Wolfram Senger-Weiss in conversation
Keeping the spirit alive
Wolfram Senger-Weiss has been a member of the Management Board at Gebrüder Weiss since 2005. In 2019 he will be succeeding Wolfgang Niessner as CEO. Together with his brother Heinz Senger-Weiss, Peter Kloiber and – the newcomer on the board – Jürgen Bauer, it will now be up to him to lead the company into a new era. But where will the journey take us?
Mr. Senger-Weiss, what are your feelings as you look forward to your new responsibilities?
You know, as a member of one of the families that own the business, “Gebrüder Weiss” has been a household term since I was young. I’m not the first generation to bear responsibility in this context: we’re standing here as a family and look back on a long tradition. I am now assuming an important role and I’m grateful for the trust placed in me. I am entering this phase with a great deal of happiness and confidence; I am also, needless to say, aware of the task awaiting me. Nor am I alone: other members of the family have assumed key posts to ensure effective corporate governance.
Your family’s many years of commitment to the company can be traced back to the end of the Middle Ages. Do you feel the weight of the dynasty on your shoulders?
Our parents always gave us free rein when it came to career choices, but to a certain extent you put yourself under pressure. That said, I would like to emphasize that the leadership of this organization is not mine alone. We are a good management team; our members are experienced team players and we have lots of wonderful employees who do outstanding jobs and are also invited to contribute their input.
What are your own focuses when it comes to teamwork? What qualities do people need to become members of the orange team?
I can probably best describe what’s important to me by summing up the virtues of a good businessperson: being respectable, honest and humane – and able to look people in the eye. That’s an incredibly important quality in a world that’s getting increasingly superficial by the day. These virtues can also set Gebrüder Weiss apart. And everyone happy to accompany us on this path is very welcome at our organization.
So “Trust is first, business is second,” as your father Paul Senger-Weiss once put it?
It’s an approach underpinned by a fundamental principle: we live with service providers and are service providers ourselves. We operate within a network of mutual dependencies. That is why it is important – in both business and personal relationships – that everyone involved can hold their head high at the end of the day.
Do you sense that honesty and respectability are highly valued these days?
Much too little in society. Populism, egocultivation and self realization are at a premium today. Respecting others, at tempting to find common ground – these have unfortunately been pushed to the margins.
Can Gebrüder Weiss combat this trend or offer something positive in its place?
Definitely, within limits. We can function as a multiplier with our 7,000 employees. No one can change the whole world, but you should always do what is within your power. Then, at least, the world will be a little bit better.
On another occasion you mentioned that you – like your predecessor Wolfgang Niessner – are envisaging a tenure of about 15 years. What challenges do you see ahead over that period?
Firstly, I’d like to comment briefly on those 15 years. When they are over, I will be in my early sixties, and in my view that’s a fitting age to be finalizing your contribution in a post like this. But back to your question: we need to take the next step in terms of our positioning on the market. Production channels and logistics chains will change. Individualized logistics concepts will place severe demands on our segment. We will also need to forge a response to the question of ecology. While I’m of the opinion that, in 15 years, the majority will still be reliant on fossil fuels, I am seeing a multitude of positive approaches emerging. I’m confident that the alternatives will be playing their part at that point.
In recent years Gebrüder Weiss has also grown geographically, and is now represented in 30 countries around the world. Is further expansion in the pipeline?
In my view, we currently cover the key and most interesting markets very well, which is not to say that there might not be some territorial changes to come. I am strongly committed to making further inroads into Central Asia, which is also fondly referred to in common parlance as the “Silk Road.” We can’t expect miracles here, but it will give Gebrüder Weiss the opportunity to cement a further USP as Silk Road specialists – not unlike our previous success in Southeast Asia. Parallel to that, of course, we need to continue developing the major markets we’ve just entered, above all in the U. S.
Apropos Silk Road: after public interest in the project remained low for quite some time, there are now numerous voices warning that China will hold all the aces in its relations with Europe. Do you share this concern?
The Silk Road would never have risen from the ashes without the strong commitment of the Chinese. But thankfully, it has. And I think that, at the end of the day, both the Chinese and European bridgeheads and the countries in between will profit from this development – which, by the way, can’t be halted now anyway. At this stage, the only thing the EU can do is decide whether it wants to have a voice or be forced to follow China’s lead. Regrettably, in the past, we ended up dancing to others’ tunes when shaping our transatlantic relationships as well. There hasn’t been a common unifying policy in Europe for a long time now; instead, the particular interests of individual states are the driving forces.
So you’re not afraid of the all-powerful Chinese?
No. I’m not sure this comparison really works, but 20 or 30 years ago we harbored similar fears about Japan. And they proved baseless. I think Europe has a lot to offer in today’s world. It’s a special place, and I am confident that we can maintain and defend our strong position.
You travel a lot because of your profession. Which places do you like most?
I like to spend time in Austria. I think it’s a good place to live. Austria is better than its reputation, which is often not all that it could be. I have lived in Asia and in the U. S. and felt very happy there. That being said, I know that Europe is my home, and this is the place I’d like to keep living most.
Specifically, Vienna is your home base ...
I grew up in Vorarlberg and I gladly and often return. But Vienna is where my family is; this is where our children go to school. I enjoy living here.
