How to bring a corporate strategy of expansion into harmony with coherent corporate values
Based in Gottmadingen in the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, CONRADYGRUPPE forms an umbrella over several cleaning companies in southern Germany and Switzerland. Its 4,500 employees work across a group of companies, generating annual sales of over €100 million. An important strategic goal of the family-owned business, now in its second generation under the management of Thomas Conrady, is business expansion. To help CONRADYGRUPPE succeed with its integration of all brands and companies into the corporate group, Steinbeis expert Ute Villing of the Steinbeis Transfer Institute for Leadership Psychology, HR and Organizational Development has been involved in the process. Offering many years of experience and expertise, Villing has been working with the corporation in an advisory capacity since 2019.
COWA Service was founded by Felix Conrady in Singen in 1965, making it the oldest brand within the group of companies. In those days, the firm was a cleaning specialist for large indoor areas, but after spotting the telltale signs of things to come, Conrady Snr. laid a foundation for the CONRADYGRUPPE enterprise of today. The company quickly gained a foothold in the region and only five years later, it expanded into southern Germany and Switzerland, also forming partnerships in six European countries. It also set standards with its own cleaning products, its own methods, and its own quality assessment system. COWA has been operating in the cleanroom cleaning market since 1991. Its acquisition of SHS also brought advanced hotel cleaning into the corporate portfolio. Two further companies joined the group in 2015, dias and GMC, significantly expanding COWA’s footprint in Bavaria and Switzerland.
Everything under one roof
In 2020, CONRADYGRUPPE was formed, bringing COWA, dias, GMC, and SHS under one roof. In 2021, they were joined in the group of companies by service-system, a firm from Freiburg, followed by the Swiss company qualiServ in 2022. Since then, CONRADYGRUPPE has been an industry player throughout German-speaking Switzerland. The group of companies now pools a variety of core competencies and experience, allowing many to benefit from shared knowledge, a lean organization, and a broad range of products and services. “To secure the future of our company and safeguard our direct presence on site, which is really important for commercial cleaning, we want to continue expanding,” says Thomas Conrady, explaining his expansion strategy. “We’re aware that this strategy also means we’ll have to be careful how we integrate the different types of companies into our group – and their employees – so that over time, everyone feels that they belong.”
Consulting expertise from the Steinbeis Network
As the corporation has evolved, Conrady Jnr. decided to seek external support with integration of the different companies, especially when it comes to organizational planning and HR development. In the fall of 2019, he contacted Steinbeis Entrepreneur Ute Villing, who, after exchanging views with senior management, brought different groups of employees into the equation to draft a concept for the next steps of organizational development. Despite a number of delays caused by the pandemic, Villing set about working on the project. In addition to participating in a number of events – in order to get to know the different organizations and their people – she also facilitated workshops and acted as a sparring partner to Conrady and the rest of CONRADYGRUPPE management. Motivated by her principle of familiarizing herself with the work of her clients, Villing also spent the occasional day with cleaning staff, helping them to clean company buildings and schools. “It was the only way to gauge the support staff need on site,” says Villing, explaining her motivations.
Expansion of HR development
A decisive factor with rapid expansion within a group of companies is the introduction of systematic HR development. The aim should be to maintain training levels, or better still: improve training. To continue offering staff development prospects and thus also compensate for skilled worker shortages, training was given to a whole host of workers and managers, who were also promoted from within the company. There are now many examples at CONRADYGRUPPE of employees with little knowledge of German, or a lack of understanding of the company, developing into managers. To develop human resources, Villing worked with Conrady and the rest of the management team to plan first steps, also supporting Daniel Kramer, head of HR, with the introduction of performance review meetings. The new system is currently being rolled out across the entire group of companies. Work is also underway to introduce a staff training program that will include modules such as management development, the psychology of leadership, and a train-the-trainer program. Here, too, Villing is providing help with concept development and will also take on some parts of the program as a trainer.
Guidelines based on a common value set
To successfully integrate different types of companies under the same roof, it is essential to share a common understanding of values, and these values must be made tangible. When COWA was founded, naturally there was already a common vision, a philosophy, and a culture and these were shared, embraced, and believed in within the company. But growth also entails change – not just in terms of the organization, but also when it comes to communication, regional expansion and, not least, management structures. Within the last three years, 90% of managers working in central services have been new to the fold. The goal of Conrady is to make the group of companies more tangible as a community – for all managers, other staff, and customers. “Values are even more important now than they were then. There’s fierce competition in the market, skilled workers are in short supply, and customers want to sense and experience the added value they gain from us. So our DNA must be perceptible – inside and outside the company.”
Cultural integration – a key success factor
Acquiring a company means looking closely at the so-called cultural fit. Since customer loyalty in the service industry is largely shaped and secured by the people on the ground, i.e. team leaders, customer service representatives, and people managing service centers, it is good to know who you are dealing with – in good times and bad. In essence, this is no different than aptitude testing when hiring a new recruit. So it’s important with company acquisitions to conduct an appropriate assessment of the key people. This is not without difficulty during the negotiation phase, and to paraphrase Shakespeare, often “the wish is father to the thought.” The next challenge when merging organizational structures is cultural integration. This presupposes that communication is clear, open, and transparent and that time is invested in a detailed analysis. It is important to adhere to timelines and not promise the earth, so that the process remains sincere and reliable for everyone. This is about agreeing on a common denominator – a set of values that everyone involved in the process can identify with.
Corporate values – doing what you promise to do
As befits a self-respecting company, the corporate values were developed as part of a joint process, with everything captured in writing and shared through different channels of communication – in all areas of the network of companies. Although this process is a familiar one to many, since the methods used are usually similar, with CONRADYGRUPPE things were nonetheless different – and this was palpable. The topic did not disappear into a filing cabinet. Instead, the values were made tangible on a notional level – with a brochure of values, plus video statements on each individual value with practical examples. In addition to that, the values could be experienced in practice through shared activities beyond the borders of different regions or group companies – at trade shows, project kick-offs, or workshops on the topics of everyday life or the future. And those values are being embraced and believed in by all. The key to successful integration is communication on all levels. This is now central to the entire management team’s perception of itself, because in addition to expansion, another challenge day in, day out at the company is cultural diversity, so that people from over 50 nations work together well, show tolerance, are open, and respect one another.
As Conrady adds, “Corporate culture is a living entity, and in our case this means that more than 50% of staff numbers and the sales turnover of CONRADYGRUPPE stem from the companies that joined the group. It’s in the nature of things that existing corporate values are added to, or they’re slightly modified. But you can’t call the fundamental corporate culture into question: We want to inspire people, we want to develop – and we live by our principles. We’re mindful and tolerant of colleagues and customers – because we trust each other.”
Ute Villing (author)
Steinbeis Transfer Institute Leadership Psychology, HR and Organizational Development (Gosheim)