You’ve now been managing director of Balluff for around ten years. How would you describe this time?
The years have offered a full arc of tension. My brother and I joined the management team after the financial crisis. My father had managed the company through the crisis itself. The following years saw a very positive economic development; We have managed to more than double our sales since 2009, and the Balluff family has expanded globally. For us, the fourth management generation, this primarily meant controlling and consolidating this growth. This was very enjoyable since positive results can be seen quickly. However, management during periods of growth is slightly different than management in challenging times. In the last 18 months we, as a company, have had to cope with an economic recession and the Covid-19 pandemic. This was and still is a great challenge for us.
Balluff must not only deal with Covid-19. Digitalization is also leading to an extensive transformation process. And there is also a new management line-up.
During this period, I really sense the responsibility for the entire Balluff Group. As the management team, we were preoccupied with many different aspects last year. Although we would not have personally placed every item on the agenda, the pandemic was unexpected and couldn’t have been planned for. It was a real challenge facing up to this pandemic and finding the best solutions for Balluff – so that we come out of it again, together. To put this in positive terms: We all developed very quickly.
What was it like for you to say goodbye to Michael Unger, a longstanding management partner, and also form a new management trio under pandemic conditions?
The change had long been planned. Fortunately, we did not know in advance under what conditions it would take place. The farewell to Mr. Unger in February 2020 was actually the last major Balluff event. Corona then came on the scene, and so much we would never have thought possible occurred. Frank Nonnenmann had four weeks to acclimatize in the office. Afterwards, we all worked on a mobile basis. On the whole, his arrival in the company certainly turned out to be different from what we had imagined. However, it worked well. We have a very harmonious relationship. Above all, we have always had the common objective to support our employees in these times which are proving challenging for every one of us.
As a member of the advisory board, Mr. Unger was a supportive member of the team.
Precisely. The advisory board provided great support regarding difficult decisions last year. With a committee that externally re-evaluates decisions – from a certain distance – contributes its own experience, provides feedback, and also validates us, this helps us again to see things in an entirely different light.
Balluff is a family-run company. What does this mean to you?
In my opinion, the main advantages of a family-run company compared with firms listed on the stock market lie in the aspects of sustainability and long-term orientation, which can be used as a basis for decisions. We have no obligation toward investors. We have more decision-making freedom and can tackle things differently. I also believe that this involves employees. In our company, the team determines success or failure. In my opinion, we are a special team – a team with an extremely strong feeling of togetherness. It is one thing to write that on a poster, but something else entirely to really feel the sense of togetherness in difficult situations.
Balluff’s corporate culture is guided by values. How deeply are these values embedded in the company? Where you do feel these values are being pursued?
The values give us security. The entire team at Balluff has tackled the changes, including those that came from outside the company, with great openness and a strong sense of commitment. They assumed responsibility. It was a new experience to work on a totally mobile basis and spend the entire day in video conferences. What’s more, during the peak of the pandemic, I would say that we actually had mobile working plus. Plus means we also had homeschooling, childcare, … it was quite common that children wanted their parents’ attention during meetings. In this kind of a situation, you must be flexible and calm, and say: We’ll finish now, we’ll solve this in a different way. That’s part and parcel of work in these times. It’s essential to accept this and make the best of it.
Corona has turned the business upside down to a large extent. What effect will these experiences have on the way in which Balluff works in future?
We paved the way for mobile working beforehand and also worked on a mobile basis in some places. For example, I did this personally right from the very beginning. It wouldn’t have been possible otherwise with my two daughters. The pandemic showed us that mobile working can work for us. In my opinion, there is one great advantage for Balluff as a global company because many international colleagues are now closer than before. All of them are in the same situation: Everyone sits in front of their laptop. This has made communication easier and exchanges more intensive. I also believe that it is a valuable experience in not always having to travel. Of course, employees like meeting their colleagues face to face. But the stress involved in spending two days traveling to a meeting that lasts just two hours should not be underestimated. We can find other good solutions in this case. Although I then have to sit at my computer early in the morning or late in the evening, I can switch it off later and collect my son from soccer training. Travel will naturally continue to be part of our work, but a good mixture of both is sensible.
Is there an example of how these experiences will be included in future planning?
Yes, in our new building in Neuhausen. Firstly, we have clearly demonstrated through the start of the construction work this year that nothing has changed in our commitment to the Neuhausen plant and our aspiration to have modern working worlds for our team. We are also shaping the future of Balluff in this respect. Secondly, employees have told us that they could also imagine working on a mobile basis a few days a week after the corona pandemic is over. We are all naturally looking forward again to more social contacts in the company, however, mobile working now also represents increased flexibility for many employees. In the end we want to prevent workplaces – and entire buildings– from being permanently empty. That would be impractical and also indefensible from the aspects of environmental protection and sustainability. This means that a good mixture is also required here.
Apart from a rethink in regard to traditional working methods – what will ensure long-term success for Balluff?
We have many good ideas. We should not only talk about these ideas, but also implement them. We must systematically create and achieve the success promised by these ideas! In my opinion, we could be more self-assured here as otherwise we will underperform.
We must also systematically implement changes. This is not always easy on account of human nature. But you can practice this. It’s now very clear what possibilities are available. Demanding the willingness to change in favorable economic conditions is more difficult. You should pay attention to your environment and react to it. Otherwise there is a danger that you will lose touch. My objective is, therefore, to convey this message more strongly. One specific question: What is necessary to ensure we reach that point and how will we do this? I believe that more consistency during implementation is a critical success factor.