WHU Campus for Family Business 2019

How can future generations be enthused for the own family business? How can a successful internationalisation be achieved? And how well are our hidden champions prepared for the digital transformation? These were just a few of the questions that the 130 participants of this year's Campus for Family Business discussed last Friday on the premises of WHU - Otto Beisheim School of Management.

Hermann Simon, founder and honorary chairman of the global strategy consulting firm Simon-Kucher & Partners, coined the term "hidden champion" like no other. For him, one thing is certain: the hidden champions are and will remain the future engine of the German economy. According to him, there is normally a linear correlation between the number of large companies in a country and the sum of its exports. In this context, Germany is together with China an exception because two thirds of German exports come from medium-sized enterprises, often hidden champions. A total of 16 such hidden champions account for one million Germans, which makes Germany by far the country with the highest number of global market leaders which yet have a particularly low level of public awareness. But what makes the German hidden champions so successful? According to Simon, they set extremely ambitious goals, are highly innovative and combine a focus on products and know-how with global sales and marketing.

But not every participant of the Campus for Family Business is as optimistic as Simon. "Hidden champions are a future engine, but they are not self-runners," said Catharina Prym, a specialist for family businesses at PwC. Michael Mack, CEO of Europa-Park, further criticised the deficient local infrastructure. An inadequate mobile phone network and legal hurdles in digital administration would be just two of the challenges that make everyday processes difficult. Paul Hertwig from N+P Informationssysteme was of a similar opinion and added that it would become increasingly difficult to attract talent, especially IT experts, to family businesses in rural areas.

In the afternoon, the panel discussion "Next Generation" also dealt with the topic of attracting young talent for German SMEs. It would no longer be possible to tie future generations to the family business. Instead, one must try to arouse interest at a very early stage, Selina Stihl from Stihl AG explained. Sarna Roeser, chairwoman of Die Jungen Unternehmer, pointed out that the challenge of getting young people enthusiastic about starting their own ventures or taking over their parent’s family businesses was becoming more and more difficult due to the negative image of entrepreneurs that is increasingly widespread among the general public. This is one of the reasons why entrepreneurs must become even more courageous and willing to experiment while must avoid falling into a stage which Roeser calls "German Angst". As she puts it, one thing should never be forgotten in this respect: "Founders and young entrepreneurs are the life insurance of Germany."