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COFCO International: How cloud technologies ensured business continuity during challenging times

Leentje Chavatte

Leentje Chavatte

Microsoft, Data & AI and Digital Transformation

Read Time, 6 min.

“I have worked at COFCO for 12 years, always in an office. But I have spent the last 63 days working from home.”

Marcus Seelbach, Chief HR Officer at global agribusiness COFCO International, is talking from his home via video call about the transition he and all his colleagues have undergone since COVID-19 led to the closure of the company’s offices worldwide.

“But thanks to the preparation and work of our IT guys, we’ve made a very, very rapid switch from a company totally unused to working from home, to a company where everybody does,” he adds. “All without having any loss of efficiency or security.”

“We have spent the last 63 days really working from home,” says Andre Davico Schneiter, COFCO International’s Group CIO, who has been one of the key people in making that transition as smooth as possible.

“The technologies we needed to start working remotely were already in place, so we could hit the ground running with no effort at all.”

It is an impressive achievement, and one that was made possible by the company’s decision to continually upgrade their cloud-based IT infrastructure over the preceding years.

Benefiting from an established cloud-first approach

COFCO International is one of the world’s largest agribusinesses, responsibly supplying agriculture products around the world through its globally integrated supply chain. Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, the company employs around 10,500 people across 36 countries.

The company has existed in its current form since 2017, when it brought together a number of different operations under one umbrella. A crucial strategic focus of the newly formed company has been to implement an IT strategy that consolidates COFCO International’s diverse operations from a fragmented IT setup into a centralized platform.

The three key pillars of that IT strategy have focused on operational efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and security.

“That’s why we implemented our cloud-first approach in 2016,” says Schneiter. “Moving to the cloud, we can achieve each of those things. When we migrated to Azure in 2016, we saw immediate savings of more than $4 million a year,” he says.

“And then there is the security aspect,” adds Schneiter. “Microsoft is far better positioned to provide security for cloud-operations than we could do ourselves.”

A solution to bolster security

“Moving to the cloud in 2016 was a no-brainer for us with the IT strategy we had,” says Uri Brown, COFCO International’s Microsoft and Cloud CTO, who has worked closely with Schneiter to implement the company’s cloud strategy. “Upgrading to Microsoft 365-E5 in 2019 was based on us wanting to add to that. We wanted to bolster our security posture and improve our collaborative capacity by integrating our telephony system with our other cloud-based collaboration tools,” he explains.

Microsoft 365-E5 is an enterprise-specific platform designed with companies like COFCO International in mind. It includes security and collaborative features designed to keep large organisations connected and secure.

“Little did we know when we upgraded,” says Brown, “that we were setting ourselves up with the ultimate platform to continue to collaborate and do business during the COVID-19 crisis.

“And to do so securely,” adds Brown, alluding to the unfortunate phenomenon of companies across the globe struggling with an increase in security threats since the COVID-19 outbreak

“Thankfully, we’ve been operating for 63 days with no major security incident,” adds Schneiter. “And that’s mainly because with Microsoft 365-E5 we can respond very quickly and efficiently to any potential threat.”

Collaboration tools that reinforce a culture of communication

Beyond security, one key aspect of COFCO International’s shift to remote working has been the use of Microsoft 365’s collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, which have mitigated the cultural disruption of the company’s transition.

“COFCO was not a company that did remote working,” says Seelbach. “We were used to working in offices and collaborating by tapping each other on the shoulder, by having a conversation in the coffee room.

“Microsoft Teams has enabled us to keep that culture of informal communication going,” he says. “It’s what has kept the company together during this time, enabling people to continue to collaborate in an everyday way, despite the change in working environment.”

And it’s not just the video conferencing and file sharing capabilities of Microsoft Teams that the company has been benefiting from.

“I have found SharePoint invaluable,” says Allan Virtanen, Communications Director at COFCO International. “Within minutes, I can get the latest safety information or instructions from the company or the government to all our employees. I managed to get a special dedicated portal for COVID-19 up and running within hours.”

Social networking is also being used to keep COFCO International’s employees connected, with the use of business social networking tool Yammer having increased fourfold across the company since April 2020.

“It feels like a social media platform, so people felt quite comfortable to start posting photos and videos and sharing stuff,” says Seelbach, who has used the platform to launch COFCO International’s ‘Stay safe, stay connected’ campaign.

“It’s a great way to keep people engaged in a more light-hearted way,” he explains. “And that is something we are really encouraging: that people share pictures of their workstations or their pets or recipes, like one big family – because that’s what we are.”

It is a platform that the whole company has embraced. “99% of our employees read the messages shared on Yammer,” says Virtanen proudly.

Bringing everyone together with Microsoft 365

To achieve such incredible engagement statistics, the company had to making sure that everyone across its network felt comfortable using the collaboration tools at their disposal – no easy task when you are trying to communicate with employees in 36 countries who speak a wide range of languages.

To do this, the IT team worked fast to establish an educational programme that would ensure everyone across the company could continue to collaborate, share and communicate during the unprecedented transition to remote working COFCO International was undergoing.

“We call them ‘roadshows’,” explains Brown. “They’re online sessions that help keep everyone together and make sure we’re all able to use the tech we have access to. We invite the whole company and get people from all across our network joining each session.”

Another proactive step the company has taken to enhance collaboration and communication is the appointment of regional champions, who help ensure that everyone at COFCO International gets access to the learning resources they need, regardless of language.

It has all contributed to the almost total engagement of the company’s 10,500 employees with the various tools COFCO International is using to keep everyone together.

Lesson for the future

Looking to the future, COFCO International has taken many learnings away from this recent period.

“The use of collaboration tools like Yammer, Office 365, Teams and some of the other productivity tools will definitely be embedded in our day-to-day activities when we go back to the office,” says Seelbach.

“Teams will be a feature irrespective of working from home,” he adds. “It will have an impact on the way people in the company travel for sure. We will start to assess much more closely whether travel for meetings is really necessary.”

And for COFCO International’s tech leaders, the decision to pursue a cloud-first IT strategy and continue to update that infrastructure has fully paid off.

“I am just so glad that all our preparation has paid off during this difficult time,” say Brown. “And that we didn’t have to scramble to put all these collaboration tools and security features in place when we suddenly needed them.”

“I am very proud of what we have done,” says Schneiter. “We are one of the most advanced companies in the world in terms of moving to the cloud. And we are just at the beginning of our journey.”

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