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Interview with Ricardo Semler

By Nick Easen for CNN

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Semler has tried to eliminate what he calls "corporate oppression."

(CNN) -- For almost 25 years, Ricardo Semler, CEO of Sao Paulo-based Semco SA, has let his employees set the terms of their employment: hours, wages, even their office technology.

This has resulted in impressive growth, long-term loyalty and better productivity.

CNN's Andrew Carey interviews him in Brazil about the rise of Semco and his strategy.

Q: It is part of a reoccurring theme in your book to treat people at Semco as adults, not as children. Do you believe that companies often treat employees like children?

A: Yes, I see a lot of what happens in companies. It is similar to the situation in boarding school -- where pupils and teachers both know that things need to get done. The teachers know that they cannot trust pupils to decide everything on their own. That is why they always check on arrival times? Are pupils sitting in class, what are they saying to other pupils.

Here at Semco we are doing something else --- we are saying everyone is a responsible adult. Currently, staff already make decisions about their kids. They elect governors and mayors. They know what they want to buy and what they do not. It is absolutely crazy, the idea that people are still concerned about how things are done. The bosses here do not say -- you are five minutes late or how come this worker in the plant is going to the bathroom?

In life we do not give employees enough leeway. If you look around Semco's office there are plenty of empty desks. The question is -- where are these people? I do not have the slightest idea, but I am not interested.

I am not interested in saying I want to make sure that my staff are here and that you are giving the company so many hours a day. Who needs so many hours a day? We need people who will deliver a final result. I need to make the bank happy. With four hours, eight hours, 12 hours in the office -- showing up on Sunday and not showing up on Monday, it is totally irrelevant to me.

Today we have a lot of problems with customers, because the customer has a certain mentality and they like to see everybody in suits. And I do wear a suit but very rarely.

The point is that if we do not let people do things they way they want to do them, we will never know what they are really capable of and they will just follow our boarding school rules.

Q: You have come along way from being a predominantly manufacturing business to a now predominantly service industry. Why the change?

A: Basically, we have changed with the times. Manufacturing has become an outdated process in certain respects. It has become old-fashioned to do more with the same kind of machinery. Machinery is still an important part of our business, but now we are trying to increase the sophistication of it.

It is becoming more digital -- every time more complicated. Manufacturing on a volume basis has become more difficult and less sexy.

Q: I know that one of the issues that you are writing about specifically at the moment is e-mail privacy. I wonder if you could tell us what sort of attitude you have to that at Semco?

A: A couple months ago we had to fire one of our IT managers. A very difficult decision because he checks our e-mails for technical reasons. Our policy at Semco is that there is no difference between private e-mails and private correspondences. But for some reason corporations have taken over this whole field and the legal world has been quiet about it. But the idea is that following what is on the Internet essentially belongs to everybody. It is open, it is public and so I can look into anybody's correspondence -- for me this is absolutely crazy.

Some people say the reason for that is because we own the server and the equipment and you are working on our equipment. But with this rationale in mind I should be able to say that I can listen in on everybody's telephone conversations. I also own the phone so why shouldn't I hear when somebody's talking to their son or to their lover or to another company about leaving us? Why shouldn't I be able to monitor everything that goes on?

So our whole rationale is that that network and desktops, or laptop computers they take home is absolutely private. We have no access whatsoever to their data, even though it is very easy to use to check what people are doing. We have no control whatsoever. We want no control whatsoever.


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