When good karma equals good business

Christian Stadil's commitment to 'karma' and 'slow thinking' makes him an unusual business guru. But with a successful portfolio of 120 companies under his belt, his ideas might be worth listening to

It took a minute to get used to the fact that the muscular and tattooed man in front of me, dressed in a casual cotton suit and black sneakers, was one of Denmark’s most iconic businessmen. Christian Nicholas Stadil is the founder and owner of the Thornico Group, which has a controlling stake in around 120 companies that span sports fashion, real estate, shipping, food production, and technology.

But Stadil is more than a business guru. He is a mountaineer, sergeant, author, environmental activist, entrepreneur, and tattoo enthusiast. He is charming, slightly erratic, and eccentric. Who else do you know that has built a business empire on the principles of good karma and creativity?

“I have a special mind, maybe a bit of Asperger’s mixed with some OCD. And that special mind-set – thinking, thinking, thinking, all the time, kind of obsessed in many ways – is really irritating.”

He tells me this at the Thornico headquarters in Hellerup, a few weeks after we first met at a nearby bookshop called Books and Company. He was invited to talk about his new book, In the Shower with Picasso, which explores how individuals and companies can promote creative thinking and innovation. At ease in the limelight, he is a confident and eloquent public speaker, weaving witty anecdotes and colourful personal stories into his narrative.

Stadil believes in the power of creative thinking, and talks about it as a state of mind, something that can be accessed by entering a relaxed state and allowing the subconscious mind to take over. He calls this “taking a creative break” – letting the conscious and rational mind taper off, and letting “slow thinking” dominate.

“You need to work hard, but then stop and take the creative break, trusting that the subconscious will keep on marinating. Then, if it’s important to you, the ideas will bubble up.”

He uses a variety of tools to take a break from focussed thinking, from running and walking to showering and meditation. These tools also help him rein in his ‘monkey mind’, a Buddhist term for a mind that is undisciplined, jumping from one idea to the next.

But when it comes to accessing his creative side, Stadil swears by the power of sleep.

“Just before going to sleep, I write down what I want to think about during my sleep, and then in the morning, before the portal to the subconscious is closed, I keep on writing. This technique comes from a Japanese scientist, Ishiwuara. In the morning, you keep on writing, right away, before the subconscious is closed. Salvador Dalí used to set his alarm at a random time – like 2AM – and when he woke up, he would start painting before his conscious mind caught up with him. So that’s kind of interesting.”

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Fear=bad, doubt=good
Businesses need to give their employees space to take creative breaks if they are to tap into creativity and ingenuity Stadil believes. But it is also just as important to eliminate the culture of fear and domination in many workplaces.

“Fear is crippling. It has been neurobiologically proven that fear makes you go into fight-or-flight mode. You concentrate your attention and your awareness only in your conscious mind, which has a really narrow bandwidth. This means that you simply close the door, the portal to your subconscious, which is really where your ideas come from.”

But while fear is kryptonite to creativity, he says self-doubt is not as undesirable.

“Self-doubt is a constant companion. It’s what propels me. The doubt, the pushing, the energy. You have to have that, because becoming too complacent is bad. Doubt makes us ask questions. How do we do this, and how can we do it another way?”

Nature vs. Nurture
What drives people to seek new ways of doing things? It’s a question Stadil has invested a lot of time in researching. After consulting psychologists and theorists around the world, he believes that there is a correlation between some disorders and creativity.

“What you may consider to be the biggest barrier in your whole life may in fact be your greatest strength,” he says, adding that people with conditions such as ADHD, borderline schizophrenia, or some mood disorders may have an easier time accessing “slow thinking”, and thereby can be more creative.

“For instance, OCD makes you ask ‘what if’, which is very good question for creativity!”

It’s a funny insight from a man who hums with energy and seems unable to hold his own focus, swiftly moving from subject to another. But it seems to me that it is precisely his ability to embrace these mental acrobatics that has paved the way to his success. While he thinks some people may be more predisposed to creativity, he also contends that everyone has the potential.

