By Fernando Gonzalez, an EO Colombia member and vice president of strategic planning at Solutions Group S.A.
It was 2007, and my marketing and outsourcing firm, Solutions Group, was about to go bankrupt. I was facing a tremendous amount of pressure from my partner, not to mention personal, family and health-related problems, on account of all the stress. We had debts all over town, owing banks and third parties close to US$1 million. Added to the pressure were the 120 employees that relied on us for their livelihoods, dreams that would be dashed if we didn’t recover. We were in shock, to say the least.
We needed to act— and fast. We opened up to our banks and suppliers about our circumstances, as well as our loyal employees. We were confronted with a mountain of a management issue, and with our backs against the wall, decided to let 50 people go in a single day so that we could get a little financial relief. While exploring new ways to sustain our company, we kept analyzing project after project, hoping to find a permanent solution for our financial woes. Around this time, we won a bid for a big design project in Latin America, which required us to travel to various countries … with a mere US$20,000 in our name to cover our obligations.
Appealing to the competencies that we EOers have for risk management, frustration tolerance, resilience and change management, we decided to invest the few dollars we had left and begin the project. Thanks to this investment, we wound up meeting elite industry colleagues from around the world and participated in a trade fair to generate new ideas. We also entered several of our projects in a design contest in Chicago, Illinois, USA, and ended up winning seven awards (a record in our industry), making us one of the most awarded companies in Latin America. And yet … we still needed a new business direction if we wanted to stay afloat. Enter Juan Salamanca.
It’s amazing what can happen when you ask for help. A chance encounter with a friend of a friend in Chicago opened the door to a whole new world. Juan is an industrial designer with a master’s in design management and a Ph.D. in design philosophy. When we met, Juan was wrapping up his thesis paper on innovation through design, a holistic approach to innovation that allows for new perspectives without generating preconceptions, creating a more inclusive world. Juan taught us that design is invaluable when it comes to the success of a project, and that innovation in large part is based on this discipline. With Juan’s guidance, we explored design-driven innovation, establishing bonds with interest groups from the Colombian and Dutch governments, as well as designers and associations that excelled in this field. As a result, we developed benchmarks for a new business model and the construction of a new production facility … two things that ultimately saved our business.
Today, Solutions Group has one of the largest and most modern design facilities in the region, as well as the support of a solid point-of purchase design process that companies like Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble recognize. What’s more, we have a new innovation model based solely on design, which has generated new business and transformed the culture of our company. We are now considered a successful business case for the Colombian government and a reference that shows how innovation based on design can become a public policy that supports business development in the region.
Looking back, innovation through a holistic process not only saved our business, it took it to another level. None of this would have been possible without the fortuitous development of a new friendship. By being open to guidance, I was able to change the course of my business, my family and my life. I have God and Juan Salamanca to thank for that.