Paul Senger-Weiss in conversation with Frank Haas
Build something together
Paul Senger-Weiss was born into an old family of millers and merchants. Together with his wife Heidi Senger-Weiss, he headed Gebrüder Weiss from 1968 to 2004 and drove its expansion into Central and Eastern Europe, as well as China and the United States. In 2005, they both joined the Supervisory Board. Today one of the couple’s sons, Wolfram Senger-Weiss, stands at the helm of the group’s operations.
Mr. Senger-Weiss, based on your wealth of experience, would you say we are living in very troubling times?
Most definitely, we as a society are now in one of the most difficult situations since World War II. My generation has been fortunate in that we did not fully register the full impact of the war. And for a long time, peace reigned in Europe – until just recently. The crises this has caused need to be confronted, and we will get through them. But it won’t be easy. We have to be willing to make investments, both personally and entrepreneurially.
You have always attempted to use logistics to access and connect different markets. However, we are currently seeing surges of isolationism, and some borders have hardened again. Would you have expected this?
I see the problem, but then again it has always existed. Remember, we grew up with the Iron Curtain. That meant, for instance, that a simple skiing trip to Poland when I was 19 turned into a voyage to a different world. At the border, iron barriers descended in front of and behind our car, and we were thoroughly searched before we could continue on our way. So, I experiencedisolationism back then. Despite this, the company began focusing on new markets in the eighties, and people were cooperating across borders even then. In those early days, for instance, we were already using Czech trucks for trips to England. The implications of isolation are simply greater today because, wherever we live on the planet, we are all dependent
on one another somehow.
There is a saying that logistics is a people’s business. Does that still hold true?
Absolutely. It’s always been that way and has never changed. That’s why trusting people is so important to me – albeit always tempered with a dash of realism.
How do you create trust?
Naturally, first impressions are paramount – that’s the human component. After that, the main thing is keeping an eye on people. You watch them in various situations and, slowly but surely, an evolution of sorts usually ensues: your trust grows as you see them putting their words into action. And thanks to the many positive experiences I have had with people over time, my willingness to trust them has gradually grown. Today I’m definitely someone who can place their trust in others quickly.
If there is trust, employees have a greater scope for action ...
Yes, and it also involves taking responsibility, and most people want to live up to that. If a tradesman explains to me that he is going to repair something in a specific way, I tell him I trust him to do a good job. And that works! In most cases, he or she assumes the responsibility of making that happen. If I am constantly monitoring everyone, the responsibility stays mine. So, it’s basically a good thing, being able to trust people. Asking the occasional question does no harm – instead it shows people that
your trust is based on realism. Obviously, it’s important to me that people then accept responsibility. Take Yongquan Chen, Country Manager of Gebrüder Weiss in China, for instance, who keeps telling me that it’s incredible how early on I came to trust China’s evolution. That motivated him, and he shouldered the responsibility needed. I think the most important thing is to give people a chance to grow. On the other hand, I’m very disappointed if someone lets things slide. But if there are certain things that bother me about someone, I try to clear the air. My wife was very clever in these matters: she always took as much time with people as was necessary. Sometimes I lacked the patience. And I notice that now, when I do actually have more time, this approach reaps better results.
Do you mean time for better solutions, or time to get a better picture of the person you’re dealing with?
Time to reach an understanding with that person that leads in the direction you want to take. That hasn’t always been possible over all those years, during which I had to engage in countless discussions. Sometimes you simply have to part company if things haven’t worked out.
Was the issue of trust pivotal to your management style when you and your wife took over the company in 1968?
The key concern back then was to establish a structure. We needed that to forge a whole from a patchwork organization. You have to imagine that Gebrüder Weiss was extremely decentralized in the early days. There were branches in several of the Austrian federal states, as well as one in Hamburg, Germany. And every branch had its own forms and reports: nothing was standardized, with the exception of the Vorarlberg sites. By the way, our logo dates back to that period, more exactly
to September 1968. That was one of the first steps toward creating a more coherent organization and projecting the common image that now encompasses all the branches. We didn’t want to abandon the decentralization, but we did want to combine our existing strengths and experience better. To that end, lots of people had to rethink their roles and learn that their
individual branch was not the center of the world; it was about the big picture, the organization as a whole.
Back then, lots of things were changing – in society as well. There was the student unrest, the flower-power movement, the hippies etc. Obviously Bregenz is not San Francisco. However, did the fallout from these trends affect you at all?
I was actually in San Francisco during the flower-power era. I had passed my driving test in Pennsylvania, where I went to college, and then had to get another license for California. Driving around during the practical part of the test, I saw that very park where the flower girls and guys were perched in the trees. Back then the city council had asked them to spread out
on the branches and divide their weight so as not to kill off the trees. It was a wonderful life. You always had a bottle in the back of the car; you drove to the coast and watched the sun set. Still, I must admit that I didn’t immerse myself fully in that lifestyle; I encountered these vogues by chance at the time. Following the death of Ferdinand Weiss, my true calling and orientation were clear. In Bregenz we could build something together with other people. And we told ourselves, my wife and I, that we would have to seize the moment. And that we were going to make it happen. Having that goal made us stronger, I would say. After all, it was obviously a huge responsibility.
In the Weiss family annals, there is an astonishing sentence about your wedding with Heidi Senger-Weiss. There was no bachelor party, but on the eve of the big day, there was a small celebration with top management at Gebrüder Weiss, because the groom wanted to embed his personal life as part of the business. Most people want to keep these two things separate. You wanted just the opposite. What were you hoping to achieve?
I wanted to establish the Gebrüder Weiss family. That already meant a lot to me back then. What’s more, I saw inviting people who work with you to become part of such an important personal milestone as a demonstration of
respect. Not drawing a strict line between your private and professional family is definitely a hallmark of the unique Gebrüder Weiss DNA. And identifying with the company was also very, very important to me. I think people believed us in that; that was never just for show, it was always very authentic.
During the expansion process, did you also encounter difficulties integrating new members into your family of entrepreneurs? Have you banked more on local management, thereby risking problems with the cultural assimilation, or did you export the managers together with the brand?
If you ask me that today, I must admit that we made some mistakes when we entered the Central and East European markets – at least in terms of people and their assignments. We shouldn’t have just chosen individuals who had some kind of nebulous link to the countries – who spoke the language, for instance, or shared the nationality. We should have deployed the
very best people from here. I don’t know if that would always have worked, but back then some of the people weren’t true management material, people who had already held down leadership roles and worked in controlling etc. Some of them were actually crooks, or people who were lining their own pockets. We didn’t spot that immediately, but eventually we did. And we weren’t the only ones experiencing these difficulties. Western European countries who deny that are not telling the whole truth. Back then everyone had the same problem, because they didn’t really know the people. I remember sitting one day with the
western Branch managers at a large restaurant on the Danube Canal near Vienna. They told me we were helping the people in the east, covering the losses they were making, but no one wanted to move there. It wasn’t easy to turn things around and lead people in the right direction, and it took a long time. But we made it.
Aside from the company – what else do you identify with? How would you describe yourself? As an Austrian? A Vorarlberger? Waldviertler? A European?
Here in Vorarlberg, we obviously live in a wonderful environment. If I can, I swim in Lake Constance every day. We can go skiing etc.; the quality of life is certainly excellent. On the other hand, Vienna is great, too, with all its culture, as are other places. So if I had to choose, I would say I am primarily an ardent European.
Frank Haas is Director of Brand Strategy and Communication at Gebrüder Weiss – and, as editor-in-chief, responsible for ATLAS