Mr. Hermle, you and your sister became joint managing directors of Balluff around ten years ago. What are you particularly proud of?
Looking back over the last ten years, I am especially proud of the growth that we have achieved together. We turned Balluff from a medium-sized company into a global enterprise.
What is the biggest change you have instigated?
Most definitely our focus on combining hardware and software, and our commitment toward the digitalization of our customers’ processes and in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). We have also become more global. The individual regions have more responsibility and decisions are made globally.
You lived in the USA for a number of years. Did this help you to promote these topics?
I learned a great deal about agility in the USA. The “figure it out mentality”, which is practiced much more in the USA than here in Germany, helps to tackle new subjects in a more open way. In Germany aspects are weighed up more carefully and something may not even be implemented if a well thought-out plan is not actually available right at the beginning. It also helped me to adopt a more global perspective since this is profoundly different when someone at a subsidiary looks to the headquarters in Neuhausen.
How are you strengthening your position as a global enterprise?
We defined the first global role last year: Mr. Ákos Takács, our global quality manager, is based in Hungary. Distances are reduced to the click of a mouse in the digital age. Our company is better positioned in the individual regions. This improves transparency for us as the company managers since we communicate with one another to a greater extent. Furthermore, we are convinced that the quality of our decisions is also being improved since we take a global view of things.
How are new solutions now being developed at Balluff? What is important here?
When developing new solutions, we should focus more on agility and the willingness to take risks. Agility is absolutely vital for companies. In March 2020, for example, the pandemic forced us to adapt very quickly to the new situation with canceled trade fairs. Burying our head in the sand was not an option. We explored new avenues in marketing. The idea for our virtual event in April was formulated within a few days. What was the worst that could happen to us? The worst thing would have been that nobody attend. However, we were overwhelmed by the positive response. We showed courage as a team. And this courage brought us great success. We want to continue building on this success.
And what about the willingness to take risks?
The word risk has a dangerous ring to it. But that isn’t the case. A willingness to take risks simply means that we are learning to evaluate and assess risks. Mistakes are good in the sense that we can learn from them. I see this with my own children. Children are amazingly fast learners. They also take an amazing amount of falls. But they don’t give up. They get right back up on their feet and try it again. We should be guided by our courage to try out things that bear a certain risk. Our technology division has many examples to offer us. We are exploring new avenues with our strategic incubation programs (SIP). They show how much can be achieved in a short time. We are also adopting a bold approach to our core competence – sensor technology. This is not always focused on the next technical advance, but also on how to pass on this added value to our customers as easily and inexpensively as possible.
How do you make customer requirements the center of attention?
That is fairly simple: By talking to them. Who better than our customers to tell us whether our solutions are effective or not? Most customers are very willing to provide information. This fast feedback helps us to stay focused on our customers. The emphasis is on all of our customers, which is why we involve customers worldwide, not just those on our doorstep.
In recent years, Balluff has strongly developed its software competence. What is your long-term aim in this area?
Software is a central component for good automation solutions. Many products cannot manage without software any more. This means that software will play an ever greater role in our products. We have to change the way we develop products. The major difference to conventional product development is that software is continuously developing and is never finished. Therefore, we need to create structures that support the software development process, because with the help of software, data can be made accessible to higher-level systems. Valuable information is harvested from the data, which we, together with our customers, can use and analyze as a basis for our decision making.
How is this changing cooperation with customers, partners and suppliers?
In future we will no longer make such a precise differentiation. This will change from project to project. The boundaries are somewhat more permeable in an ecosystem. We must also be open, use opportunities, and rely very closely on trust.
Do you believe that Europe is being left behind in regard to IIoT?
I do not believe that the opportunity for the economic location has passed because simply much too much happens here in a very short space of time. The Americans are good in the large consumer sector: Numerous customers, large quantities of data, and naturally a great deal of potential to eliminate inefficiencies. Balluff does not need to create the next platform. Instead, we should make our solutions compatible and open. Otherwise, there is a danger that we, as a pure and replaceable component supplier, will become irrelevant.
How has cooperation changed within the company?
The corona pandemic has affected us as a company and put many obstacles in our way. However, the crisis has also given us a boost in some areas. We were forced to make adjustments and now accomplish things which we would never have tackled by force of habit or for convenience.
How do you personally perceive the current situation as a manager?
I like being around people. And I therefore also assume that a large number of managers generally like people. I’m that kind of person. Management is also becoming more challenging here. I, myself, have also learned a great deal in this respect. For example, how to run a home office when the children are off school due to illness. In the past I could not imagine that this would function productively. I have been proved wrong here ever since March 2020. It is possibly more demanding and there is a need for slightly more composure and tolerance too. However, colleagues understand this.
Where will Balluff be in 2031?
In 2031 I will find it difficult to remember in detail what it was like to have achieved our sales goal of 1 billion euros. Because we have already been working on the next targets for a long time. Our software solutions and machine vision products in combination with our core business satisfy the challenging requirements of our customers and help them to become even more competitive. However, there have also been many other changes: A global town hall meeting is held every quarter with the attendance of all 5,000 employees. We have an unbelievable number of international teams who are working virtually on large projects because we are a genuine global company.
In order to realize this vision, we should remain curious and take an interest in our customers’ needs – and implement them in an innovative way as a global team. “Although we can be justifiably proud of what we have achieved, we cannot afford to sit back, but must be always thirsty for new ideas.”.