Producing the future

If you are a big player in a small town, it is important to always keep a close track on your responsibilities. For Anna Schreil, VP Operations at The Absolut Company, this is old news.

Over the years, she has together with her team consistently introduced and implemented a number of innovative improvements to the factory in Åhus. But cobots, fully automated high-bay warehouses and industry 4.0-practices in all essence – the production of a bottle of Absolut Vodka requires more than a mere push of a button. It’s a complete chain where every link – from locally grown grains to global sustainability claims – must be seamlessly integrated. Every day.

Absolut exports 99 percent of what you produce in Åhus today. In other words – what’s essentially marketed as all local product is in fact in many ways a global matter. How can this fact be combined with your ambition to run a sustainable business?

– We have a production philosophy called One source / One community, where the first is all about our origins and our way of making Absolut Vodka – with sustainability and quality in focus – and the second highlights the community that makes it all possible. One source means that our product has one origin. The wheat, the water, the manufacturing and production processes all originates from one place. This gives us the unique opportunity to control and maintain a consistent and high quality in all our products and to monitor our production footprint. We now have data on everything from the fields where our raw materials grow to the glass supplier, who’s production plant is located some three hours away from our factory.

Vodka is not made at the touch of a button. It is a craft that requires an incredible amount of knowledge

It makes us incredibly circular and enables us to scale up or down all the links in our production chain in a sustainable way. Then we have the human aspect of production. Vodka is not made at the touch of a button. It is a craft that requires an incredible amount of knowledge. You really must master all the steps in the process – i.e. before, during and after – to get the best product possible. And then last, but not least, we have all the partners in our supply chain – Our community. There are so many people who are involved in and around our production. We recognize their importance and that’s why we always work in partnerships that don’t just involve a transaction where we pay and someone else performs a service for us.

How does Absolut work to be as circular as possible?

– Sustainability has been a priority for us a very long time – both in our products and in how we make them. It is always important for us to act on the basis that we are global company located in a small town. And to recognize that this comes with a huge responsibility. We don’t want to be associated with people roaming the streets drunk on our products and we don’t want the locals to be uncomfortable with odors emanating from the production plant or being accused of contributing to pollution in any of the places where we operate. Consideration is vital. And the same applies to all the employees within the company – both in Skåne and in the HQ in Stockholm, but also around the world. If we look at pure environmental aspects, I feel a strong engineering drive to have one of the world’s most energy efficient distilleries. We must be state of the art and that means that we don’t let any resources go to waste. We take care of our products and our by-products, we are careful to nurture our raw material resources and we always try to have an understanding of our own place in the value chain we’re part of.

Can you give an example?

–  Take the whole story of our hand sanitizers. In that specific case, we realized early on that we had the spirit and thus an important position in the chain, but that the chain also consisted of a whole lot of other links that had to be connected to get the end result that we were striving for. To be circular is to look at the whole system and understand what happens both before and after you’ve left your contribution. And I think we are very good at that today. But of course, we also look inwards at our own circular processes to try and come up with new ways of how we can improve and increase our sustainability work. For example, spirits are purified from fusel oil, which in turn contains hydrocarbons, which are a great source of energy that we can use as a green fuel at our factory. We have already invested in and taken into use such a facility. In the same way, the alcohol that we use to clean the machines with can be used to heat our facilities with.

What are the keys to how Absolut’s always been able to maintain a good balance between tradition and innovation?

– I think it’s interesting to imagine how our founder L.O. Smith would have acted if he’d been alive today. I’m absolutely certain that he hardly wouldn’t have tried to preserve his methods and that he wouldn’t be opposed to trying out all the different opportunities that new technology could bring. I rather think that he would’ve placed great emphasis on adapting his how to the future, that is, being openly curious about new, more efficient methods and better ways of ensuring and maintaining a consistent quality. Value creation is dynamic, and it is not possible to lean on practices developed some 40 years ago.

