How could DSM transform so successfully into a purpose-driven business?

DSM, starting as Dutch State Mines in 1902, has a rich history of transformation and reinvention of its position on the market. In March 2019, they announced their intention to become one of the most environmentally friendly producers in the coating resins industry and the market-leading supplier of sustainable solutions at the same time.
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How could DSM transform from a company that mined coal reserves to a science-based company active in nutrition, health and sustainable living? What sets them apart from the rest of the industry that allows them to transform so successfully? We talked to Helen Mets, President of DSM Resins & Functional Materials.

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Focus on creating brighter lives for all

In 2019, the world is facing significant challenges, such as climate change, natural resource depletion and unequal levels of socioeconomic development. According to Helen, it’s more important than ever that businesses embrace their wider responsibilities: they can be an advocate of change by enabling sustainable living and helping to shape society around us. 

Traditionally, a company is either focused on driving profit or doing good. It’s rare to find a business focused on both. Purpose-driven businesses do not only focus on driving profit, but also want to add positive value to the world and society. It makes sense: why would you want to achieve commercial success in a world that eventually breaks down? 

DSM proves that it is possible to drive profit and build a better world at the same time.

The purpose of DSM is to create brighter lives for all. As a global science-based company with deep expertise, they offer critical contributions by developing solutions that address several of the world’s biggest challenges. They achieve this by using all the scientific and innovation power they have.

How to put purpose into practice?

Having a purpose, means having a totally different mindset. In a way, that is the easy part. The hard part is putting this new mindset into practice. Helen Mets: “The first thing that you need to do, is to create a path to where you are headed.”

As a leader, you need to be able to paint the big picture to help people see your road map. The hardest part there is to show how to get there, because as a leader you don’t always know exactly how to get there. It is therefore key to involve your teams. This journey starts with having clear, simple and consistent messaging.

The purpose for DSM was to create brighter lives for all. For Resins & Functional Materials, this means they are becoming market-led, customer-driven and developing sustainable innovating. At this point, it’s not an initiative anymore, it’s about capability building.

It all boils down to the people

Transforming to a purpose-led business, boils down to its purpose and involving people. Purpose doesn’t work top-down: as a leader, you can never have enough bandwidth to drive it top down. 

Once people have a strong culture and a clear purpose, they become unstoppable.

It’s essential that people enjoy coming to work every day, because they like what they do. Once people have a strong culture and a clear purpose, they become unstoppable. Productivity rockets, innovation flourishes, the team works in harmony, individuals feel less stress and the bottom-line results follow. It’s all about creating a safe environment. 

Purpose can be woven through a strong, inclusive culture. Helen Mets: “We need to create a culture where everybody feels safe and have a voice at the table. Everyone – from the factory floor to the management board – can feel a sense of ownership over the company’s journey and works towards a common goal with purpose.”

It’s important to have different people around the table: in terms of gender, but also in terms of backgrounds. That difference is where the complexity is: you need to be comfortable with difference of opinion. There is risk of conflict and you need to feel at ease with that. The environment you create as a leader needs to be such, that people feel they are included and heard. This will enable them to contribute in a meaningful way.

According to Helen, that is the hard part about diversity and inclusiveness: people in general do not embrace conflict. Additionally, conflict most often is taken personally. You have to help by making the team realize that the conflict is not personal, but a different point of view. It’s important to bring out the differences of everybody, to help people understand why it’s difficult and create a culture that’s safe.

Diversity goes beyond gender, but gender is an important factor. 

“I also have to play a role for gender diversity”, says Helen Mets. “I feel a personal responsibility to help women be the best that they can be. I want to show people that it’s possible to have a style that’s not highly masculine to be successful. If I can have one conversation in a day that can give somebody inspiration, then I’ve done what I needed to do that day.”

Besides a safe environment, it is important that it is clear how employees incorporate the bigger purpose journey in their daily work. To facilitate that, green teams were created to gather everybody who is passionate about formulating the purpose and focusing on sustainability. They discussed what ‘create brighter lives for all’ actually means to Resins & Functional Materials: who are we today, what do we want to keep and what do we want to be in the future? 

This was really successful: it became a game that everybody played. Employees put more energy into it, they could see the outcomes and debate about the vision and solutions. The green team truly became a green movement.

How do you manage skepticism?

The moment you put the ambition of becoming more sustainable and purpose-driven out there, the expectations of your business rise. Immediately, a lot of companies and people are discussing it and there will be a lot of skepticism. Helen points out that it is important to be authentic and transparent in that journey. “We’re not there, absolutely not. But we’re very transparent about where we are, what our intentions are and how we are going to tackle it.”

“We use our capabilities. We look at what we can do with our capabilities to match the mega trends. We have three domains: Health and Nutrition, Climate and Energy and Design for Circularity. From those capabilities, we look at what we can influence in a direct way. I totally believe that companies and corporates have such a big role to play in this. We’re on that next wave of transformation: what are the markets and trends?" 

And how do we match our capabilities to these trends?

An example of how DSM matched these capabilities is by creating the only fully recyclable carpet in the world: Niaga. Traditionally, carpet is one of the biggest contributors to landfill waste. Most carpets are made from a complex combination of materials that are glued together. It is a recycling nightmare.  Separating that complex combination of materials proved to be difficult and expensive. 

In contrast, Niaga carpet is only made from pure materials, resulting in a mono-material polyester carpet. The carpet is fully recyclable and free of volatile organic compounds, which means it has no negative impact on indoor air quality. The product combines health, climate and energy, and circularity, using all capabilities of DSM to create a sustainable alternative solution.

The journey will be partnership driven

DSM sees a different approach to work on the current mega trends. Helen Mets: “This whole transformation journey is going to be partnership driven. It’s a very open transformation, it’s about us together addressing big issues in the world. You have to open the doors wide. It no longer matters which organization you work for. We need the brightest minds to get together."

The goal for 2050 is that DSM’s innovative sustainable alternative solutions are no longer ‘alternatives’, but mainstream products across the world. 

We need the brightest minds to get together.

Helen Mets: “I hope that, in 2050, we are still looking ahead to the future and seeing how we can use our expertise and competences to enable a brighter world in the second half of this century. To reach this vision, we need to stay true to ourselves as a company and continue to think outside the box. Building this DSM will involve commitment and hard work – but the good news is - we’ve done it all before.”

Authors: Adriana Begeer Amber de Weijer