A culture of expertise: Specialists in management

In many companies, specialists are assigned the task of developing products and processes in a narrowly defined field of knowledge. At Schubert, a culture of expertise and specialisation is found at all levels of the company through to upper management. In addition to the highly developed expert knowledge in individual departments, thinking outside the box and never losing sight of the big picture are considered important requisites to innovation.

A culture of expertise, all the way through to upper management is intrinsic to Schubert’s corporate philosophy. At the same time, experts at all levels are confident and flexible with their wealth of knowledge. Information and new ideas are shared, no matter who is asking, and competitiveness within the company quite simply does not exist. “When I meet someone who knows more than I do, I am delighted,” explains Gerald Schubert.

In recent years, together with his brother Ralf, Gerald has gradually taken over the helm from Gerhard Schubert. While Gerald Schubert is responsible for sales and marketing, Ralf Schubert’s key area of responsibility is technology. In this role, he is involved with all developments at a technological level. When developing the new generation of Schubert’s own VMS packaging machine control systems, he releases each and every specification.

In the 80s, Ralf Schubert’s decision to study computer science was still somewhat outside the norm. “At the time, I would have preferred that he study mechanical engineering,” says Gerhard Schubert. For two years, his son worked as a software engineer for a software company in the field of logistics in Karlsruhe, and was only able to selectively apply his expertise on smaller projects at a Schubert. It wasn’t until one of Gerhard Schubert’s long-held vision of working with an in-house control systems was tackled, did Ralf return to Crailsheim. On 1 October 1990 – almost exactly 25 years ago – Ralf Schubert officially entered the family business.

Specialists as managers

Today, computers are omnipresent in the field of packaging technology and Industry. 4.0 is well within reach. Ralf Schubert is currently working on a development tool for TLM machines, with which the machines can be up and running in two dimensions as early as in the concept phase – and then in three dimensions in a next phase – well before they enter assembly. His hobbies include studying artificial intelligence and browsing through books on software development at the popular Wittwer bookstore in Stuttgart. How are interests such as these reconciled with the responsibilities of a manager? “Of course, there is less and less time for me to spend with technical detail,” says Ralf Schubert. “Whereas in the past, I participated in 50 to 70 per cent of the design meetings, today it may only be 20 per cent. Technology, however, is still the area into which I invest most of my brainpower. Management alone wouldn’t fulfil me.

His brother agrees: “At Schubert, we also have specialists in upper management. We still spend more of our time on technological issues than on pure management. It was the same with our father as well. And this is the approach that makes Schubert strong.” After completing his engineering degree, Gerald himself spent a year at an engineering company in Kirchheim/Teck acquiring professional experience before he found his way into his father’s company.

“Our father used to call construction meetings to inform his employees on how a machine was being built,” says Ralf Schubert. “We prefer to discuss this with the team. At meetings, there used to be only one builder. Now there are several, as well as a sales representative and technical director. We include many different perspectives before we decide on a specific direction.”

For the employees, the sons’ management style was most definitely new. They weren’t used to making decisions themselves under Gerhard Schubert’s rule. But since knowledge and creativity were present in all areas of the company, the transition was a smooth one. And since then, employee self-responsibility has become an important part of the Schubert spirit, and it greatly contributes to the unique working atmosphere at Schubert.

A prerequisite for acquiring highly specialised knowledge expertise is the long tenure of Schubert staff. On average, employees stay with the company for around 14 years, and among the 50 or so departmental and group leaders, the figure rises to 25 years.” Good designers continue to improve throughout their entire career – and even beyond,” says Ralf Schubert. “We do everything we can to ensure that employees enjoy their work – why would they see the need to move to another employer?” Gerhard Schubert even included work enjoyment as an official company objective in ISO 9000 guidelines. Company growth is also key to ensuring good career opportunities and also contributes to making Schubert a very attractive employer.

Expertise and team spirit

Nonetheless, in order to protect the company from knowledge migration, know-how at Schubert is never in the hands of a single employee. In spite of highly developed and sophisticated expert knowledge, the Schubert philosophy also reflects the belief that the team is always stronger than the individual. “The design team includes an expert in bottle packaging, one for bag packaging, one for erecting the container and another for closing boxes,” explains Ralf Schubert. “The intense daily exchange of ideas, knowledge and experiences in specific areas of expertise ultimately makes everyone an expert in adjacent areas as well. This is the only way to generate real expertise.

Employees at Schubert are also confident of their own expertise versus competitors. “We have little fear of imitators, since they usually aren’t able to catch up with us,” explains Ralf Schubert. “Very few companies are successful at building expert know-how that is comparable to what Schubert has achieved. This is for the most part due a higher rate of turnover, and especially higher management turnover.” However, Schubert isn’t resting on the laurels of its leadership. Far from it. Schubert is known and respected for its commitment to ongoing innovation. Schubert’s own machine control systems represent a vital protective strategy. No other packaging machinery manufacturer has anything similar to offer. Innovations such as the Transmodul, which is based on a control system, cannot be imitated one to one. “Ever since the Transmodul was introduced to the market, companies have developed products which may be considered similar. But frankly, this doesn’t bother us at all,” says Ralf Schubert. More important than the imitation of individual products are the decades of knowledge and experience behind the developments – and that cannot be copied.

Pioneering developments, such as the machine without an electrical cabinet, are the result of Schubert’s deep knowledge and understanding of the market. “Sometimes, it’s actually a customer order that leads to an innovation. But we also like to give chance an opportunity as well, since after all every new development in the world, even the evolution of humanity, was based on coincidence or chance. Ideas often come spontaneously. If the idea works, eventually a new standard may develop from it.” For instance, Ralf Schubert, after waking up one morning while on vacation in Portugal, came up with the idea behind the counter-flow principle. The concept helped Schubert become the industry leader in picker lines and has been patented for several years.

“How does someone become a specialist? By making mistakes and learning from them,” says Gerald Schubert. “You have to give employees freedom so that they can profit from their own experiences. To learn to stand up, you have to fall. Our employees have to learn to move ahead after failures and correct their mistakes themselves. This also applies to how we handle the next generation.” The next generation – Gerald’s son Johannes and Ralf Schubert’s son Peter – is already waiting in the wings to take over responsibility within the company in ten to 15 years.

Continuity in strategy and values, the best working conditions for the highly qualified experts in the company, with a large dose of boldness to tread new technological paths – specialisation at Schubert is an attitude. And there is a fundamental belief that unites all Schuberts through the generations: “The most important thing in life is to be successful,” says company founder Gerhard Schubert. “The company is our life’s work, and we are responsible for its success.”