“The most important thing is to decide to be creative. If Mozart didn’t have a piano in his home, would he have become Mozart? For sure I am not Mozart in any sense, but would I have become what I am today if my parents weren’t so supportive? I, for sure, don’t think so. I owe them everything.”

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Not-so-humble beginnings
It’s an important confession, for Stadil’s story is hardly a rags-to-riches tale. His father was a famous lawyer, his mother a supermodel. He says that he is a true combination of them both. From his mother, he inherited his flair for style and fashion and his spiritual inclinations, and from his father, his pragmatism and business sense.

Raised in Copenhagen’s wealthy northern suburbs, he attended Denmark’s best private school before joining the Royal Infantry. He quickly rose through the ranks and made sergeant at just 18.

“My time in the army was pivotal for me. In terms of leadership, I realised that I had the ability to motivate and to inspire others.”

Stadil left the army in 1992 to attend Århus University, where he studied law for two years before leaving it in favour of pursuing his business career. In his twenties, he teamed up with his father, and together they began investing in shipping and real estate. It was the start of the Thornico Group.

In 1999, he bought hummel, an iconic Danish sports brand that had been declared bankrupt. It raised eyebrows, but after an aggressive rebranding strategy, the gamble paid off. Hummel was restored to its former glory, and Stadil cemented his position as a major business player.

Good Karma
Stadil was first attracted to Eastern philosophy at age 12, as a means to rein in his ‘monkey mind’. Buddhism and meditation may actually be his saving grace, keeping him from being completely overwhelmed by his daily responsibilities.

But it’s not just in his personal life that these philosophies guide him. Stadil has developed a business philosophy he calls ‘Company Karma’. In Buddhism, karma is the understanding of cause and effect, of how our actions affect the world and lead back to us. Applied to business, Stadil’s goal is to find innovative ways to make companies both profitable and socially and environmentally conscious.

One example of Company Karma in action is a recent Thornico endeavour, Mät Foods, which is being launched in the autumn. The high-protein snack bars are designed to address two different problems: a lack of protein in non-Western diets, and obesity in the West.

“We want to give high-protein products to developing countries, while on the other hand providing a high-protein, super-healthy product to Western youth. High-protein products help you feel more ‘mät’ [full up], so you don’t need to eat as many burgers or chips later in the day.”

Stadil wants to integrate the Company Karma philosophy into all of Thornico’s companies. He believes that everyone wins when business leaders think holistically and integrate customers, partners and causes into the process. Simply put, it’s a way for businesses to do good.

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Looking to the Future
Stadil has no intention of slowing down. When I ask him how he remains focused and inspired, he says he is driven by passion.

“I feel really privileged to be working with different kinds of companies, start-ups and different kinds of industries. I think that’s really interesting. There’s not one day that’s the same as the other. It doesn’t get boring, because there are always new things, new projects, new ventures.”

Now with two children under the age of three, the arrival of these new hummel-clad rugrats has only inspired him to do more.

“Being a father has been the biggest defining moment in my life. I now know why I do what I do. I know what it’s for. I know it makes sense now to work so much, but also to work even more, you know?”

Christian’s father, Thor Stadil, is now in his seventies and remains an active board member of the Thornico group. Christian affectionately calls him “the Danish Warren Buffett”.

It’s hard to imagine that Christian will ever mellow in his old age, but when I ask him about his plans for the long-term future, he does suggest he’d like to slow things down.

“In twenty years, I’ll still be doing business, but I’d like to be involved with fewer projects and at a deeper level. I’d like to focus on business that I’m passionate about. More Karma projects. Hopefully, ‘Company Karma’ will be a household phrase by then. But I’d also like to spend some time living abroad. Maybe outside Tokyo, working with some tech start-ups, or in the south of France, living with my wife. Spending more time with the family. My two children will be older and more independent by then. Maybe we’ll have a third child?”

As the interview comes to a close, he hands me his business card. It features an Allen Ginsberg quote: “Follow your inner moonlight, don’t hide the madness.” M

It’s an apt mantra for Christian Stadil, and the key to his success. M

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By Kristina Møller

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