GLOBAL LOUNGE : All in the family

Carl Miele and Reinhard Zinkann founded Miele in 1899 with the belief that: “Success is only possible in the long term if one is totally and utterly convinced of the quality of one’s products.” More than 110 years later their descendants still follow philosophy of continuous innovation.
Reinhard Zinkann has been senior manager at the company since 1999. His achievements are impressive: string of degrees from universities in Europe and America (including Harvard) and membership of more than half dozen boards including ZVEI, the German umbrella organisation of the German electrical and electronic manufacturing industry. He is, nevertheless, solidly grounded, and advocates family values and business excellence.

How would you describe your management style?
It’s very open but, it’s not only my style, it’s the culture of our company. We don’t think in hierarchies. We have very flat structure with four partners and three non-family members on the board. The second level includes managing directors of subsidiaries, plus plant managers.
Our offices are glassed. Some call it an aquarium as everyone can see us and anyone can step in. Our style is to talk to colleagues rather than constantly communicate by email. We keep the door open so everyone can file in and have questions dealt with very openly.
We want staff to think as we do. We want them thinking long term, in terms of quality and durability, with an openness towards new things. We’re in open colleagueship to create an atmosphere that people like to work in and give their best. Our culture gives high edification to all employees, wherever in the world they come from.
We try to give everyone the feeling that being part of the business is like being part of the family: the family and business are one. Even the management board does not have any hierarchical thinking. We think and act as colleagues, and always look for joint decisions. It’s not always easy. You have to take suggestion back and forth, go home, sleep (on it) for one or two nights and come back to the board with decision. We always find good solution and have never taken decision that is not unanimous.

This is fourth generation family business. In your opinion, what benefits and disadvantages lie in managing global family business?
There is no difference between local and global company. Family businesses have one thing in common, both great strength and great danger in the family. family that lives in peace with each other and shares common feeling for the business is an enormous backbone for that business. A family not doing so generates uncertainty and fear for its employees and makes success for the business very difficult.

Is this common for German businesses?
The way we run our business is unique, firstly because it is two, rather than one family business. There were always two partners who jointly ran the business. Two partners meant one had to convince the other; this is quite healthy. The transparency of our offices and the transparency of our management (approach) are very helpful. It makes things easier. Everyone can talk to anyone and there is no fear in making decision which might not be good. The difference between family business and other businesses is only that family businesses tend to think long term and therefore have different approach; particularly in the way they treat their people and manage things.
In our company every employee in the world has our email addresses and can email us. Our telephone numbers are in the telephone book and the glass doors are absolutely unique. There are no systems barriers and so on… you can just step in.

What is Miele’s global strategy for weathering the recession?
Every business, and every human being, can make mistakes. Every human being has or is going to make false decision in their life and business. How you deal with success and failure is the issue. We think that failure can be cornerstone to success as long as you are willing to learn from it.
If you are willing to understand that failure hurts, is possible and costs money, you will never do it again. You will cope better next time. People shouldn’t be afraid to make decision because they are afraid of failure. Entrepreneurship has to do with being able and willing to make decisions, even if you are not at ease or feel uncomfortable.
Businesses don’t fail in good or bad times. They fail because wrong decisions were taken in good times and because they did not prepare for the bad times.
If you are in position with declining market and you are forced to act, act out of position of strength. It might hurt, it might be difficult, but in the end it is lot more efficient and easier. We ask of our managing directors and colleagues in responsible positions to act like entrepreneurs, to lead the business as if it is theirs, to take full responsibility. If things are going wrong we talk to them, there is never decision to cut heads.

Many boards tend to replace the CEO or upper management in tough times. What are your thoughts on this strategy?
Everyone coming to new position tends to change and do things differently from his predecessor. But tactics and strategic decisions can never be long term if they are always changed by new heads and so we think it’s not right to simply change or cut off heads.
After 100 years we’ll only have the fourth change of managing director. If we have change, in 95 percent of the time it’s because the guy retired. Many of our people in positions of responsibility have been with us for more than 20, 30, or even 40 years.
Of course there is an argument that new, young people bring new, fresh wind and ideas. That is true on the one hand, but on the other hand, we believe in experience. My father has been in the business for more than 50 years and even though he is officially retired, he comes in for two hours day. This is an important and enormous font of experience.

What lies ahead for Miele?
Neither politicians nor industrialists have crystal ball to know how the year will end. At the moment it is difficult to see where things are headed and it’s difficult to know how markets will develop so I can’t give you forecast.
I’m born optimist. At some point this crisis will end and I am positive there will always be market for better premium products. We have to wait, get our act together and be prepared when the end of the crisis comes.

How do you handle work-life balance? Do you enjoy any hobbies or sport?
We have saying: “First comes the business, then comes the business.” Yes I have hobbies. I do enjoy every single second I have with my son, who is 14. Then my favourites are classical music and literature. My favourite author is the German philosopher Goethe. My other hobbies include sailing, skiing and hunting.
If you love what you do, then automatically it is your work-life balance. I love my job. I love my company. I love the products and I love my family.

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