When the CEO Wants You to Work Out With Him
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In retrospect, it seems perfectly natural that one of the world’s fittest chief executive officers, a man who prefers the title Head Coach and requires that all able-bodied employees of the high-end underwear and fitness apparel company Bjorn Borg AB participate in a weekly training session known as Sports Hour, would ask that I come immediately to the office upon arrival in Stockholm from New York to join him for a workout. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours nor eaten breakfast when Henrik Bunge’s assistant called at 10:20 a.m., right as I was checking into a hotel with thoughts of a shower and a nap, to see if I could make it in by 10:50 for kayaking.
“He won’t wait for you,” she warned.
I raced across Stockholm, arriving at Borg’s headquarters, in an old power station, just in time to hear my name being yelled in a deep, Swedish-accented voice from the second-floor loft above the lobby. Bunge, 45, arrived in a blur down the stairs, looking tan and fit and rushed, his default state. He handed me a motorcycle helmet as he breezed past and out the door to a black Ducati. “This is one way to get to know each other,” he joked as I climbed on for the fast ride to a rowing club at a nearby lake, where the company’s even-more-ripped business development manager, Stefan Erlandsson, was waiting.
“What you will realize about me is that I’m not very flexible,” Bunge said, as he fast-walked in bare feet toward his boat, carrying a paddle. This was why it had been so hard to schedule a visit. When Borg’s public-relations manager first agreed to let me embed at the company, she asked if I could come to Sweden in three days. Her next offer was for five weeks later.
“I don’t really adjust the schedule for anyone,” he said, and laughed. Bunge explained that he ends his daily 10 a.m. meeting no later than 11, not 11:01, because by 11:01 he needs to be en route to his bike to complete his daily workout without disrupting the afternoon. This time is sacrosanct. Some days he does CrossFit. Other days he wrestles. And on Fridays there’s Sports Hour.
Today it’s kayak intervals with Erlandsson, an ultramarathoner and former competitive kayaker who once rowed across the Atlantic Ocean—and there’s little time to waste if Bunge is going to complete a 30-minute paddle, then squeeze in some strength work at the club’s gym, shower, and get back on the Ducati to make it to lunch by 12:30 at the latest. By 1 p.m.—not 1:01—he needs to be at his standing desk, ready for the afternoon’s first meeting. “If you’re on time, that’s a sign that ‘I can control things,’ ” he said. “It’s a very small victory—always being on time. It also sends a signal to the one you’re meeting that ‘I respect you.’ ”
Bunge helped carry my loaner kayak to the dock and gestured for me to step in. I did, then promptly fell in the lake, which caused a brief delay as I climbed back onto the dock and tried again, more successfully. Then we were off.
Or, rather, they were off—two extremely fit Swedish businessmen zooming across the water as I tried in vain to keep up. And this wasn’t the workout. That happened once the men reached an area where the lake was a few hundred yards wide. There, they did five furious sets of laps, with short rests in between, as I paddled around looking at ducks.
Each lap, Bunge later explained, was at 75 percent to 90 percent of maximum effort. “You feel it a little in the shoulders,” he said.
The final lap complete, they were off again, back toward the club, to do bench presses and pullups, and then it was time to shower, as a group. I realize this is a very American thing to point out—Scandinavians are often communally nude—but in many years of writing profiles, I’d never before been nude with a subject, and here I was, showering alongside the CEO I’d come to interview, not long after riding on the back of his motorcycle and falling into a lake. Henrik Bunge does not waste a minute.
It’s easy to be reductive when writing about Bjorn Borg’s peculiar culture—especially if the writer visits on a Friday morning, when Sports Hour takes place. Really, who could blame you when everyone in attendance is wearing apparel emblazoned with a single word, “Borg,” and drinking out of water bottles that also say “Borg,” which happens to be the name of a fictional alien civilization in Star Trek described by the Star Trek Encyclopedia as a society of “enhanced beings … linked together in a great collective.”
The symbolism, while extremely on the nose, is coincidence. It was a design decision to start using “Borg” on the company’s shorts, tights, shirts, and jackets instead of the complete name of the Swedish tennis legend who started the company but is no longer affiliated with it. And although the Friday 11 a.m. workout may be mandatory—as in, if you’re not sick or incapable of walking, you have to go—it’s also wildly popular. Employees say they look forward to it. They seem almost giddy by Friday at 10:45.
Borg is a publicly traded company with a high-visibility brand in Scandinavia and Western Europe; it has 48 physical stores, a strong web presence, and a relationship with the pop star Robyn. And Bunge himself is well-known in Sweden for his unconventional management style. The first board meeting after his hiring in 2014 happened in London, on a Friday, and, yes, there was a Sports Hour, and, yes, billionaires took part. “If I have a COO saying, ‘I’m the best COO on the Earth, but I train on Thursday,’ it’s not gonna work,” Bunge says. “I know people who would say, ‘I’m not a child. I can train when I want.’ And I say, ‘It’s not really about that, though.’ ”
Corporate wellness is very much of the moment in America, especially in tech, but the culture at Borg is next level. There are healthy snacks and meditation classes and guest lectures from life coaches and chair-free conference rooms. (Bunge on chairs: “I used to have them, but I took them out because everyone was sitting all the time.”) Fridays start with an hour dedicated to reflecting—in strictly enforced silence—on the week’s successes and failures and on what you must do better next week.
