Max Viessmann: He has been one of the co-bosses of the heater manufacturer from Allendorf since 2017. Before that, the son of Martin Viessmann, who had run the family business since 1992, worked for BCG and as head of digital. In 2019, Viessmann achieved sales of EUR 2.65 billion with its 12,300 employees in the three business areas of heating technology, industrial and cooling systems.
Max Viessmann, your company has been based in North Hesse in the tranquil Allendorf for decades. How is a heating appliance manufacturer affected by the Corona crisis?
We formulated very clear principles for ourselves early on. Firstly, the health of our employees – our 12,300 Viessmann family members – comes first. We have mastered this well so far, we have had very few infections in the low double-digit range. The second principle was: We want to make a contribution to society despite the crisis. Solidarity is the foundation to successfully get through these challenging times. And third, we must do everything we can to ensure the continued existence of our 103-year-old family business. Because we are relatively strongly represented in China, we have experiences of ours at the beginning of the pandemic
Chinese colleagues and were able to take preventive measures at all other locations worldwide at an early stage.
Do you have an example of this?
In China, many factories have been very strict with hygiene measures in production. There were clear instructions on how to focus your social life on specific contact points. We were also able to see how our home office sales can work successfully. Are you still as productive, or even more productive? With the experience from China, we were able to quickly flip the switch in Europe.
Did production at Viessmann also have to be shut down – and what is the situation in the plants like now?
Fortunately, we were able to keep our production going through the entire crisis. We only deliberately closed our plant in France for a week for security reasons, because the region in the north-east of the country was particularly badly affected. In addition, the field hospitals in Alsace were at times so overloaded that we didn’t want to create an additional risk. However, once the situation had calmed down, production continued with appropriate hygiene measures.
You moved to the top in 2017 at the age of just 29 – in the beginning you commuted a lot between Allendorf and Berlin, where you built up a number of digital units for Viessmann. Otherwise you have traveled a lot in Europe. How has your life been since March?
My everyday life and physical radius were as manageable as anyone else’s during the shutdown: I spent most of the time in the home office. In the meantime, however, I have also tried to show a presence in production and logistics. That was especially important in the first weeks of the crisis: I wanted to make it clear that we all stand together and will get through this crisis successfully together. And that our location is a place that is safe. Thanks to numerous safety precautions, it offers a completely different level of security than going to the supermarket, where I cannot influence who I come into contact with. Looking back, I am incredibly grateful on this point in particular. The colleagues in the Viessmann family have built up a great deal of trust among each other, even if there was a distance of 1.50 or two meters between them, in a figurative sense they were very close. What I’m also grateful for was spending time with my own family. If you don’t travel as much as usual, you save a lot of time.
“Companies with a strong purpose are about more than just survival”
At Viessmann you brought in a different language, a new tone: There was a lot of talk about new beginnings, about the future, you tried out new channels like YouTube. How can you communicate in this crisis without glossing over, but not losing interest in the future?
In the first few weeks of this crisis, it was not easy to look ahead – but it is in Viessmann’s DNA that we always see such crises as an opportunity. Firstly, we were able to rely heavily on the routines that we had established in recent years – for example with the “State of the World” format.
Employees from all locations dial in to these webcasts. The only difference was that we no longer physically drummed up the speakers. Everyone was able to ask questions as usual, which the management team answered immediately. In this way, we were able to avoid uncertainty and ensure clarity, transparency and openness. Secondly, we completely digitalized our internal communication channels a long time ago and use a platform that reaches almost 90 percent of the Viessmann family members. And thirdly, we formed a crisis management team made up of 30 divisional managers who coordinated mornings and evenings every day.
Does that mean that a company’s culture is more important than usual at times like this?
Our corporate culture is our greatest competitive advantage. We became even more aware of this during the crisis.
These virtual meetings with thousands of employees: How does Viessmann handle it technically, and what kind of questions do you have?
In fact, thousands of people can dial in from their smartphones, tablets or computers and ask questions live online. The questions are highly voted and, depending on the percentage of votes, answered from top to bottom. This transparency helps us because we can scale information extremely quickly. Our digital platform Staffbase recorded even higher access rates than usual, especially in times of crisis, we had over 100,000 visits per week on average. The questions are very different. At the moment, many are very interested in how the company will continue and how business will develop under the current circumstances.
