Aces in Our Hands

Oliver Blume and Eberhard Weiblen: an interview.


Oliver Blume (left), Chairman of the Boards of Management of Volkswagen and Porsche, and Eberhard Weiblen, CEO of Porsche Consulting, talk with Porsche Consulting Magazine about optimism, opportunities, and a good work-life balance.Porsche Consulting/Porsche AG

Mr. Blume, is a good manager more of an optimist or a pessimist?

Blume: Very clear­ly an opti­mist. I myself am opti­mistic by nature. As a man­ag­er, I’m always think­ing about oppor­tu­ni­ties. I want to build on suc­cess­es. And learn from fail­ures. What’s cru­cial is to have the courage to pur­sue the right thing. And to inspire oth­ers in the process. Mak­ing cars is a team sport. And suc­cess con­sists of team­work. When every­one works togeth­er and pur­sues a com­mon goal, you can move moun­tains togeth­er. At the same time, it’s also impor­tant to assess busi­ness con­di­tions con­tin­u­ous­ly, objec­tive­ly, and real­is­ti­cal­ly, in order to draw the right conclusions.

That sounds like coaching a sports team — you’ve got to explain that …

Blume: It’s a good anal­o­gy. Win­ning teams are pow­ered by a shared spir­it, fair­ness, and pas­sion. What’s true of sports here is exact­ly the same for suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies. It’s about going the extra mile. And fight­ing for every yard. By every sin­gle mem­ber of the team.

Weiblen: When times are tough it’s all the more cru­cial for man­agers to be opti­mistic. We are the “lead­er­ship per­son­nel.” Like good moun­tain guides, we’re respon­si­ble for mak­ing sure the team reach­es the sum­mit. And that’s only pos­si­ble if you your­self are sure you’re on the right path and your goals are attain­able. Some busi­ness lead­ers do a lot of com­plain­ing. But com­plaints have never attract­ed any cus­tomers. You have to address neg­a­tive devel­op­ments open­ly, and not pass over any unpleas­ant top­ics. But you can’t gripe — instead, you tack­le things head-on. At times like this, we need speed and the abil­i­ty to take quick action at the right moment. I like your com­par­i­son with a sports team, Oliv­er. When the oppos­ing team kicks the ball, you have to sprint too. That applies to soc­cer fields and com­pa­nies alike.

Is it really that simple? Is success simply a matter of believing in it?

Blume: At least you can say that those who believe in suc­cess have a good chance of achiev­ing it. Suc­cess is plannable. I saw that again and again dur­ing my time as Chair­man of the Board of Man­age­ment of Porsche AG. We’re vision­ar­ies as well as doers. There’ll always be set­backs, but you can’t let them get you down. Every­one makes mis­takes. What’s impor­tant is to learn from them, to grow, and improve. That’s why, in my view, even mis­takes con­tain opportunities.

Weiblen: Opti­mism is more than just hop­ing things will work out. It’s also always ground­ed in your own abil­i­ties, in trust­ing what you can do. The lessons you’ve learned from pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ences are anoth­er key component.

Can you give us an example?

Weiblen: As a very young con­sul­tant I once did a project with a car­mak­er in Spain that was hav­ing some sig­nif­i­cant pro­duc­tion prob­lems. Its man­agers were sure every­thing was fine and there wasn’t any need for change. But I had filmed the prob­lem­at­ic parts of the plant the pre­vi­ous evening and could show the whole team — who were all men — that they were wrong. I admit that there was a smart-aleck qual­i­ty in show­ing peo­ple up like that. It wasn’t exact­ly a hit among the Spaniards, who have a cer­tain pride. And prob­a­bly wouldn’t have gone over well in any other coun­try, either. I’ve never made that kind of pre­sen­ta­tion mis­take again.

“Solo management decisions are a thing of the past. The only way for a company to solve increasingly complex challenges and be successful is for its leadership team to have a strong spirit of collaboration and mutual support,” says Eberhard Weiblen, CEO of Porsche Consulting.Porsche Consulting/Florian Generotzky

And what do you do when the problems go beyond cultural misunderstandings?

