WHU General

Generation Conflict or Competitive Advantage?

WHU Campus for Family Business addresses questions of sustainable entrepreneurship and visions for the future

"Family businesses need pragmatic not ideological solutions," Bernhard Simon, chairman of the executive board of logistics provider Dachser and, besides Alfred Ritter, patron of the Campus for Family Business (CfFB), started his keynote at the conference. Previously, Professor Dr. Nadine Kammerlander, holder of the Chair of Family Business at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, had officially opened this year's CfFB and briefly presented her latest research findings on owner-managed companies in Germany. This year’s topic of the event in Vallendar: Sustainable entrepreneurship – generation conflict or competitive advantage? 

Bernhard Simon already spoke at the CfFB before and his findings have been convincing in the past. This time, once again, his speech was well approved by the audience. He described how his company and its haulage contractors travelled to Wuhan or Bergamo at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic to make sure these areas were still supplied. He was satisfied with the result: Thanks to its flexibility and reliability, Dachser was even able to win new customers during the crisis. The CfFB patron stated that family businesses ought to focus on customer benefit and not shareholder value. "Entrepreneurs who take sustainability seriously have to invest in a tomorrow in which we want to live," he concluded.

Like all current events, the CfFB could not be held in the traditional way due to the Corona regulations. The organizers had to move the event to the town hall in Vallendar to ensure sufficient distances between the participants. "The effort – both personnel and financial wise – to ensure that the event was conducted in accordance with Corona regulations was considerable. Among other things, we had to create a viable hygiene concept, hire a security service, provide sufficient disinfectants and masks, and ramp up the technical equipment. But it was worth it. Summing up on-site and digital participants, we had a record number of participants this year," says Professor Kammerlander. In the run-up to the event, the organizers had made sure that people could actively participate online in working or discussion groups.

Exciting presentations and best practice examples were presented in hybrid format, for example at the panel discussion "Sustainable Leadership with Vision". One of the six leaders of medium-sized companies in the panel was Martin Kind, managing director of the Kind group, to many probably better known as the former CEO of the soccer club Hannover 96. He explained that, although the underlying strategy of a family-owned company should be given, there ought to be room for adjustments. According to Kind, the new generation needs to provide innovations when joining the company. Karen Queitsch, entrepreneur and discussant, had a similar perspective on the next generation. Since 2019, she has been managing director "Sustainability and Innovation" at SUND Holding. In the panel discussion, she spoke out in favor of modernizing sustainability concepts, corporate activity, and communication in all sectors to squander as little resources as possible.

Further sources of inspiration were among others patron Alfred Ritter and speaker Aya Jaff. As the grandson of the founder, Alfred Ritter has decisively transformed the family business Ritter Sport in recent years towards ecological sustainability and fair wages. The company purchased land in Nicaragua and entered the production of sustainable cocoa for chocolate itself. This not only led to an improvement in working conditions for the local farmers, it also fulfilled the criteria for certification of the cultivation under environmental aspects and social standards. Programmer Aya Jaff, on the other hand, who had to flee Iraq as a child, is now viewed by many as a prodigy of the German tech and stock market scene. She added a digital component to the topic of sustainability and described the advantages of access to knowledge for people all over the world.

Natalie Mekelburger, CEO and president of the Coroplast Group, provided additional valuable insights in her presentation. She advocated using the forces of the market economy to overcome existing challenges, such as climate change. Not only could participants of the CfFB listen to the exciting insights of the speakers, they were also able to receive training in workshops that dealt with the sustainability of family enterprises, foundations, and crisis management. That by thorough preparation, generational conflicts in family businesses can be avoided, was one of the lessons learned.      

The CfFB is co-hosted by WHU professors Nadine Kammerlander and Christina Günther together with their respective chairs of Family Business and Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises. "We had many exciting and sometimes controversial discussions on the topic of sustainability in family businesses, enriched by hands-on experience and scientific findings. Everyone was able to take something away for themselves", summarized Nadine Kammerlander. There has also been a lot of acknowledgment for the organizers of an event of the size of the CfFB from other university representatives – some are considering adapting the hybrid format and hygiene measures for their own events.