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How a once-bankrupt cashew company used the Scaling Up platform to orchestrate a turnaround

By Verne Harnish 

When consultants Harm Voortman and Maliyabo de Kwaasteniet, a husband and wife team, were hired to turn around Anatrans, a cashew company in Burkina Faso, in 2015, they went into overdrive immediately. The company, backed by two shareholders in the Netherlands, was in a cash crunch and on the verge of bankruptcy.

“On my first day as a CEO, I was in the local commercial courts, trying to negotiate bankruptcy protection,” recalls Voortman. Fortunately, he got a new private equity investor on board and eventually raised more than $2 million in a mezzanine round. 

When Voortman discovered my book Scaling Up through a Google search in 2019, he saw it could help them take the 2,500-employee company to the next level. “We were already instinctively doing some of the things we read about, but there was no framework,” says Voortman. After applying Scaling Up platform, Anatrans tripled the company’s production from about 4,000 tons of cashews in 2018 to almost 12,000 tons. The company peels, dries and conditions the cashews before sending them to European markets.

Here’s how Voortman and de Kwaasteniet, an operations expert, multiplied the team’s productivity exponentially. 

Reorganizing a team

When Voortman read Scaling Up, he related immediately to the discussion of how constantly putting out fires can leave senior leaders tired and stressed out. To prevent this, he and de Kwaasteniet decided to expand the senior management team to include four other managers. Delegating to other leaders allowed them to reduce the number of team members who reported directly to them. Originally, they each had 20 direct reports.

One step that helped was having the senior management team clarify responsibilities using the Function Accountability Chart (FACe). “When you ask people to fill it in themselves, without having a plenary meeting on it, you recognize when it’s not clear to your staff who is in charge of what,” says de Kwaasteniet. “That’s why it’s such a brilliant exercise. It forces everyone to be clear about who’s responsible.”

Improving the hiring process

Most jobs at Anatrans require manual labor. Voortman and de Kwaasteniet customized Topgrading—the system for recruiting and retaining talent recommended by Scaling Up—so they could use it to hire for those positions, keeping the interviews to less than five minutes. “We wanted people with the right attitude, so we got it down to an essential few questions on attitude,” says Voortman. They created a more in-depth, two-hour version to interview senior team leaders.

One sign that their approach worked was the high percentage of senior and middle managers who stayed for a year or more and turned out to be A players: 90%. That compared to 50-60% in the past. “Our ‘miss’ rate on hires went down dramatically,” says de Kwaasteniet.

Communicating a strategy 

With their eyes trained on improving productivity, the consultants began teaching the team Lean manufacturing principles and completed the Seven Strata of Strategy with senior leaders. Together, they set Quarterly goals, shaped by input from the entire team. “That made a very big difference in focusing the organization behind the same two to four priorities for the next three months,” says Voortman. “Everyone was also thinking of how to contribute personally to these goals. Now, we weren’t telling them what to do. They had input. For me, the big eye-opener was the power of collective intelligence.” 

Underpinning of the strategy was clear communication of the company’s values—such as always having a Plan C. “In Africa, running a manufacturing operation requires you to rely on imported equipment and a tight shift system, so it must run like clockwork,” says Voortman. “We found it important to clarify that Plan B is not enough — spare parts manufacturers are not on site. Under the circumstances,  you can’t fall back on other people and other companies to help you out when you have a problem, so you must always find a solution or have a solution ready.”

Executing more effectively

As Anatrans implemented Lean manufacturing and redesigned the manufacturing plant, the leadership team looked for ways to distinguish the company. In 2020, Anatrans became the only business in the country to meet the BRC Global Standard’s food safety and quality requirements. The company steadily grew its fair-trade and organic certified raw cashew supply by investing in traceability, smallholder relations and the targeted development of the cooperatives that grew the cashews. 

Daily standup meetings throughout the organization helped to improve communication so problems didn’t spiral out of control. “People started mentioning things, because they knew if they didn’t, and those things came up tomorrow, they would be part of the problem,” says de Kwaasteniet.

Putting Cash front and center

Voortman negotiated bankruptcy protection for Anatrans within two weeks of becoming CEO but wanted the company to exit that status as soon as possible. The company accomplished that within two years, when it attracted an equity and mezzanine finance investment of more than $2 million, negotiated with Oikocredit, an impact investor.

To improve the company’s finances, Voortman and de Kwaasteniet prioritized the Power of One from Scaling Up, looking at the critical levers that would improve its cash flow. They examined factors such as the potential outcome if the company processed 1% more cashews, shipped every container one day sooner, or paid off their crop finance loans one day sooner. “It was an eye opener on what was really at stake,” says Voortman.

Cashew prices are volatile, so revenues at the company fluctuate, but Voortman considers Anatrans’ increased productivity as an indicator that its Scaleup has been succesful. Voortman and de Kwaasteniet have moved on to other projects at their consultancy, P3rsist (with the P3 standing for “People, Planet, Profit”), now that Anatrans is thriving. “With the clarity of the Scaling Up framework, things just fell into place,” says Voortman.

Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish
Verne Harnish is founder of the world-renowned Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) and chaired for fifteen years EO’s premiere CEO program, the “Birthing of Giants” and WEO’s “Advanced Business” executive program both held at MIT. Founder and CEO of Gazelles, a global executive education and coaching company with over 150 coaching partners on six continents, Verne has spent the past three decades helping companies scale-up. The “Growth Guy” syndicated columnist, he’s also the Venture columnist for FORTUNE magazine. He’s the author of Scaling Up (Rockefeller Habits 2.0); Mastering the Rockefeller Habits; and along with the editors of Fortune, authored The Greatest Business Decisions of All Times," for which Jim Collins wrote the foreword. Verne also chairs FORTUNE Magazine’s annual Leadership and Growth Summits and serves on several boards including chairman of The Riordan Clinic and the newly launched Geoversity. He is an investor in many scale-ups. A father of four, he enjoys piano, tennis, and magic as a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.