Something most countries share today is a trend toward populism. Does that frighten you?
A bit. Unfortunately, the modern forms of communication, much as I value them, often serve as catalysts in this context. But that’s only one half of the story. The other, of course, is that these new technologies open the door to very positive trends. Take the youth initiative that has arisen in conjunction with Brexit, for instance: “Let’s hug a Brit.” Obviously it employs humor, but this kind of thing helps us bridge the gap that populism is creating. It’s my impression that people are caring less and less about borders. And that would deprive the populists of the oxygen they need.
What do borders mean to you, personally?
Growing up in Vorarlberg, borders were a big part of my life. Before the EU came along, we were locked inside a very small country. Borders are restrictive, they reduce your scope and your capacity for vision. Geographical limits some times put constraints on your thinking as well. On the other hand, of course, we all need to discipline ourselves in our everyday lives. Children need rules; I’m a strong proponent of that. And in both our private and professional lives, we need to stay within the confines of decency. Out on the road, people can’t just drive any old way they want.
How, from a mental point of view, do you maintain your discipline? Or, put differently: given the deluge of information you need to process daily, how can you separate the wheat from the chaff and know what’s important and what not?
I limit the number of media I concern myself with – but sometimes still feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information.
Does that surplus information sometimes make you angry?
Only in situations when somebody sending me an email doesn’t take the trouble to emphasize or summarize his or her point. That’s a disease that’s been spreading in the business world. We all have a responsibility to take a step back and ask: what do I really want to communicate?
What else do you find stressful?
Traffic sometimes, when I’m on the way to appointments. I find it stressful when people miss deadlines so that I end up under pressure. Sometimes I get stressed when my diary gets too full. And I also feel stressed when people close to me are having a hard time.
And how do you deal with stress?
When I’m working, I keep going until the wee hours (laughs).
Would you describe yourself as a workaholic?
Yes. I always say it’s better to work on vacation than not to go on vacation at all. I have no problems handling the occasional issue after a relaxing evening meal with my family. That’s just part of my job.
Aside from mastering the sheer volume of work – what drives you?
Quite simply, I enjoy what I do. Gebrüder Weiss is a wonderful company. There are lots of dedicated people with whom I have the good fortune to work. I demonstrate my respect by doing my best as well.
Are you calmer and more balanced when you have finished your work?
Yes. If things are left half finished, that makes me nervous and sometimes irritable.
What kind of professional situations make you feel really good?
I feel good when I’ve been able to motivate people and get them fired up about a shared goal.
Digitalization will have a radical effect on the way we work. Do you agree with that statement?
Yes, but I don’t see any reason to be afraid. Obviously more and more parts of our work processes are going to be digitized and hence automated. On the other hand, new ways of working and new challenges are emerging, slowly but surely. I tend to believe that human labor will continue to be in short supply for the foreseeable future. What will change, though, is the speed with which new developments come. But here too I ultimately see a huge opportunity for Gebrüder Weiss.
I think that we have built up a lot of trust over the past few centuries. The more complex the world becomes, the more companies that have established their trustworthiness will benefit. Many of the new digital innovations involve creating platforms that generate confidence. Independent of that, we ultimately have no option but to continue digitizing timeconsuming processes in order to cope with all the red tape and bureaucracy that they involve. Idle slot exploitation will also be a major issue in the near future. Here we’re talking about how we can better harness existing infrastructures with the aid of digital tools – be it on the roads and rails, or be it in terms of unused parking spots or capacities in our warehouses and transhipment terminals.
But will the basic business of logistics remain the same for the foreseeable future? We won’t be beaming goods or doing masses of 3-D printing. Instead we’ll be delivering the goods to the customer on time and in the quantities the customer needs. Would you agree?
Yes, I agree with you there. There will be a lot of accompanying innovations but the basic requirement will remain unchanged.
In the future, will Gebrüder Weiss be able to assert itself against the big players in the industry?
Yes. For the very reason that the others are big players. Gebrüder Weiss can be more personal and more customized. More commitment, better service. We will certainly continue to grow, but it is not my goal to make Gebrüder Weiss humongous.
What do you value about your predecessor?
On a personal level, we have established a very good relationship. I really appreciate the openness with which Mr. Niessner is dealing with the current handover process. He did an out standing job as CEO. I also really admire the passion and personality he has invested in the organization. And I would like to thank Mr. Niessner for the consistently great job he has also done as an intermediary between the different generations and the owner families, and for having been able to nip any sign of revolution in the bud. Kudos!
What do you hope for in the years ahead?
I hope that, if possible, we can steer a course that secures us against economic changes and other external influences. I hope we can promote the dynamic development of our company and take our feeling of a shared identity to a new level. The number of markets and the number of people in our organization have increased significantly. Our challenge is to communicate what defines Gebrüder Weiss. We need to succeed by invoking new forms of communication and personal commitment, to ignite the orange flame in everyone – and not only in Lauterach. We have to keep our special spirit alive.
And how will you measure your success?
Success means that a company is performing well; it means that the shareholders are giving us a positive assessment and are acting in concert; and it means being able to keep the key people in our team on board. We are an organization that sparks enthusiasm. And if, in our rapidly changing world, we can offer our people a purpose, a real reason to work for us, then we will have achieved a lot in the next 15 years.