Meet the Boss: Hakan Soderholm, managing director, Tetra Pak East Africa

Hakan Soderholm

Hakan Soderholm

1. What was your first job?

I worked in a supermarket in Sweden during the evenings, weekends and school holidays. I was responsible for the beverages section and taking care of all the trolleys in the parking lot. I remember during winter we would close the shop at 9pm and there would be 300 shopping carts out in the parking area. I would have to collect all the carts in that cold weather of even down to -20°C.

2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?

What troubles me is to really make sure that I have inspired – with my experience and passion – my colleagues and customers. I wonder if I have given them all the energy and motivation to go forward and excel in their careers and business. I believe that success comes with passion, engagement and trust in what you are doing. If you are too focused on financial figures, you risk missing out on a lot of things.

3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career?

Apart from my parents always believing in me, I would say my grandfather. He came from extremely poor conditions, he was put in an orphanage at age five, and he was only educated to primary school level. However, he has told he always believed in himself and he knew he would be successful. He did manage to build his own business. He always encouraged me and said to me that he knew that I would also be successful in life.

4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

I have thought so much about this. I really don’t have anything someone said to me that was so significant. I have found my own way.

5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?

I think I am constantly challenging myself. I keep the creativity going. I like to constantly move forward because I believe you can’t live of yesterday’s success. Yes, you have to celebrate your successes but you still need passion, energy and the drive to keep pushing further. I also think I empower my team and I trust them to perform.

6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?

Raising kids! I think the biggest leadership challenge is to raise kids because given authority doesn’t work – at least where I come from in Scandinavia. Just because you are the dad doesn’t mean that they have to listen to you. With parenting you must have full attention and authentic leadership to succeed. My kids are all out of the nest – either in or post university. I don’t know if I was successful but it was leadership training. But you definitely don’t learn leadership in business school. You learn it on the job and from your life.

7. How do you relax?

I do a lot of exercise such as running. On the weekends I go hiking. I also run half marathons.

8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?

By 8.30am and much earlier when Nairobi traffic allows. I don’t try to be here earlier than my colleagues. I want to be in tune with them. I am part of the team, not a superman.

9. Your favourite job interview question?

I like to know the main reason why someone is changing jobs. I want to know if someone is going to something rather than leaving something. The people I like to work with are those actually interested in the job as such, not just because it pays a good salary or is a strong, successful company.

10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?

They should be bold and go for the vast opportunities available here. A lot has already been done, which is respectful, but I would still say that everything is yet to be done here in East Africa. There are lots of things that are still imported or produced locally in small quantities that make the prices high for the consumers. Even when you look at the opportunities in eastern Africa from a Tetra Pak perspective, we are selling on average only three packages per person to a population of around 300 million people. Globally, the average is 30 packets per person. So even if we would only grow it to six packages per person in the region, which is still very low, we would still have doubled our business. So the business opportunities are huge here and most of it is still unexplored.

Hakan Soderholm is the eastern Africa managing director for Tetra Pak, the global food processing and packaging solutions company.