Did the crisis management initiatives come from management or from employees?
We rely on the creativity of employees, most ideas come from there. So it was that we soon had our own disinfectant production up and running. In the next moment we made respiratory masks ourselves. And then, in the third step, we started manufacturing ventilators on an industrial scale within three weeks. This shows how closely the family members worked together as a team.
The production of ventilators is an entry into medical technology. If someone were to say: I switched production to boilers, then you would certainly say: “Wait, it’s not that simple!” How did it come about?
At the end of the day, that’s just culture, too. That is simply the question: How do we recognize problems and how do we find appropriate solutions? These are routines that are deeply anchored in the Viessmann family, so that they weren’t really special. A special feature was of course to venture into medical technology overnight. This was driven by employees who normally work as data scientists or as product managers for fuel cells. They presented us with the first prototype within three days. That is remarkable and an insane effort by everyone involved under the leadership of our Chief Technology Officer Markus Klausner. The ventilators only use parts that we already use in our heating systems and heat pumps. Of course, we got advice from outside, from hospital doctors, intensive care physicians and the Medical Faculty of RWTH Aachen University. The whole thing was developed quickly. With us, such projects simply meet an existing operating system, enriched with passion.
How many of these devices are being produced now?
We have capacities for several thousand devices per week. Fortunately, we are now in a situation in Europe where we have no additional needs. The infection rates seem to be under control and there are no bottlenecks in the clinics in Germany. When we developed the ventilators, that was definitely not the case. What we are currently asking ourselves: What contribution can we make in regions of the world that do not have an infrastructure like Germany? We want to offer our help there with mobile ventilators.
You have often spoken about megatrends, the energy transition, climate change, Industry 4.0, artificial intelligence. Is there a risk that Corona will overshadow all of this?
We have to distinguish three things. One is the internal perspective. As a company, we have committed ourselves to the mission statement, our purpose: “We create living spaces for generations to come.” We design living spaces for future generations, and we do this in very different ways, for example through energy efficiency and the reduction of CO emissions in Buildings. I am firmly convinced that companies with a clear purpose can benefit in a crisis because they don’t have to explain for long: Why are we actually doing what we are doing? It’s about more than just surviving the company. Second, I believe that Corona will definitely make climate change more important. In the USA it was established very early that there was not only a high correlation and a connection between the previous illness of the patients and the mortality, but above all between the air quality and the death rate. This shows that we cannot give up when it comes to sustainability and the climate. And third, megatrends such as digitization or learning algorithms have long ceased to be a buzzword topic, so we can concentrate on the specific possibilities.
Do you have any examples of this?
In the last few months we have seen what digital possibilities make our lives easier when interacting with our customers, for example during maintenance work or servicing heating devices remotely. Companies that have a long-term perspective must not give in to digitization. Using the red pencil here is fatal. Despite the crisis, we are also sticking to the “engine room”, our digital offensive in Berlin. This place is a platform from medium-sized companies for medium-sized companies, where the focus is on co-creation for future business models. And facing forward, it is the same
like climate change more relevant than ever.
You took on responsibility in your family business at a very young age. You have to steer it through the first major crisis at the age of just 31. Who are you currently seeking advice from? And how much do you think this crisis will shape your generation?
I hope that there will be no “Generation C” – a generation Corona. Dealing with the crisis today will determine how we look back on it tomorrow. And I hope we will do it with pride in a new global solidarity. This will take time, however, as the economy will probably not return to pre-crisis levels until 2022 at the earliest. Personally, I am incredibly privileged because I have an incredibly strong team around me, with whom I can not only tear up trees, but also plant a lot of trees. In addition, my father and I have an experienced entrepreneur and mentor close by, whom I can ask anything, at any time of the day or night. The trust that we have earned is an extreme support. In the end, it is also crucial how you can personally overcome a crisis. In the last few years I’ve learned to set up routines. Whether meditation, yoga or work-out, these routines strengthen me so that I don’t feel drained. The time since March has been a huge sprint that is incredibly exhausting for everyone involved. It is also a great help to have a strong woman by your side. It is a privilege to be able to rely on each other, to have your back so that I can myself
focus on the future of the company.
The interview was published in Personal-Financial.com 07/2020. interested in Personal-Financial.com? Here is the Subscription shopwhere you can order the print version. Our digital edition is available at iTunes and GooglePlay