2020 EFMD Case Writing Competition Winners Interview Series: Hidden Champions

EFMD encourages and rewards innovative and impactful cases in management development each year. This year brought an exceptional variety of winning cases across various industries. EFMD decided to interview the winners to find out more about their motivation, inspiration and significant challenges.

The first interview is with the winning author of the category “Hidden Champions”, Dr. Lucas Wang, Nottingham University of Business School, Ningbo, China.

Shandong Moris Chemical Co. Ltd.: “A Hidden Champion in the Brine Chemical Industry”, written by Dr. Lucas Wang

“Hidden Champions” are large, medium-sized companies that hold a leading international market position but aren’t well known to the general public. Cases focus on the challenges of hidden champions to support them in mastering their jobs even better.

Could you tell us what the greatest inspiration for your case was?

Several inspirations led me to write this case. Among them, the greatest one is to disseminate the critical knowledge related to hidden champions. Unlike many well-known brands, hidden champions are those exceptionally successful but meanwhile inconspicuous firms. Individually, a hidden champion dominates an industry segment; collectively, they shape a nation’s competitiveness in the global market. The pioneering work by Dr. Hermann Simon brought this unique species of companies to the fore.

Once put forth, the hidden champion concept has received warm acceptance and considerable attention from managers and government officials worldwide. Take China, for example. There have been several seminars, forums, and conferences on the theme of hidden champions each year in the recent decade. Many audiences are eager to learn what a hidden champion is and how a company can become one.

Lessons from hidden champions are undoubtedly worth sharing in business classes, whether to undergraduates, MBAs, or EMBAs.

Lessons from hidden champions are undoubtedly worth sharing in business classes, whether to undergraduates, MBAs, or EMBAs. Based on my search in Ivey and Harvard Publishing, cases that are specifically devoted to hidden champions are rather scarce, if any. This prevents university instructors from delivering topics related to the phenomenon through case teaching or supplementing lectures with relevant readings. I, hence, spotted an urgent need for writing a hidden champion case.

I paid several visits to Moris Chemicals in Shandong, China, to explore how it grew into a hidden champion with this vision. The company was surprisingly cooperative, providing me with many useful internal publications and the chances to interview all their top executives. During one visit, I met Dr. Simon in person and exchanged ideas with him about the case. Both the enthusiasm of the Moris and the conversation with Dr. Simon are inspiring. In hindsight, the success of Moris and insight research by Dr. Simon respectively form the practical and conceptual pillar of my award-winning case.

And what were the significant challenges in designing the case?

During the process of this case project, three major challenges presented themselves and took me a while to tackle. 

The first is to put the case story together. Although I was quite clear about the learning objectives of the case at the beginning, I was still overwhelmed – to some extent – by the amount of information received from company visits, interviews, and other materials. There seemed a lot of different angles to appreciate the success of the company. Which one is the best? After careful reading of all the materials at hand and self-wrestling in the mind, I finally pieced together a storyline that could capture the most prominent facts of the company and meanwhile effectively deliver the learning objectives. 

The second challenge stems from embedding the discussion cues into case text. Case teaching requires in-class discussion with students. The case facts provide raw materials, but the discussion should not be limited to just the facts – otherwise, students can draw the answers from the case, which will make the discussion mechanic and boring. During writing the case, I tried hard to embed cues to discussion questions in the case text without explicitly revealing the answers. The cues lead to solutions, which creates the need for elaboration, debates, and discussion. 

Thirdly, the industry-specific jargon and technical sophistications raised some hurdles in writing the case. Moris, in this case, is a company in chemical production. There are many chemical terms and formulas to describe their businesses. Many technologies they invented or applied in the production process are also not easy to grasp for outsiders. I did a lot of research to understand them. However, to enhance the readability and adoption of the case, I intentionally reduced using those technical terms or jargon to a minimum.    

In what ways, in your opinion, could the case impact society and business in the near future?

The case can leave meaningful impacts on society and business in more than one way.

It will enable managers to acquire necessary knowledge and insights as to the process a company grows into a globally dominant player in a market, namely a hidden champion. The case covers several critical conditions for the success of this process, including unequivocal support from leadership, consistent commitments in R&D, and market positioning of product development (i.e., an unfulfilled market crack).

The case provided detailed information regarding strategic decision-making after a company achieves a champion status in one market.

More importantly, the case provided detailed information regarding strategic decision-making after a company achieves a champion status in one market. In this case, Moris first became the top 1 producer of one brine-based chemical and then managed to replicate the same success to several other chemical products. The case will show the strategic decisions as well as the execution behind this transformation. In addition, it provides a perfect chance to elaborate on the management of multiple champion products.

The success of Moris described in the case will encourage companies to evolve in socially and environmentally responsible practices.

Last but not least, the success of Moris described in the case will encourage companies to evolve in socially and environmentally responsible practices. The latest additions to the business umbrella of Moris are water treatment and improvement of saline lands, which precisely tackles two urgent environmental issues in the chemical production industry. These two businesses are now self-sustaining, offering another example that companies can do well by doing good. This inspires companies to heed the environmental or social concerns in their industries as that may be where growth opportunities lurk around.

The Sponsor’s Commentary

The category “Hidden Champions” is kindly sponsored by Hidden Champions Institute (HCI), ESMT Berlin. EFMD greatly values the sponsorship, the expertise and the effort of the sponsor to contribute to the Case Writing Competition.

Dr. Hilde D. Engelen and Bianca Schmitz from HCI, ESMT Berlin provide feedback and more information about the purpose of sponsoring this category.

Why is case writing & teaching on the topic of “Hidden Champions” important according to you?

Numerous cases concentrate on huge companies, like GE, Amazon, Tesla. We at ESMT also work with many Hidden Champions, one of the key drivers of Germany’s economic success. We assume that other business schools, trainers etc., are also working with SMEs. To make classes and discussions more meaningful and easier to translate into daily working practice, we are looking for significant new cases on current topics related to this specific category of companies.

What are the reasons that the HCI at ESMT Berlin is encouraging case writing on the topic by sponsoring the category?

We would like to encourage faculty to write cases about Hidden Champions and help to shed light on the success factors and challenges faced by this category of companies. HCs are often so special concerning many facets, ranging from their strong innovation power and emphasising very high-quality standards to a unique culture. We love to see that these amazing companies get more “publicity”, and participants, faculty and companies are more aware of them. Additionally, we have the HCI and the BTM Center– all of these Institutes work closely with HCs.

About Sponsorship

Each year, more than 17 institutions sponsor categories in the EFMD Case Writing Competition. The choice of category and its exact definition, and any specific conditions are the privileges of the sponsor. Sponsorships for the following categories are currently available – Continuous Improvement: The Journey to Excellence, Indian Management Issues and Opportunities, Supply Chain Management, and MENA Business Cases. If you are interested in getting more details, sponsoring the mentioned categories or launching a new category relevant to case writing and teaching, please contact Hansol Park at hansol.park@efmdglobal.org.

You can find more information about the 2020 EFMD Case Writing Competition on the EFMD Case Writing Competition page.

Please visit Case Centre’s webpage to access the collection of the winning cases.