The almost automatic response to Ricardo Semler’s wonderfully subversive new book, The Seven Day Weekend (Century, £16.99), is: ‘Well, that’s all very well in Sao Paulo, but we couldn’t do it here.’ Semler is, or was - more of this later - president of Semco, Brazil’s most famous company, which has made its name by standing the conventional corporate rulebook on its head.
Semco doesn’t have a mission statement, its own rulebook or any written policies. It doesn’t have an organisation chart, a human resources department or even, these days, a headquarters.
Subordinates choose their managers, decide how much they are paid and when they work. Meetings are voluntary, and two seats at board meetings are open to the first employees who turn up. Salaries are made public, and so is all the company’s financial information.
Six months is the farthest ahead the group ever looks. Its units each half-year decide how many people they require for the next period. Naturally it doesn’t plan which businesses to enter. Instead it ‘rambles’ into new areas by trial, error and argument. Its current portfolio is an odd mixture of machinery, property, professional services and fledgling hi-tech spin-offs. That’s right, Semco is the epitome of managerial incorrectness, a conglomerate.
Sounds like a recipe for chaos, eh? Yet Semco has surfed Brazil’s rough economic and political currents with panache, often growing at between 30 and 40 per cent a year. It turns over $160 million, up from $4m when Semler joined the family business two decades ago, and it employs 3,000. $100,000 invested in this barmy firm 20 years ago would now be worth $5m.