If a true symbiosis between the owning family and the external management can be achieved, external management can become a success factor for a family business.
Excerpt from an interview with Christoph Gamper, CEO of Durst Phototechnik AG, published in the Swiss print newsletter “Mein Unternehmen” (3/2019). The “Mein Unternehmen” subscription can be found here.
Dear Mr Gamper, Durst is owned by the Brixen entrepreneur family Oberrauch. What made you decide to join a family business as CEO? What were your selection criteria and which were those of the owners?
The offer to join Durst as Managing Director came at a time when I was working for a listed Swiss technology company in New York in the field of quality management for digital applications and wasn’t actually thinking of returning to Europe and especially to my home South Tyrol. After being placed by a headhunter, I got involved in a first conversation with the owners and the then CEO. Very quickly it became clear that the chemistry was right, I could understand more about the company and was very impressed by what this medium-sized South Tyrolean company had already achieved at that time. That’s why I decided to take up this challenge and join Durst as CEO. At the time, the Oberrauch family was looking for a South Tyrolean with international experience who was at home in technology and Christof Oberrauch, then Chairman of the Board of Directors, had an extremely good knowledge of human nature with which he could very quickly decide whether he wanted to work with someone or not.
For me personally, it was not easy to come back from a cosmopolitan city in the USA to South Tyrol in a company with a very traditional way of thinking in a peripheral environment. My predecessor was a very strong personality and it was clear to me that it would not be easy to succeed him. In the USA, I had learned a different, more modern form of leadership. It helped me a lot that the generation change from Christof to Harald Oberrauch had also taken place in the owning family. It quickly became clear from the very beginning that, as part of a younger generation, we were on the same wavelength and could master the upcoming change process together.
How is the role of the managing director defined? Who defines the strategy? Do you have any room for manoeuvre and in what form does the coordination with the owners take place?
I exchange ideas with Harald Oberrauch about everything on an ongoing basis. There is no vacuum between us into which someone could slip, for example to play us off against each other. The trust between us is great and we always speak to the outside world with one voice. The roles between us, as described, are clearly defined and are observed by both sides. There are clear rules. The operational management is entirely up to me and I have every freedom of decision within the jointly defined strategic guard rails. We develop the strategy together. To this end, we travel a lot together and look around the world at what works for others and what doesn’t. That, too, welds us together.
What is important in the relationship between the managing director and the owner family? Can a CEO be successful if the relationship with the owner family is not intact?
If the relationship isn’t good, the CEO does nothing more than simply manage hard-core. In my opinion, this means that a family business loses its speciality, the same culture prevails as in a listed company where short-term profit maximization is important. This can work for a while, but it is certainly not a long-term success model. Basically, owners need to know clearly what they want. For me, the relationship between owners and management must always be good. It has to be a relationship at eye level, which certainly needs a certain professional distance, but also enough closeness to build and maintain a relationship of trust. This is also a generational game, because I believe it only works for the same generation. The principles and principles of both sides must be in agreement. We are lucky that we tick immediately. A current example of this is the planning of our new headquarters. We both wanted to create an environment in which the employees of the various departments not only meet and exchange ideas on an ongoing basis, but also think and tinker together and thus further develop themselves and the company. This symbiosis between owner and CEO guarantees long-term success. So if the relationship is right, for a CEO it can never be just a job for 3-5 years, but a long-term collaboration.
What tips and advice can you give to external managers in family businesses from your experience?
- As a manager, do not accept compromises from the outset. The dynamics in the use of external managers for the company is similar to the generation change from senior to junior generation. If the entrepreneur wants to give up power in the form of tasks and competencies, it works. If not, it will never work.
- It is extremely important to agree on long-term goals and find a consensus on leadership style. An entrepreneur leads with emotion, a good manager leads with numbers. This means a paradigm shift for employees. Therefore, it is advisable to be accompanied by external experts in this phase. Otherwise there is the risk of burning good employees in the change process.
- It requires a clearly defined strategy and reporting process. An external CEO should know before starting: Is there a strategy process and reporting? What does reporting to the owners look like? If not, this must be defined. Outside the defined reporting, there must be no interference of the owners in the operative business.
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