With regard to Sports Hour, Bunge does have a sense of priorities. “If your wife is calling, saying ‘I just got hit by a car,’ then drop everything,” he says. “But besides that—in terms of work, at least—the ability to get as much out of the work hours that you have is about focusing on one thing at the time. The rigid focus on time is the easiest way of building a disciplined organization. It’s such a strong symbol.”
All of this, ultimately, is about business. There’s limited research on whether fitness and workplace performance are truly connected, but Bunge is, as in all things, fully committed. Ditto the employees I spoke with at headquarters. “We believe that if we are living our brand, which means our strongest version of ourselves, that’s when we can add value in every small detail of the business,” says Lena Nordin, the human resources chief. “We really believe that each small part will be better if you do it with a strong engagement and strong heart, and a strong body and mind.”
And no one at Bjorn Borg is a better example of this than Bunge. He has to be. “Most managers would not understand what it takes to build such a strong culture in terms of being that role model, because you need to be better than everyone else in living what you’re teaching or preaching,” Nordin says. “Otherwise, this won’t work.”
Bunge was born in Stockholm and raised by his mother on Gotland, a small island in the Baltic Sea. After high school he spent two years as a medical sergeant in the army’s special forces. He then moved on to law school, where he was miserable but met his wife, Aino, making it a net win. He had no interest in becoming a lawyer; instead, he decided to ski to the North Pole, unsupported, with an army friend, Magnus Persson.
The expedition was a race, pitting the Swedes against other, far more experienced and better-funded teams of adventurers. But it was the two broke neophytes who won, reaching the North Pole in a record 41 days. “Everybody thought, This has to be luck, but that’s really when I started developing the framework that you see now,” Bunge says, referring to the rigid, goal-oriented philosophy that’s the foundation of his management style. “I concluded that success is much more about having the ability to make the right decisions than it is about background.”
He wrote a book called Framåt (meaning “forward”), lectured about overcoming adversity, and established himself as a professional adventure athlete. But he felt unfulfilled. Chasing records seemed pointless, a lot of risk for very little satisfaction. “Whether you succeed or fail, no one really cares,” he says. “Except you, of course.” As a last hurrah, he skied across Greenland in 2001, setting another record.
Bunge then followed Aino to Boston, where she’d won a scholarship to Harvard Law School. He noticed an ad for management trainees at RadioShack, and when no one replied to his application, he went to the head office. He was hired on the spot, one of 1,000 people placed as bosses in troubled locations, and soon thrived as a peddler of dongles. “I went in at full force, like I’m gonna be the best guy you ever had,” he recalls.
When his wife got a job in London, Bunge followed and started a management consulting firm. The lectures and the book got him meetings and clients, including the ultraluxe bedding company Hastens Sangar AB, which sells $50,000 mattresses and is the official supplier of beds for the Swedish Royal Court. When Jan Ryde, Hastens’s owner and executive chairman, asked Bunge to give his everything-is-possible North Pole lecture to company wholesalers, Bunge suggested an alternative approach. “Let me prove to your guys that it’s only attitude that separates success and failure,” he said. He proposed a contest with the company’s best sales rep, a woman in the flagship Stockholm shop who was so good, Ryde warned, that Bunge might not only lose but also go home with a bed that cost more than his car. Undeterred, Bunge spent a weekend studying the company’s sales materials, went to the store, and announced his challenge.
“And of course she won,” he says. But not by much. He sold three mattresses that day to her four or five. Ryde was impressed. He made Bunge the export manager of Hastens. Within a few months he’d taken over marketing and then sales. “It was very easily spotted how great he is,” says Ryde. “He has a very positive mindset. That means whatever he points his mind to, nothing can stop him. He is a force.”
Bunge eventually found himself longing for the CEO job, which wasn’t coming along anytime soon. When Adidas AG called looking for a sales director to handle Scandinavia and the Baltics, he took the job. Within a year he was made managing director for Scandinavia.
The previous director had been using a soccer team as a metaphor for his management vision, complete with goalies, forwards, and substitutes. “I gathered the whole team, and I just threw it away, saying, ‘This is just ridiculous,’ ” Bunge recalls. “No one is sitting on the sideline. Everyone is playing.”
That’s when his management framework formally became the Framework. He still uses it. “We need to know where we’re going, where we are, what to do, how we are, and why we’re here doing this,” he says.
