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Thirteen countriesone culture

How Norwegian robotics maker AutoStore spread its small-town identity across the globe

Establishing a distinct culture was easy in the early days of AutoStore. The company, which builds robots designed to make warehouses more efficient, was founded in Nedre Vats, a remote village on the rugged west coast of Norway. A flat hierarchy and a spirit of openness grew organically at a company whose employees have deep roots in the area and deep connections, including many family ties, to each other.
“We are easy countryside people,” says CEO Karl Johan Lier. “We have always been very transparent and open, and quick at decision making. The culture is clearly based on a natural way to behave in the environment where we come from.” But sustaining that culture as AutoStore’s customer base surged in recent years and the company opened offices in far-flung regions of the world required deliberate planning and execution. “One of the greatest risks on my table was going from one office with a very rooted culture to a global organization, where you potentially risk your identity being diluted,” says Anette Matre, the company’s chief people and information officer.
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We have always been very transparent and open, and quick at decision making. The culture is clearly based on a natural way to behave in the environment where we come from.”
-KARL JOHAN LIER, CEO, AUTOSTORE
Ensuring that did not happen became her top priority as AutoStore spread quickly to places as distinct as Japan and Italy, Singapore and Poland, South Korea and the United States, that were not necessarily a natural fit for the company’s egalitarian ways, where every employee is expected to speak his or her mind. Adding to the challenges: a majority of the 700-plus AutoStore employees were hired during a pandemic. Despite these hurdles, AutoStore has managed to pull off a feat that has tripped up many companies. When AutoStore went public in October 2021, its IPO was Norway’s biggest in two decades. The $327.6 million in revenue it delivered in 2021 represented an 80% increase over 2020. “Figuring out how you propagate culture globally is always a difficult and thorny challenge but one critical to any company’s long-term success,” says Rodgers Palmer, a U.S.-based consultant who started working with AutoStore in 2020. But where many companies treat culture as something of an afterthought, AutoStore made development of its culture a priority, and people in Nedre Vats were intentional about ensuring that every new employee and every new office embraced it.
Palmer figures he’s worked with or studied hundreds of companies in his 20-plus years as a globe-trotting organizational consultant. AutoStore, he says, “is one of my five favorite cultures of all time.” He cites its “off the charts” employee Net Promoter Score. A score above 50 is considered excellent in this standard metric used to measure worker satisfaction and engagement. Apple has an eNPS of 20, according to Comparably, a workplace culture and compensation monitoring site owned by ZoomInfo. Google’s is 38 and Costco’s 46. AutoStore recently registered a 79. It’s the kind of score that explains the company’s stunningly low annual attrition rate of 1.5%. (By comparison, the tech industry in the United States experienced attrition rates that topped 20% on average in 2020, according to various surveys.) “What AutoStore’s success proves is that the challenges of spreading your culture can be an opportunity and not a problem,” Rodgers says. “So much of their success is linked to the strength of their culture.”
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Family roots

AutoStore’s founding story is rooted in a happy accident. In the 1990s, the homegrown Hatteland Electronics reigned as the largest supplier of computer components in Scandinavia. As it ran out of space in its warehouse, the company’s technical director, Ingvar Hognaland, floated the idea in the form of a riddle. “He asks me, ‘What do we have more of in the warehouse than anything else?’” recalls Synnøve Matre, a software engineer at Hatteland who still works at AutoStore. Matre (a distant relative of Anette) floated some answers. Computer chips? Transistors? Hognaland had something else in mind. “He says, ‘Air,’” Matre says. “‘The problem is that there’s too much air.’” That was the seed for AutoStore’s cube storage system, where robots motor along on tracks to pick up items, and which has grown into the densest order-fulfillment technology in existence. “Most people thought it was crazy,” Matre says. “I thought it was such a cool idea and a super interesting challenge.”
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One of the greatest risks was going from one office with a very rooted culture to a global organization.”
–ANETTE MATRE, CPO, AUTOSTORE
Lier, who was Hatteland’s CFO at the time, greenlit the project. “The culture has always been very open-minded in search of creative solutions,” he says. “And when we see something that we believe in, we invest in it,” he adds. By 1999, the team had a prototype. The following year, the family behind Hatteland’s computer parts business sold the business and reinvested much of the proceeds into AutoStore. While AutoStore got its first customer outside of Norway in 2010, and its first in the United States in 2012, it wasn’t until 2017 that it began opening up outposts around the globe. At the time, the company had 150 workers distributed between Nedre Vats, Oslo, and a manufacturing facility in Poland. Today, it employs 760 people across 13 countries and has roughly 600 customers in more than 40 countries.