As an engineer, I think it is value-creating that consumers like the products we develop

As an engineer, I think it is value-creating that consumers like the products we develop and produce and that they are willing to pay premium for environmental friendliness etc. At the same time – especially for a brand like Absolut – it is necessary to never lose track of the core values that we stand for; a -premium vodka made with passion and love. It’s important to be sensitive to what changes you implement as they will have a value-creating significance for our consumers. That is why we work a lot with consumer insight, to always keep track of how the changes we plan to do are received by our customers.

Which areas have been most challenging from a sustainability perspective?

– The fact that we’re part of a system is both an enormous opportunity to influence, but also a limitation in the sense that we aren’t in control of the entire supply chain. Take the handling of the wheat we use in production as an example. Here, it is challenging to build in sustainability requirements because those will come with a price tag for the growers. And who’s going to pay for their conversion costs? Us, them, the government, or EU? These types of questions are becoming increasingly important. Organic isn’t always the same as sustainable. At the same time, as it isn’t up to just us to administer the right type of conversion, we are one of the largest players locally in Southern Sweden since we buy so much of the farmers’ production. So, if we can collaborate throughout the entire supply chain, we can establish a more circular model faster. But it is important to take it step by step and start small scale and then level up. That’s why we work a lot with cultivation data, which we previously collected by hand, but now have digitized. This means that we will have the opportunity to follow a specific batch from sowing to harvest and analyze all the factors that have influenced why, how and when a harvest has reached a certain quality. But this type of work is not done in the blink of an eye, so the time factor is a huge challenge sometimes, with long downtimes before we can get the correct answers to our questions. 

What values do you think Absolut creates?

– Locally, I hope (believe) we create immense value for our employees. We offer interesting job opportunities combined with a nice community where we try to make everyone develop and thrive. Then we create value for the greater Åhus area. It is not only our employees who earns their livelihood from us. We are one of the largest employers in North-East Skåne and that means that many local companies such as shops, contractors, haulers and machine suppliers are dependent on us to some extent. But, as I said before, we are constantly working in partnerships where we have high demands on each other. This is a great way of staying progressive. We’re also running Absolut Home – which is a pride and joy here and helps attract tourists to come and visit Åhus.

And on a global level?

– In a larger perspective, I think we create a lot of innovation that can give our consumers new values or experiences. Two good examples are Absolut Unique and Absolut Comeback. Both represents new ways for us to talk about innovation and sustainability through our products. The bottle is our main messenger and through it we can manifest everything that we to stand for.

I recently read that you are implementing a process called Industry 4.0. What does it mean?

– In short, industry 4.0 is about creating new values by adopting and applying new technology. Value creation is nothing new – we do it for consumers, customers and stakeholders all the time – but it can have value in itself to find ways to be more efficient. And by efficient I’m not only talking about cost saving measures. There are lots of new opportunities emerging from digital developments. Take automation, which is close to my area of production responsibility, as an example: today we have a high-tech high-bay warehouse that is fully automated and we have ongoing trials with cobots (collaborative robots), i.e. robots that can work close to humans. Some work tasks at the production plant are heavy and not so ergonomic and here cobots can play a very important role in saving our employees’ bodies and help free up more time for them to for example analyze data, work with new solutions or training. Industry 4.0 is, a bit simplistic put, all about finding ways and new places to implement digital technology in order to improve processes, control and forecasting.

Is there any part of the production that’s impossible to digitize?

– Yes, for sure. One can never teach a machine to think about all the possible situations that may arise. Artificial intelligence will never be better than the programmer who wrote the code – there’s just no good way around the limitations of learning that’s been built into the algorithms. It is in a way philosophical. Intelligent machines can be excellent as a complement and as an aid. Collecting, structuring and analyzing data takes time and effort, but you’ll always need people to interpret and analyze. I think this is especially important when it comes to food. Eating or drinking something is an experience of taste, smell and texture. There is a lot you can objectively measure, but the sensory ability that humans have to analyze with their tongues, noses and fingertips and connect the sensory impressions to a complex whole, is not fully replicable in a machine.

Today, it’s not just about taste, smell and appearance in a product. You want to know more about the origins, the company, the culture and sustainability and so on

You have worked at TAC for a relatively long time. How do you think the perception on your products has changed during these years?