Weiblen: Every cri­sis con­tains an oppor­tu­ni­ty. Spot­ting it and mak­ing use of it are what good man­agers are sup­posed to do. I’m delib­er­ate­ly using the plur­al here, because solo man­age­ment deci­sions are a thing of the past. The only way for a com­pa­ny to solve increas­ing­ly com­plex chal­lenges and to be suc­cess­ful is for its lead­er­ship team to have a strong spir­it of col­lab­o­ra­tion and mutu­al support.

Blume: A good exam­ple here is how we’re elec­tri­fy­ing our cars. At Porsche we decid­ed to go for elec­tro­mo­bil­i­ty back in 2015, which was ear­li­er than a lot of our com­peti­tors. That took quite a bit of courage. Today we see that the Tay­can is a big suc­cess. Our courage paid off. And we’re con­tin­u­ing to build on this suc­cess. This year we’re bring­ing out the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion of the Tay­can and the all-elec­tric Macan. Our prod­uct strat­e­gy is focused on being able to deliv­er more than 80 per­cent fully elec­tric vehi­cles in 2030 — depend­ing on cus­tomer demand and the devel­op­ment of elec­tro­mo­bil­i­ty in dif­fer­ent parts of the world.

That’s an ambitious goal. But how has switching to a new drive system affected Germany as a site for the automotive industry? Is our flagship industry at risk?

Blume: No. I’m an opti­mist here too. The Ger­man auto­mo­tive indus­try leads the world in many areas. The next five years, how­ev­er, will see big­ger changes than in the past fifty. Our chances of emerg­ing from this trans­for­ma­tion as a win­ner are good. As far as glob­al com­pe­ti­tion goes, we have many aces in our hands: qual­i­fied and moti­vat­ed peo­ple at our com­pa­nies, our dual voca­tion­al study and train­ing sys­tem, renowned uni­ver­si­ties, and world-famous research insti­tutes. The country’s inno­v­a­tive power con­tin­ues unabat­ed. You can see that in the num­ber of patents our com­pa­nies are pro­duc­ing. A pio­neer­ing spir­it has always been key to Germany’s suc­cess, cou­pled with the exten­sive expe­ri­ence and high qual­i­ty of our industries.

Weiblen: I like this pos­i­tive view of the world. Even if some dis­cus­sions sug­gest oth­er­wise, Europe has by no means been over­tak­en by China, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to cars. Sure, the race has become tighter. And the pace has picked up, for rea­sons of China’s size alone. It has more peo­ple, and more grad­u­ates. We in Europe sim­ply have to make bet­ter use of our resources — and of course also try to recruit the world’s most tal­ent­ed peo­ple. As a glob­al con­sul­tan­cy, we find that eas­i­er than other com­pa­nies. But it would help us, too, if Ger­many were more attrac­tive to high­ly qual­i­fied immi­grants. We have more than 30 nation­al­i­ties on our team. I was impressed, Oliv­er, when you spoke out against extrem­ism and for sol­i­dar­i­ty at the demon­stra­tion in Wolfs­burg. It’s impor­tant to take a stand, not just to crit­i­cize. Par­tic­i­pa­tion is what gives life to democ­ra­cy and social cohesion.

Blume: Speak­ing at the rally in Wolfs­burg was very impor­tant to me per­son­al­ly. Man­agers, too, have to active­ly pro­mote cohe­sion in our soci­ety. Any­one look­ing at Ger­many these days will see a coun­try in action. Many peo­ple are going out onto the streets and tak­ing a stand — for democ­ra­cy, sol­i­dar­i­ty, and free­dom. They see the impor­tance of speak­ing up and get­ting involved. They want to join the debate on some­thing very essen­tial and fun­da­men­tal: how we live togeth­er. It’s about our home, our coun­try, our soci­ety. We’re show­ing our col­ors by stand­ing up for democ­ra­cy and free­dom. For diver­si­ty and open­ness. For respect and tol­er­ance. Togeth­er with oth­ers we’re stand­ing for every­thing that has made our coun­try strong over the past decades — and will keep it strong.

