Antonia Ax:son Johnson took over the family empire A. Johnson & Co. HAB in 1982.
“The good company”
Antonia Ax:son Johnson took over the family empire A. Johnson & Co. HAB in 1982. Already then, during the golden age of greed, she spoke about the “good company” and of the corporate world as the greatest potential changing force in society. Not many people listened. Today, some decades later, concepts such as corporate social responsibility and sustainable development are spoken by every forward-thinking corporate leader.
“In the beginning, when I had just taken over the family business, I often asked myself what my motivation was. Was it being responsible for a long-standing family business? Was it good balance sheets and income statements? Or were other values important? I soon realized that what motivated me was something more than economics.”
The Rio Conference as inspiration for change
Antonia Ax:son Johnson began working specifically towards sustainable development within the corporate world when Percy Barnevik from ABB contacted her in 1989. Leading up to the major UN meeting Earth Summit, also known as the Rio Conference, the corporate world had been requested to submit ideas on environmental challenges and sustainable development. Forty prominent business leaders from around the world met in Holland, not really knowing how or where to begin, as the subject was new. Despite their initial confusion, the meeting ended up being successful and Antonia went home, inspired to make a change – home to a management team that had not yet caught on.
“The general attitude among the bosses was that business executives should not get involved in these issues. The very thought was considered bizarre. Rather, these were the responsibilities of society and the authorities. No one understood that businesses are very much part of society.”
Focus on practical application
Then the crisis of the 1990s arrived. The Axel Johnson Group struggled to survive and sustainable development issues were set even further back in the minds of the bosses. In order to ensure continuity within sustainable development issues, Antonia decided to start a foundation. In 1993 The Antonia Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Sustainable Development was registered, with an aim to support scientific research on sustainable development as well as its practical application.
From the very start, the foundation’s work focused on creating convergences despite barriers. Important discussions about sustainability were initiated by inviting speakers with opposing views. Those critical of the Axel Johnson Group were also invited in order to enable discussions from different perspectives on an academic level.
Axfoundation develops into a “do tank”
Initially the foundation’s focus was to raise awareness of sustainability challenges, since such problems seldom received attention in public debate. Today, several of these questions are now part of the agenda, allowing the foundation to work practically and with a result-oriented process. But new challenges appear and are always in need of being highlighted.
“Sometimes, adopting a long-term perspective on global challenges is the most rewarding path. Sustainability issues were at one time under the radar, but today they are a part of everyday life. Limitations to commitments of sustainability made by companies and people must continually be tried, reviewed and reformed. Axfoundation wants to be at the forefront, challenging and translating good ideas into practical solutions. Relentlessly.”