An interview with board consultant and Steinbeis entrepreneur Winfried Küppers
For Winfried Küppers, working as an advisor to board members and politicians offers one fascinating insight after another into the goings-on in the executive corridors of German business. The Steinbeis expert spoke to TRANSFER magazine about things that make up the daily business of board members. He also shares a success story that has remained a particularly sweet memory for him.
Hello Mr. Küppers. You have advised a number of board members at large German companies. What occupies the thoughts of that particular group of customers?
Basically they’re all occupied by three fundamental topics: the challenges of day-to-day business, strategic decisions affecting the next couple of years, and their personal situation.
What are the daily tasks of a board member?
It’s important to understand that the everyday business of a board member has nothing to do with routine tasks at the company. The upper echolon and middle levels of management are responsible for this day-to-day decision-making. Instead, board members make long-term, strategic decisions. That includes negotiating collective agreements for the company, but also investment decisions surrounding digitalization projects or sustainability initiatives. The tasks of those heading up companies also depend on the sector of industry and the current situation. For example that can be questions relating to the way a global company portrays itself in each individual market, taking different cultures into account, forms of government or, as is currently the case: pandemic legislation. Or questions regarding how to assess previous decisions, which could now be improved on or implemented more efficiently – for something like the supply chain, for example. Board members also deal with HR issues, for example whether the focus should lie in a small number of research and development sites, or whether to expand into international development teams and work in networks.
What strategic options do companies have to develop as a business?
I’ll pick three. First let’s look at the manufacturing industry: Machines generate data and this can be used to sell digital services to customers, and not just hardware. This leads to new fields of business, within which and thanks to which the company can move forward. The second opportunity lies in innovation management and launching corporate startups. This is where new concepts are developed and tested within a protected environment, and later they’re either spun off or they’re integrated into the group of companies as independent business units. And the third one I’d like to mention is new areas or fields of business. This is where you closely monitor trends and any opportunities open to individual market stakeholders to enter markets.
In your podcast, SYSTEMKOMPETENZ, you often provide anecdotes from your everyday work. Are there any success stories that stand out for you in particular?
The one that comes to mind is the corporate startup established by Alfred Ritter, the manufacturer of Ritter Sport chocolate. The company runs one of the world’s largest cocoa plantations, and it attaches a great deal of importance to sustainability. But when you make chocolate, you run into an environmental issue: Processing cocoa beans produces a waste product in the form of cocoa honey, and large quantities of this juice get back into the soil, which changes the pH value, and ultimately this has a negative impact on the next harvest. The crucial point with this is that you can actually drink cocoa juice! So Andreas Ronken, the CEO at Alfred Ritter, launched his own startup, which conducted intensive research into the topic and ultimately developed a soft drink similar to a soda, as well as a prosecco. In the end, not only is the concept good for the environment, it also benefits cocoa farmers, who as well as selling beans can also sell the juice. It was the perfect blend of business success, sustainability, and social engagement.
You mentioned at the beginning that personal situations are also an issue when you’re advising board members. To what extent can you help with such things?
People who make it into senior management on a corporate level are generally some of the best managers in Europe, or often in the world. The question then is what can be done to keep developing on a personal level, but also what other career opportunities might be possible, for example on supervisory or advisory boards.
And to what extent does the Steinbeis brand shape your work?
Because we operate under the umbrella of the Steinbeis Foundation, it’s in our interest to pursue the mission of the foundation and act “to the benefit of the state economy.” Also, the Steinbeis Network offers us access to – and networking opportunities with – experts in science, business, and politics.