– The biggest change I’ve noticed is that the consumer’s interest in what and how we produce has increased a lot. Today, it’s not just about taste, smell and appearance in a product. You want to know more about the origins, the company, the culture and sustainability and so on. Especially the environment and sustainability issues are extremely much more important. Through the use of digital technology, everything local is also potentially global now but I think we’ve managed to build and maintain a strong leadership position through our smart use of tech and innovation. And it’s easy for us to talk about our origins, because we live and work in the middle of them.

What areas do you see as most important to continue to develop within TAC?

–  I think it is important to never lose focus on our consumers. We can digitize and streamline as much as we like, but we must not lose sight on all those who love to buy and use our products. Even though we are talking about implementing practices such as Industry 4.0, we must be careful to always include a consumer’s perspective. But we must never forget to develop ourselves too. We want to be progressive and at the forefront of many things, that requires constant development of our people and our collective capabilities.

What is your sustainability vision for the production in Åhus?

– There’s a roadmap for what we call Ambition 2030, which basically means that certain goals must be achieved within the next 10 years. For example, we want a completely climate-neutral product and we also strive to have a resource-neutral product where everything can be recycled. We simply don’t want any waste.

When googling your name, three major media incidents are recurring; one global, one national and one local. The autumn wheat shortage in Skåne 2019, the nude shock in Åhus 2018 and the black birds in The Absolut Tower 2017. Which of these matters engaged you the most?

– The wheat. Without a doubt. It was an issue that was so much bigger than just the fact that there wasn’t enough wheat available for purchase in Skåne. All of a sudden, we were faced with a real risk of no longer having access to everything we needed to manufacture our product. 2019 was the worst drought in 50 years in Skåne. We watched the farmers suffer and we saw how the whole system – of which we are very much a part of – shaken to its core. Animals had to be slaughtered due to lack of food and we had to save water and hunt down all the small drips we could collect. It was an unpleasant glimpse of what a system collapse looks like and I thought it was both scary and outrageous.

I really like figuring things out, so becoming a forensic scientist might have been a good alternative career choice for me

And what about the full monty at Åhus – or the naked truth, as it’s also called? What went through your mind when accepting to participate in a commercial where several of the production staff – including yourself – posed nude?

– When I first heard about the idea behind the naked truth – the vodka with nothing to hide – I remember thinking ‘who’ll want to be in this completely naked?’ At the same time, I thought it was a good idea and that it would be fun if it actually was us who work here who starred in the film. We are super proud of what we produce and we have absolutely nothing to hide. The casting was done entirely on a voluntary basis and I communicated early in the process that I wanted to participate. And it was, surprisingly enough, no problem at all getting a whole bunch of staff together and strip down naked on a cold and rainy autumn day. It was all fun and the whole factory came through with happy cheers and applause when we shot the scenes.

What’s most important to you as a leader?

– That I create the right conditions – for my employees and for myself, for a sustainable future and for producing premium products. It is a long-term commitment that I know requires my full attention at all times.

Which of your personal driving forces do you consider are assets in your work?

– The fact that I’m so solution oriented. I think that is a great asset. I often get a bit irritated when I think people are wasting more time discussing a problem than actually trying to solve it. It’s probably due to my desire to constantly try to find ways to improve things in order to develop myself.

What would you have done if you had not worked at TAC?

– I really like figuring things out, so becoming a forensic scientist might have been a good alternative career choice for me. I can imagine myself sitting around all day trying to put different puzzles together and combining traces and patterns to create new contexts.

The last question comes from your colleague Johan Radojewski. He’s curious to know how you – given that you’re so often positioned in the eye of the storm in many of the ongoing debates on sustainability, health, environment and globalization – work proactively to keep your finger on the pulse in these complex matters?

– The simple answer to a complex question is that I have the privilege of working very close to many experts on these issues. They help me collect and analyze the right intel and to filter in what is relevant for our context. So, surrounding myself with several and different types of skills is the key to keeping yourself up to date. I do also spend a lot of time reading up on topics and listening in to others who can give me inspiration and share their knowledge.