“It’s essential to draw on our strengths, operate globally with a future-oriented strategy, act regionally, and think in terms of opportunities,” says Oliver Blume, Chairman of the Boards of Management of Porsche AG and Volkswagen AG.Porsche AG

It's also about Germany’s future as a business location.

Blume: We are firm­ly com­mit­ted to Ger­many as an indus­tri­al base. We’re invest­ing in our sites and secur­ing jobs. It’s essen­tial to draw on our strengths, oper­ate glob­al­ly with a future-ori­ent­ed strat­e­gy, act region­al­ly, and think in terms of oppor­tu­ni­ties. What we need are even bet­ter frame­work con­di­tions for research and indus­try. The trans­for­ma­tion going on right now, espe­cial­ly in the auto­mo­tive indus­try, needs to be pow­ered joint­ly by busi­ness, gov­ern­ment, and soci­ety. Gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, Ger­many is still too attached to famil­iar struc­tures. With attrac­tive back­ground con­di­tions for jobs, tax­a­tion, and pros­per­i­ty, we can bring our loca­tion back to the fore­front. It’s cru­cial that we con­cen­trate our ener­gies and move quickly.

You mentioned international competition. What are your thoughts on the isolationist tendencies we’re seeing in many places?

Weiblen: Let’s take semi­con­duc­tors, for instance, specif­i­cal­ly the com­plex chips installed in cars: from the raw mate­ri­als to the fin­ished prod­uct, we’re talk­ing as many as 1,200 pro­duc­tion steps. Com­po­nents and mate­ri­als can cross up to 70 bor­ders, and some of them go back and forth sev­er­al times between Europe and Asia. These high­ly tech­ni­cal prod­ucts haven’t been made “local­ly” for some time now. No coun­try can do it all on their own. Not even the USA, nor China for that mat­ter. High-per­for­mance chips are glob­al prod­ucts. As such, the thought exper­i­ments about autonomous pro­duc­tion we’ve recent­ly been see­ing in many coun­tries are not real­is­tic. The more suc­cess that com­pa­nies and the econ­o­my in gen­er­al can attain, the more inter­con­nect­ed we are, and yes, the more depen­dent we are on each other.

So what should we do?

Blume: Ulti­mate­ly, it’s a mat­ter of iden­ti­fy­ing prospects and pro­vid­ing guid­ance. In Ger­many, right now we have to focus on the right issues. On future-ori­ent­ed mat­ters. We have to make strate­gic deci­sions on what areas of tech­nol­o­gy we want to excel in: semi­con­duc­tors, soft­ware, cars, chem­istry, med­ical tech­nolo­gies, bat­ter­ies. Renew­able ener­gies of course. Sus­tain­abil­i­ty is one of the most impor­tant respon­si­bil­i­ties of our time.

Products aren’t just a matter of materials. They also need workers. Do the two of you see any problems associated with aging demographics, generation Z, or desires for a work-life balance?

Blume: I’m for­tu­nate to head a com­pa­ny that has always placed a pre­mi­um on con­tin­u­ous learn­ing — for our work­force every­where, by the way, not only in Ger­many. Life­long learn­ing means that peo­ple can con­tin­ue to do high­ly qual­i­fied work at an advanced age. We’ve there­fore con­sis­tent­ly invest­ed in improv­ing the work­ing con­di­tions at our pro­duc­tion facil­i­ties, and either elim­i­nat­ing or high­ly automat­ing any haz­ardous, harm­ful, or stren­u­ous activ­i­ties. Our focus is on people.

Weiblen: It’s com­plete­ly nor­mal to see some gen­er­a­tional fric­tion and for ideals to evolve. I, too, had many dis­cus­sions with my par­ents that helped me forge my own approach to work and suc­cess. Aside from that, health has improved over­all. A cen­tu­ry ago, 50-year-old peo­ple were often no longer fit and felt “old.” Today, no 50-year-old would say that. Instead, they feel in the prime of their lives. And that’s a good thing. Longer lifes­pans are one of the results of med­ical and tech­no­log­i­cal progress. That’s anoth­er exam­ple of success.

