Two generations of the Schubert family are seated together at lunchtime in the company cafeteria in Crailsheim, Germany. A generational succession at Schubert? The senior player, once again open and articulate after having suffered a stroke two years ago, finds the topic fascinating. His sons also agree to take part spontaneously. What all three have in common is responsibility for the family business which currently employs more than 1,000 people and which Gerhard Schubert brought to life from the ground up some 50 years ago. How are they dealing with the responsibility?
In the early days, your father did everything himself, from preparing cost estimates, to developing machines and even invoicing. Under what circumstances did you both enter the company business?
Gerald: Well, we didn’t start here as the boss’ sons, if that’s what you’re asking. We each had our specific responsibilities – initially I worked in the design department and then later in sales, and my brother in development – which made perfect sense. Had we started as managers, without having a clue about the business, we would have surely run into acceptance problems.
Ralf: We gradually grew into our roles and had to take on our own challenges. Of course, for us it wasn’t about survival as it was for our father. Nonetheless, we are actively working on many different fronts. Gerald is busy convincing customers of our products’ many benefits, whereas I am actively representing the philosophy that is behind our developing packaging machines and working closely with our employees when it comes to introducing new technologies. But we’re working hard knowing that our platform is well established. And that’s a powerful position to be in. The Gerhard Schubert GmbH currently stands on a very solid foundation.
How did you pass on the company to your sons, Mr Schubert?
Gerhard: In the early days of the transition, I came back to the office again and again. But eventually I just got up in the middle of a Monday meeting and said: Ok, I’m finally leaving. My sons kept my chair free for four years after that. But I didn’t come back.
Ralf: Nonetheless, my father still keeps a very close eye on what goes on in his company. Using our Saturn planning software’s Management Cockpit, he checks orders every day – and if he’s not satisfied with something, he won’t hesitate to call assembly himself.
Is control very important to the three of you?
Ralf: We’re extremely different as far as control is concerned. Our father led the company as a democratic dictator…
Gerhard: (laughs) That’s true!
Ralf: … but today, dictators no longer run companies. Times have changed a great deal. Young people today wouldn’t accept my father’s management style. And with the size of the company’s today, it simply wouldn’t be possible to always be aware of everything that goes on.
Gerald: It’s also a question of our different personalities. We trust our employees a lot more – in my case, perhaps even more so than my brother. Employees develop through trust – and, in the best case scenario, into leaders. If we ever reached a point where things run so smoothly that leadership is no longer needed, I will be delighted.
Ralf: For me, something would definitely be missing. Even if the order books are bursting at the seams, I will still want to get involved.
Gerald: Both of you are really much more rigorous in working out new ideas and anticipating everything through to the last detail. What I really enjoy is to develop concepts. And I don’t necessarily have the need to define everything down to the last screw. I’m not interested in whether we need an M6 screw or an M4. I’m more than happy to have others take over implementation.
Ralf: For me, attention to detail is extremely important. But of course, as a manager, you should never lose sight of the whole..
Gerhard: In my case, there was definitely a field I didn’t get involved with at all. And that’s image processing. What Dr Pecht was developing together with Dr Nasraoui… that was way too complex for me.
How important is it that managing directors are deeply involved in the development of new technologies?
Ralf: At Schubert, it has an enormous importance. Ultimately, everyone is responsible for everything.
Gerald: Our customers expect us to be fully familiar with all issues that affect the Schubert company. The allocation of responsibilities – with R&D as Ralf’s area, and sales and marketing as mine – is in reality not quite as strict as it may appear in our organisational chart. We both also have expertise in the other’s ‘official’ field. With Peter Gabriel, we brought a business expert from outside the family into our leadership ranks. One who really understands the company from a commercial point of view. He’s been actively involved with the company for over 25 years and he enjoys our full confidence – also as a friend of the family.
Who has the last word in case of a disagreement?
Gerald: Well, so far we’ve always managed to come to an agreement. That is, one of us has always come round. It has never happened that a vote was necessary.
Gerhard: Spending time together in our company jet is important as well. In the cockpit on the way to our customers, we have an opportunity to speak with each other.
Ralf: But sometimes you just have to go ahead and do it. After the management transition, we let our employees do things that never would have been allowed under our father’s leadership. For example, the use of screw conveyors for positioning bottles.
Gerhard: The machine was good, but I still would have preferred it without screw conveyors..
Ralf: But we did occasionally lose jobs because we didn’t use screw conveyors.
In what types of situations should you rely on the experience of the older generation, and when should you go your own way?
Ralf: As you get older, there are times where you get stuck in older patterns and often, flexibility just isn’t there. Flexibility that our customers expect from us. But in some respects, it’s also important to consistently pursue the proven path without infringing on the company philosophy.
Gerald: It’s really about the mix of experience and knowledge with fresh ideas! The younger generation should listen to the older generation – and vice versa.
When is the right time to let go?
Gerhard: Operationally, I am no longer involved. That challenge is up to other people now.
Gerald: For customers however, it’s important to know that our father is still involved in the business.
Ralf: At first we were concerned that it could perhaps happen all too quickly. Under our leadership, employees all of a sudden had to take on responsibility which our father had previously assumed for them. We asked ourselves if risky decisions would be made which could ultimately harm the company. When my father had the stroke, it was good that we were both already active in our positions and that the new leadership style had been introduced. Before, it would have been a huge problem had he suddenly no longer been there.
And the next generational succession?
Gerald: My son Johannes and Ralf’s son Peter very much want to get into the family business. We have a good feeling about both of them, but they are still too young for us to speculate as to whether they could run the company one day. Johannes has developed very well in recent years. At 25, he has already successfully handled highly complex packaging systems as a project manager abroad – and I’m very proud of this fact. Now he is off to America for a few years where he will continue to evolve there and gain experience. Johannes is already showing leadership qualities today. Peter, who is still at the beginning of his studies in mechanical engineering, is also a wonderful young man – and the two get along very well. So there is every reason to hope that the company’s management will remain in the hands of family members in its third generation. They’ll find support in a young yet very experienced management team, with whom it’s both very gratifying and fun to work.
Ralf: We see great potential over the coming decades to further successfully develop the company into a leader in our segment. And it’s not the number of patents or state-of-the-art equipment that makes the difference. Above all, it’s the employees.