Mr. Hermle, Balluff is celebrating its 100th anniversary. In July you will reach the age of 80. You have experienced a large part of the company’s history. How did the Hermles come to be involved in Balluff?
Balluff was founded by my grandfather Gebhard Balluff. My mother was his eldest daughter and in 1938 got to know Eduard Hermle, my father, who was working for a Balluff supplier at that time. My father joined the company as a son-in-law in 1940. He co-managed the business at first, and then took it over after a relatively short period of time. The company was an integral part of my everyday life from an early age. That started at home; the house where my family lived was situated on the company’s premises.
In 1966 you joined the company after studying business administration in Munich. What is the difference between the company back then and Balluff as we now know it?
The size of the company at that time was much different than today: 120 blue-collar workers, 25 salaried employees, a turnover of just under DM 2 million. Even before my time, Balluff was initially a craft enterprise which manufactured turned and milled parts without its own product range. In the mid-1950s, the company then started to follow a different direction.
Heller, a company based in Nürtingen, was developing an electrical control system for its machine tools at that time. For this purpose, they needed switching devices on the machines that send signals to the control system through the machine sequence in order to trigger or end a process. Back then, there were no such switching devices which functioned in the environment of a machine tool – where chips and coolants occur. In its capacity as a manufacturer, Heller tried to produce these switching devices. We were awarded this contract. That’s how Balluff became involved in electrical engineering. The switching device was a lucky coincidence because we could ultimately develop and produce it on our own and other customers gradually became interested in the product. We, therefore, enlarged the market over the course of time. It heralded the birth of another company. This was then our own product for which we were responsible and influenced its further development — the start of market orientation.
How did Balluff then make the leap from this individual success to an established company?
When I started working full time for the company, it was a phase in which products and electronics were being developed further. Inductive proximity switches emerged at the end of the 1960s. We recruited an engineer especially for this purpose. We, therefore, helped to develop this new technology from scratch. Proximity switches formed the basis for the main program over the next few years. This also included the creation of a development department and related production. That’s because electronic products were manufactured in a different way to mechanical elements. This represented a move in a new direction.
Since we then had to ensure that these products would be sold, a sales department became necessary. New ideas on what was required were formulated during discussions with customers. The first foreign contacts also came about, initially in Switzerland and Austria. At that time we were still a long way from being a global company. However, Balluff grew continuously with the ups and downs of the business development phases during that period.
Two of your four children are now part of management at Balluff. How important was and is it for you that Balluff remains a family-run company?
It was naturally a reassuring prospect for me that my children joined the company. It is not all that easy to find managers for a family-run company so that a suitable succession takes place. Not only a task and function are performed, the whole person stands behind the company with their characteristics, their personality, their values and inclinations. It is important that the successors base their decisions and considerations on the company’s philosophy which was shaped by their predecessors. This need not necessarily be someone from the family – a different perspective of the company may also be beneficial at times. We also see this today with our advisory board as a sparring partner for the Board of Management. However, it mainly concerns the fundamental consideration as to where the company is at present and where it will go in future. I am naturally delighted that the transition took place very smoothly and without any problems.
When you retired, the company had just overcome an economic crisis. The situation is also tense at present – what are your experiences in dealing with crises and what advice can you give your successors?
At the start of the 1990s, we suffered declines in sales of more than 30 percent. The following principle applies during such times: You cannot just sit by. You have to react and change the company. This is also important in the current situation. You must come together and jointly find a solution. If someone loses their job, you can put forward the best arguments in business management. The person affected is not interested in these arguments. He or she is losing their job. As a manager, you must always bear this in mind. This is a personal situation in which you must weigh the aspects which prevent employees from falling into a bottomless pit. It is important that the parties sitting around the table understand the positions of the other people.
Rolf Hermle, grandson of the company founder, was with Balluff for 44 years. Since 2010 he has been enjoying his well-earned retirement and likes nothing better than to spend it close to nature.
Ignoring the crisis, where is Balluff at present and where it will go in future?
As a specialist for sensors and automation, Balluff is well placed to deal with the imminent changes. The challenge will be to make the correct decisions for the future based on these starting conditions. In other words, combining the things which the company already has in its rucksack with those lying in the road. For example, software and algorithms are now very important – and much more important than in my time. In other words, things which can be used to offer processes, technologies and solutions which help our customer move forward. Creating the corresponding conditions here is the task of the currently responsible managing directors and employees of the company.