Despite that, one hears a lot of criticism in Germany these days. Especially from young people who are very worried about how climate change will affect their future.

Weiblen: I total­ly get the fears of the younger gen­er­a­tion. It’s our respon­si­bil­i­ty to leave the world a bet­ter place. Com­bat­ting cli­mate change costs money. As do address­ing demo­graph­ic shifts, main­tain­ing and expand­ing infra­struc­ture, upgrad­ing the mil­i­tary, inte­grat­ing migrants — to list just a few exam­ples. The only way to mas­ter these chal­lenges is by work­ing togeth­er. Each gen­er­a­tion has to do its part. It’s essen­tial that we sub­stan­tial­ly increase our inno­v­a­tive power and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. That’s the only way to fund the invest­ments we need to make. His­to­ry has shown that tech­no­log­i­cal advances always release new ener­gies. We’ve never had so many researchers and devel­op­ers. New ideas arise every day. We need to ensure that our research also leads to mar­ketable prod­ucts. That’s what’s mak­ing me opti­mistic, espe­cial­ly with regard to the future.

Blume: It’s everyone’s job to ensure that the world is a good place for future gen­er­a­tions. At Porsche we take a com­pre­hen­sive view of sus­tain­abil­i­ty — in eco­nom­ic, envi­ron­men­tal, and social terms. For us, eco­nom­ic suc­cess, envi­ron­men­tal aware­ness, and social respon­si­bil­i­ty com­ple­ment each other. The elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of our vehi­cle range reflects this. At Porsche we’re also work­ing to achieve a car­bon-neu­tral value chain for our new cars by 2030. At the Volk­swa­gen Group we’re part­ner­ing with com­pa­nies to devel­op and opti­mize recy­cling process­es for high-volt­age bat­ter­ies, so we can keep using the huge amounts of valu­able sub­stances they contain.

Are you counting on technology to solve the climate problems?

Blume: Intel­li­gent use of tech­nol­o­gy is the best way for­ward — I’m con­vinced of this. Elec­tro­mo­bil­i­ty is the future. I’m a big fan. And we take a broad view of cli­mate pro­tec­tion. So we’re going for “e” in two ways: elec­tro­mo­bil­i­ty and e‑fuels. Renew­able syn­thet­ic fuels give com­bus­tion engines the poten­tial to be near­ly car­bon-neu­tral. We’re think­ing about exist­ing fleets here that will still have com­bus­tion dri­ves for years. There are around 1.3 bil­lion vehi­cles with com­bus­tion engines on the roads right now and many of them will be around for a long time. Adding e‑fuels to gaso­line can lower car­bon emis­sions. Porsche is a pio­neer in pro­mot­ing this devel­op­ment. At a pilot plant in Chile, we and our part­ners are show­ing how pro­duc­tion can work on an indus­tri­al scale.

Technologies like that are expensive. Can our society afford them?

Weiblen: That’s more a ques­tion of pri­or­i­ties. We can’t do every­thing, so we have to invest in the right areas. As some­one who does a lot of trav­el­ing, I’d like to see a high-speed Euro­pean rail net­work that con­nects inno­va­tion cen­ters with each other. Or a func­tion­ing hydro­gen infra­struc­ture that reli­ably and sus­tain­ably sup­plies our indus­try with ener­gy. If we invest in the right tech­nolo­gies, we’ll get growth.

Blume: Growth from tech­nolo­gies that coun­ter­act glob­al warm­ing — I’m all on board with that. We want to be in the fore­front here. Porsche stands for a pio­neer­ing spir­it and ath­leti­cism. The heart of Porsche is our prod­ucts, which com­bine our unique her­itage with cut­ting-edge tech­nolo­gies. In inno­v­a­tive, sus­tain­able, and exclu­sive ways. Every one of our cars is the ful­fill­ment of a customer’s dream.

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