The Framework is built around those five questions, “none more important than the others.” The questions lead toward goals that are, in Bunge-speak, SMART—specific, measurable, attractive, relevant, and timely. Every employee at Adidas Scandinavia was asked to memorize the Framework and to create individual goals that help achieve the company goals. They were reviewed monthly.
Bunge stayed at Adidas for six years. In 2012 he was hired away to run Peak Performance, a Swedish skiwear maker. He was, at last, CEO at a company that seemed perfectly aligned with his personal story. But less than a year into the job, the man who hired him was fired, and as Bunge tells it, he didn’t mesh well with the new boss. “I’m not sure I gave him any other way than to fire me, so he fired me. It wasn’t the way I would want it to be, but that’s the way it is.”
With a year of severance and a noncompete agreement, plus a 6-month-old daughter, two other children, and a wife on maternity leave, he decided to pack up the family and move to Thailand. He played with his kids, took up Thai boxing, and sat on the beach pondering his future. The experience, he says, reconfirmed his beliefs that “Hey, you need to be around people. So don’t look for a brand. Look for individuals that you want to be a part of.”
Finding time to talk to Bunge—as in real, focused time—is a challenge. You might have to show up at his house for breakfast on Monday. That’s the day his wife leaves early for a workout with her trainer. Bunge gets breakfast and lunch prepped, then drops his daughter at preschool before heading to the office in time for a 9 a.m. meeting that is, of course, mandatory for all employees. “My wife wanted to be sure I told you that this is only a Monday thing,” he says while cutting berries. “Every other day, she is doing this.”
The Framework is not applicable to parenting. Children are far too hard to motivate and coerce. So although management hasn’t made Bunge a better parent, he says parenting has made him a better manager—certainly a more patient one.
So far, his only major failure has been Peak Performance, and he chalks that up to a poor match of personalities. “For the first 10 or 15 years of my career, I always nailed all the goals,” he says. “Whether it was breaking world records in the North Pole or overtaking Nike, at Adidas, as the market leader in Scandinavia, I always succeeded.”
But at Borg, the wins have been harder to come by. “When I reflect on that, it’s probably not because I’m worse than I was 10 years ago,” he says. “I’ve probably added some things, but it’s much harder these days to predict the future.” It’s a constant struggle to effectively position a premium brand in a market that demands discounts and can shop the literal world to find them.
In 2013, the year before Bunge joined Bjorn Borg, the company had sales of 500 million Swedish krona ($54 million) and profit of 21 million krona. Last year revenue was 709 million krona and profit 55 million. Bunge’s 2019 goal, stated right there on the company’s website, is to reach 1 billion krona in revenue and 150 million krona in profit.
That, I observe as he drives to the office in a matte gray Tesla Model S, seems like a big ask. “Everything is possible,” he responds. “If you ask my CFO, he will say, ‘Never.’ But I’ve seen miracles before, and I think we can do it again. It doesn’t really matter, either, whether we hit it or not, because you get further with a goal than without a goal.” Recently he’s overhauled the supply chain, rebuilt the company’s information technology infrastructure, and taken over most distributors so that Borg manages its own sales territories. A push into the U.S. is in the works. It’s all about staving off online competition. “I can’t give away a geography when there are no geographies anymore,” he says. “Amazon is all over the place. How can you give away exclusivity for certain regions?”
Bunge reports to the board, which answers to shareholders, but his goals are checked by Nordin and Borg’s director of business development, Daniel Grohman. “They are my boss,” he says. “In the past my managers have been really good at letting me do what I want. They’ve not been very good at doing as I would want them to do. You understand the difference, of course. They managed me the way they wanted to manage me. The way I want them to manage me is the same way I manage others.” That process is objective. “If it says 2, and you’ve done 1.1, that’s lower. Let’s see how can we get to a 2.”
All 208 employees at Bjorn Borg establish their own goals. People sometimes get frustrated that goals can’t be changed midstream, but that’s nonnegotiable. “You wait until the end of the year, and then you do new goals for next year,” Bunge says. “If you picked the wrong one, don’t focus on it, but don’t take it out. It still should be there as a reminder that I picked wrong, and I’m not going to do that again.”
Bunge recognizes the challenges of premium retail, but he sees no use in fretting over the struggles of his industry. “I made a call being here,” he says. “If we talk about the industry, it’s not doing well. It’s OK. The weather is what the weather is.”
When he looks around the Borg office, he isn’t worrying about how to sell more $35 boxer briefs. He’s worrying about how to make the people who design and market and sell $35 boxer briefs happier and more fulfilled so they’ll accomplish their goals (which ideally would include selling those briefs). “It should all deliver results,” he says.
“And then I think the side effect is that, when it comes to having stress and workload, we know that training, eating, sleeping, and being with people you love, that’s one of the strongest ways to mitigate your stress. It’s like a balanced scale. You have all these resources—training, eating, sleeping, and relationships. And then you have all these demands. That’s life.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Daniel Ferrara at firstname.lastname@example.org, Jeremy Keehn
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