© Steinbeis Holding GmbH

“There’s no such thing as innovation without failure”

An interview with Stephanie Ecker, Chairperson of the Supervisory Board of Steinbeis Holding GmbH

The Steinbeis Network realizes the visions of the man to whom it owes its name, Ferdinand von Steinbeis, in the fields of business, technology, and education. Among other pursuits, this involves entrepreneurial technology transfer as well as the concept that within vocational training, there is a relationship of duality between theory and practice. Based in Munich, Steinbeis Holding GmbH hails back to another branch of the family that makes a reality, through several shareholdings, of the concept of value-oriented entrepreneurship developed by Ferdinand and Otto von Steinbeis. TRANSFER magazine spoke to Stephanie Ecker, Chairperson of the Supervisory Board, about the things that make the group of companies special, its history, and how sustainability manifests itself in the holding company of today.

Hello Ms. Ecker. You came to Steinbeis Holding from the publishing industry. That’s a big change, even if both areas involve lots of paper. How did that move come about and what challenges do you face in your new job?

As a member of the Steinbeis family now in its fifth generation – counting onward from Otto von Steinbeis, the company founder – ever since my childhood I’ve grown up with the paper mill, which used to be run by my grandfather. So paper of all forms and its production have always shaped my life and been with me. After doing an apprenticeship at a science publishing company, completing a degree in economics, and doing freelance work at an art book publishing company, it was a wonderful challenge for me to work as a publisher.

My departure from management in the fourth generation makes it the first time there’s no longer a family member on the executive board – our involvement is now restricted to the supervisory board. As chairperson, I consider this role of supporting senior management, sharing my interest and understanding, a great privilege, while not losing sight of our family DNA. It’s important, especially in such challenging times, for management of the holding to know it can count on the full loyalty of the family. It’s growing continuously, and I think my most important challenge is to convey that.

For us under the umbrella of the Steinbeis Foundation, the name Steinbeis is associated with a number of defining characteristics, the key ones of which are dual knowledge sharing and technology transfer, entrepreneurship, and innovation. What characteristics associated with the Steinbeis name distinguish Steinbeis Holding GmbH?

I can only fully concur with that description, because as far as possible those values are still held high and ascribed to at Steinbeis Holding and its subsidiaries. Education and training are an integral part of our entrepreneurial undertaking, which is why we work very closely with the Nordakademie in Elmshorn, and we’d also be interested in closer collaboration with Steinbeis University. But also knowledge sharing between the individual companies is not only something we encourage, it’s essential. We firmly believe that social responsibility is an intrinsic part of running a business and it’s against that background that innovation should happen.

Perhaps one thing that still distinguishes us is that we see curiosity and failure as one thing. There’s no such thing as innovation without failure – it’s just a matter of recognizing when to reconsider decisions. For example, in the 1990s we had a vision of expanding into Asia, but we quickly realized that as a medium-sized German company we’d overdone it.

Steinbeis Holding looks back on a company history of more than 150 years. What were the most important cornerstones of its development as a company?

The moments when the company adapted to new situations in society, and in order to do that even stepped away from traditional business models and products to make way for new ideas – those were milestones in our company history. The first cornerstone definitely has to be turning away from the timber business built up by Otto von Steinbeis, with the adventure in Bosnia and the Wendelstein Railway, and becoming a paper mill. The decision to supply Germany, as an emerging economy, with office products – especially self-adhesive labels – resulted in the setting up of Zweckform, the brand, which for a long time was very successful. Switching to recycled graph papers led to a completely new approach in terms of our orientation, and that laid a cornerstone for the guiding principles of our company today. We now define ourselves as a circular-economy enterprise. Our aspiration of extending the life cycle of resources is something we’re also upholding in our new line of business – plastic recycling.

This clearly demonstrates that sustainability is extremely important at your company, not just in a business sense but also in terms of the technology. What are the success factors and challenges here?

We made a commitment to sustainability and the circular economy more than 40 years ago when we switched from color papers containing wood particles to recycled paper. Since then, it has become part of our identity that all projects and products should be considered against this background. Our every endeavor is to use resources as sparingly and efficiently as possible, and that applies all the more in a business that’s as energy-intensive as ours is. We were very early to adopt a holistic stance on energy issues, so more than a decade ago we built our own waste-to-energy plant and invested in solar and wind energy, as well as biogas plants. Our aim is to anticipate all kinds of challenges and meet them with technological innovation. It’s an approach that takes patience and liquidity, and maybe that’s a success factor of family-owned businesses. They think much more in the long term and are prepared to be more patient going along with such developments. If you look at our involvement in different forms of energy generation, we’re now reaping the benefits of a learning curve we started climbing when electricity prices were affordable, and now that’s enabling us to be reasonably well prepared for the current crisis.


Stephanie Ecker (interviewee)
Steinbeis Holding GmbH (München)