerland also Ranks No. 1 in Global Innovation Index 2020 for the 10th consecutive year. Therefore the long list of Baurs innovations mentioned earlier might not surprise and one can expect this list to continue over time to come. Moore’s law has been valid since 1965 and Rolf says they are still doubling the computing power every 18 – 24 months. Raymond Kurzweil predicted that AI today can replicate the brain of a mouse, but by 2025 it will replicate the human brain and by 2055 brains of all human beings. “What we have to keep in mind is Moravec’s paradox that contrary to traditional assumptions, reasoning requires very little computation, but sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources. In other words, high-level reasoning, playing chess, and picking stock seems very easy to program, but walking/running, recognizing, smelling is highly complicated for computers to learn”, but Rolf remains grounded, as recently experienced in Sri Lanka, e-commerce might not be the game-changer here, but virtual doctor consultations might be. However, Rolf doesn’t feel that technology alone will make the change, it will be the organizational adoption of the same as well as the cultural acceptance. 

When Baurs applied Sales Force Automation, they most probably introduced an advanced but very common application. However, the way they implemented it had a major impact on the entire sales organization. Not only Job Descriptions have changed, but also the way HR hires new employees, the objectives or Key Performance Indicators, the organizational structure, and even the language they are talking about during meetings and training has changed.

Given the recent downgrading of the country rating and potential withdrawal of GSP+, Rolf stated, “There are certainly some challenges ahead of us in the near future. Most of them will fade away, once the economy starts to hum. Tourism for example has a huge potential, given the beauty of the country and attractions it has to offer. History, meditation, sports, religion, recreation, beach, mountains, etc. just to name a few of them. With 2.3 million tourists in 2018, Sri Lanka is far away from its potential. I would guess that 10 to 15 million could be easily reached, once traveling and holidaying starts again in the near future.” 

Furthermore, Baurs has a number of agricultural products which easily compete in the world market. Tea, rubber, coconut, spices, and cinnamon can serve as raw or bulk export or even in the form of value-added ready-to-consume products. The garment industry has the potential to get into branded export instead of 3rd party manufacturing. It remains of utmost importance to keep the Sri Lanka industries competitive by keeping low trade barriers and little to no import restrictions. Promoting the local economy should go in tandem with international competitiveness to fuel exports and gain foreign exchange. Rolf suggests refraining from Import substitution because it bears the risk of losing attractiveness in the international markets while unnecessarily protecting domestic entrepreneurs. “If we look at Sri Lanka’s infrastructure, we might not be at Singapore levels, but definitely, our roads, water, electricity, etc. are far ahead of many Asian countries and therefore we should be in a good position to elaborate on those advantages”, he stated.

Rolf insists on keeping on record that he is not only full of hope for the economy but also very confident and excited to lead from the front and be an active part of this conversion.

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