Bold. Transparent. Lean.

AutoStore’s culture is grounded in a succinct, three-word mantra that describes its core values: bold, transparent, and lean. Bold is an easy sell within the company given AutoStore’s founding story. As Lier notes, it was bold for the company’s owners to commit to invest millions in what was once a far-fetched idea—and maintain that commitment for the 15 years it took AutoStore to reach profitability. “Let’s face it, we’re based in the middle of nowhere, in a small fjord in Norway, and a small group of bright people were able to build a unicorn,” says Merete Vårvik Matre, who serves in the newly created position called director of people and community. (Merete is also a relative, by marriage, of Anette.) Adds Synnøve Matre: “Living in a small village, imagine saying out loud that we will build the best warehouse system in the world.” In other words, AutoStore’s boldness is baked into its DNA. Transparency also comes naturally to a Norwegian-based company, says Anette Matre. It’s a country “where high trust and freedom to speak your mind are key pillars of society,” she says. But AutoStore stands out even when compared to other local companies in the permission it grants its employees to share what’s on their minds or drop in for a frank discussion with the CEO. “It’s the most outspoken organization I’ve ever been part of,” she says. Transparency begins with Lier, who hosts frequent all-hands meetings with AutoStore’s global workforce. Logging on from the United States, Suzanne Delap marvels at Lier’s candor and his willingness to answer any question in front of hundreds of employees. “People are very friendly but they’re very frank,” Delap says.
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To Isabel Rocher, the company’s regional director for southern Europe, Lier’s transparency, and the openness required of every manager, helps cleanse the environment of politics. “When you see that you can talk freely, you feel trusted, you feel heard, and you feel empowered, and then people can commit [to a decision] much more easily,” says Rocher, who is based in France. Lean is the final of the three-word statement of principles. “We don’t overcomplicate things,” says Merete Matre. “You keep it simple for partners, for customers, for suppliers.” In the early years especially, that meant saying no to a lot of customers because AutoStore refused to customize its system. “We have such a flexible, good solution that you don’t need that,” says Lier, adding that AutoStore’s team remains small relative to the size of its business. “Theirs is a culture rooted in self-reliance, which I understand is a very Norwegian philosophy,” says Ram Trichur, who serves on the AutoStore board of directors. “A fundamental belief in self-reliance is a very useful trait to have in the current environment,” Trichur adds, noting some of the challenges facing companies over the past several years, including a global pandemic and disruptions in the supply chain.
Voices of culture
AutoStore employees share what makes the company special

Searching for the right DNA

Those charged with evangelizing AutoStore’s culture say that begins long before someone’s first day on the job. “When we hire people, if we don’t believe that they fit into the culture, even if they are the best from a skill point of view, we would never hire them,” says Lier. “The most important criteria is the right fit.” To assess that fit, job candidates are asked to take a survey that explores such topics as how they like to work, what motivates them, and how they like to be supported. Their answers are benchmarked against the responses of 190 AutoStore employees. “It gives us an early indication of potential discrepancies,” says Anette Matre. During interviews, prospective hires are often asked straight out how they would feel working at a place where anyone can talk to anyone as a peer and where every voice is respected. The acculturation process continues during the onboarding of new hires. “We say very clearly that we don’t only care about the results that you’re achieving,” Anette Matre says. “We are also concerned about how you achieve them, and that has to be in line with our values.”
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Cultural fit is also a key measuring stick during employee reviews and is central to any feedback offered. Collaboration and initiative—addressing problems rather than assuming they’re someone else’s purview—are strongly encouraged. “You will not find anyone going home when a customer is in trouble,” Anette Matre says. There’s been no set roadmap for opening a new office. Sometimes AutoStore hires a manager locally. Other times they dispatch an experienced hand from Norway. One constant, though, is that the company always identifies a cultural ambassador—someone who is not only steeped in the company’s ways, but also has an ability to proactively engage with coworkers around them—whose role is to lead by example and to advocate for the company’s values. AutoStore also works hard to ensure that those outside of Norway don’t feel as if they work in satellites charged with carrying out orders dispatched from the mothership. “There’s a real family feel to working here,” says Delap, who works in New Hampshire as part of a close-knit international marketing team spread across three continents. “While you have your team here, you’re communicating and collaborating with others across the globe.” AutoStore leans heavily on Microsoft Teams and on Meta’s Workplace app to foster easy communication among its geographically dispersed employees.

