Interview with Dan Propper, chairman and former CEO of the Osem group, a Nestle company
Originally founded in 1942, Osem is now one of the largest food corporations in Israel. In 1995, this long-standing company made a pivotal decision to form an international partnership with the Nestle food corporation, marking a turning point in its history and giving it new strategic leverage for growth and development.
The decision to partner with Nestle, a reputable and knowledgeable, global and multinational holding company, was a breakthrough for the Osem group; creating windows of opportunity for largescale growth activity. It enabled the company to enrich its knowledge base and expertise in many relevant fields, from management and marketing to advanced technology.
Dan Propper, chairman of the Osem Group Board of Directors and former CEO, elaborates on that decision, “My vision was to become part of an international corporation. I realized that we lacked the means of acquiring the knowledge necessary for our company to grow and I recognized the capabilities of an international company and the many advantages that it can offer Osem”.
Going back to Osem’s origins, Propper recalls, “Even during Osem’s first years the company’s founders placed a high emphasis on innovation and growth, values that continue to guide us to this very day”.
Osem was founded at a time of severe financial crisis for the Jewish community in Palestine. Although the local population was low, there were already 35 noodle factories operating at the time.
Dan Propper’s father, Eugen Propper, and his partner decided to merge their factory, Hadagan with two other factories (Assisit and Itrit), into a new company with the name “Osem”, a term taken from an ancient Jewish prayer.
The company began to flourish several years later. The rapid growth of Israel’s population caused an increase in demand, the market was full of endless opportunities and Osem began to develop new products.
Osem introduced its first product, “Petitim” (toasted pasta), in the early 1950s. The idea for the product was born during those years of financial austerity. Rice, considered a staple food, was in short supply. David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel at the time, had asked Osem to develop a substitute. Their solution was baked, rice shaped pasta.
Today, Osem manufactures nearly one and a half tons of Petitim in a hour, 24 hours a day, while the majority of the produce is exported to other countries where it is known as Israeli couscous.
Several years later, Osem expanded production to include a second product – “Soup nuts”, which resulted from the company’s need for growth and variation under the budget constraints preventing it from purchasing equipment. The soup nuts were manufactured by cutting noodles and frying them in large pots. Later on, the manufacturing processes became more sophisticated and continuous.
Bamba, another core product, was first manufactured in 1964. The first line of this snack was cheese-flavored but the European flavor did not appeal to Israeli consumers. In 1966, Osem began to produce a peanut-flavored product after someone proposed coating the snack with peanut butter. The rest is history, Bamba became an integral part of Israeli culture.
Osem has continued to develop and produce many additional products and is now an Israeli leader in the food industry.
“Osem’s tradition of ongoing enhancement and progress since its earliest days demonstrates that the principles of innovation and creativity are what guided the company’s founders and continue to guide us to this very day”, Propper continues. “Innovation is an important part of our company culture and activity. Without it, our company would cease to exist”.
Over the past few years, Osem has invested vast resources in developing innovation processes, including appointing an innovation administration to stress the importance of this principle. One of the results of these processes was the yeast flour that the company now produces. This new product was developed due to analyzing and understanding consumer needs, discovering that consumers are hesitant to bake with yeast. Osem now provides them with flour which has the yeast built in. The product has been available on the shelves for six months and is already a success with consumers.
Innovation at Osem is part of the company’s DNA and is supported by implemented processes, work routines, KPI’S and tracking methods.
“In addition to innovation”, Propper explains, “one of the most important things for Osem and top priority in my eyes, is growth. I am a great believer in growth, not only to strengthen the company’s market value or to make it more powerful by streamlining, but for a much more important reason that many people are unaware of. If a company streamlines without growing, it has no choice but to lay off employees. The ideal method is to grow, thus creating new jobs for employees whose roles have been cut back as a result of streamlining in their departments.
At Osem, our employees know that when we talk about streamlining, they may be promoted because when the pyramid expands, it grows taller as well”.
Mr Propper continues, “When we streamline our sites, the process is conducted with the full cooperation and involvement of the employees. When our employees are fully involved, they are willing to take on more responsibility and invest more in their work. Even the simplest of tasks can be conducted optimally. The employees invest a maximum of thought and effort, knowing that they are responsible for the quality of the final product and not only for performing a specific task”.
Partnership and involvement are at the core of the organizational culture that is ingrained in all Osem employees, from the most senior management down to the very last employee. One unique example was an incident in one of the company’s factories. Three women worked on the soup nut packaging line.
They approached their manager and said that there was no need for three employees and that two would be sufficient.
The manager originally thought that the three women had argued and preferred not to work together, but after further inquiry, it became clear that the real reason for their request was that two women really did suffice to do the job and they felt uncomfortable with the fact that there were three assigned.
This is an example of the atmosphere at Osem. Employees do not feel threatened or fear for their job security. They understand that efficiency is the key to the organization’s success. It is what allows them to grow and improve in new positions.
“My vision”, Propper explains, “is for every corporation in Israel to install values of genuine partnership, hard work and diligence. The employees and their managers must be able to see eye-to-eye, to see each other as equal partners.
One way of realizing this vision, particularly since Osem has grown and begun to establish and acquire additional factories, is through employee mobility between sites. Employees who have been with the company for a long period of time can help instill the organizational culture at the new sites.
“When one of our factories relocated to southern Israel, its 200 employees were relocated to other locations around the country. We arranged transportation and helped several employees move to different cities. This is part of our obligations towards our employees.
Osem’s employees believe in us and in the opportunity that we provide for personal and corporate growth. This is a significant asset that is the result of years of effort.”
After the Madrid Conference in 1992, the boycott against Israeli companies and companies that collaborate with Israel came to an end, opening doors for Israeli businesses.
Nestle, the Swiss food Corporation entered into a partnership with Osem in 1995. With a sales turnover over 92.2 billion CHF in 2012 and 339,000 employees around 150 countries, Nestle sells 1 billion products every day.
Osem and Nestle’s collaboration is based not only on numbers and potential growth analyses, but much more on the companies’ shared organizational and business culture. Nestle is committed to its employees and considers them full business partners, which enables the two companies to create a genuine, unique partnership. Before the collaboration agreement was signed, Nestle asked to conduct an inspection visit at Osem. A senior representative arrived in Israel and spent two weeks inspecting procedures and performance at the various Osem sites.
Dan Propper recalls; “After two weeks in Israel and before he departed, the senior representative met with me and said ‘Mr. Propper, you have a bug’.
I was worried for a minute, thinking that he had discovered a real problem in our manufacturing lines. But then he continued ‘This is the same bug we have in Nestle, which is the bug of loyalty of people’. I knew then that we had an excellent partnership”.
This was the beginning of a partnership that has been maintained until this very day. Nestle and Osem cooperate fully: Osem is an indispensable part of Nestle and Nestle an indispensable part of Osem. Today, the Nestle Corporation holds 63.7% of Osem’s stock.
The following is a partial list of our ongoing activities:
In contrast to Nestle’s typical business approach around the world, Osem continues to sell unique products independently abroad.
Osem constantly looks ahead towards coming years. Its future goals include growth, innovation and enhancement of its international growth. Osem will continue to offer products that are more than just food to its millions of customers. It offers a combined emotional and sensorial experience while meeting the highest standards for food, marketing and consumerism.
By Ayellet Globerman, Partner, Tefen Israel
Ella Houli, Senior Consultant, Tefen Israel