Lessons on culture from AutoStore

  • 1

    Identify and articulate the essence of your culture. AutoStore’s culture is shaped by three core values—bold, transparent, lean—that emerged organically in the company’s early years. Those values, and their critical role inside the company, are stressed frequently and emphasized with new recruits.

  • 2

    Culture begins at the top. Executives must lead by example so culture and values don’t become mere words. “I try to live the values every day in everything I do,” says CEO Karl Johan Lier.

  • 3

    Prioritize culture. Culture is a factor in recruiting and a metric in performance reviews. Cultural ambassadors, who visibly model the company’s values, are in charge of opening new offices. “Culture is dynamic and alive,” said Anette Matre, AutoStore’s chief people and information officer. “In many ways, culture is made up every single day.”

  • 4

    Cultural integrity trumps technical expertise. There’s sometimes a steep price to hiring talent that has the wrong DNA for your enterprise. “We take a bit longer to bring in the right people,” says Isabel Rocher, AutoStore’s regional manager for southern Europe, “but we see that as saving time and energy, because this way we avoid culture problems.”

  • 5

    Communication is key. AutoStore holds regular town hall–style meetings, at which any employee can ask the CEO a question. All-hands gatherings in Nedre Vats, a feature of the prepandemic days, are set to resume. “We’re true believers in lots and lots of communication,” says Merete Matre, director of people and community.

Keeping culture fresh

The pandemic presented additional challenges for AutoStore during a period of unprecedented growth for the company. Normally, AutoStore would fly key new employees to Nedre Vats to spend time with colleagues, but that became impractical. Also in normal times, people on the human resources and recruiting side of the company would visit AutoStore outposts around the globe to see how each office was faring. “We are believers in communication, lots and lots of it,” says Merete Matre. During the pandemic, AutoStore implemented what it called its Mystery Coffee program, which randomly pairs employees for 30-minute virtual sessions with colleagues in a different country. Expansion to different locations came with its unique challenges. In 2018, the company sent one of its top engineers to open its first U.S. office in Derry, New Hampshire. (There’s now a second one in Denver.) But the employee proved not to be the cultural ambassador AutoStore needed in a country where many people are acutely aware of the consequences of speaking out of turn to a superior at work. “I think a lot of people in the U.S. like the way we behave,” says Lier. “The challenge is to get them not to think the way they normally would in the workplace.” Eventually, the company bolstered its footprint with another cultural ambassador who quickly cut out the corrosive distraction of simmering office politics. “The ‘open door, speak your mind’ policy is sometimes hard for Americans to get used to,” says Delap, who was the fifth employee hired in the U.S.
AutoStore has faced similar challenges in parts of Asia, where a more conservative approach to business can be at odds with the company’s boldness, and where transparency is not the norm and a deference to hierarchy is often hard-wired. “It’s up to us to be open and very, very clear about what we expect from you, and you need to be able to handle it, ” Lier says. “It works for some. It doesn’t work for all.” He and other managers at AutoStore, which has always seen itself as a kind of family, have needed to grow more comfortable with letting go people who are not a good fit, though only after a process of engaging with those people to try to address the cultural disconnect. “Culture is a million little things and takes your daily attention,” says Merete Matre, who is relieved that overseas workers can once again travel to Nedre Vats. This year, every AutoStore employee is invited to Norway in late September for its first all-hands gathering since the start of the pandemic. Once again, the company is able to add a bit of fun to people’s work life. There are paper airplane throwing contests, croissant Fridays, and a bicycle race from Oslo, on the east coast of Norway, to AutoStore’s headquarters on the west coast. When employees travel to conferences and events, they’re given the keys to the company’s social media accounts so they can chronicle their day-to-day experiences. “We try to tap into a feeling of belonging, a feeling of togetherness, a feeling of being part of an AutoStore family that is not transactional, but relational,” Anette Matre says. Preserving those qualities, along with the company’s trademark boldness, transparency, and leanness, is a job that’s never finished. “We’re very happy about the way things are. But culture is something that has to be fresh. It’s made up, each and every day, by every individual in the organization.”