How is a family-run business made fit for the future?

6-minute read

An interview with Andrea Schell, Owner and Managing Partner at SCHELL GmbH & Co. KG

Andrea Schell would usually be sitting in her weekly meeting with her Head of HR right now, like every Tuesday at this time. Today, however, she’s taken time out to talk about her company. As Managing Partner, she’s the third generation to run the company. Andrea Bußmann and Andreas Ueberschär complete the Management team. As a Managing Partner, Andrea Schell is quite a rarity in the manufacturing metal industry in Germany. In fact, she embodies an important aspect of the topic we want to talk about today: family businesses balancing tradition and change.

What particular qualities make up a family business and, more specifically, what are these qualities at SCHELL?

Our family name is also our brand name. It’s directly linked to the quality of the products and service we provide. In order to live up to this claim, we have a high level of vertical integration in our own production – this gives us the edge, which is extremely important to us. It enables us to minimise risks while continuously improving quality.

As a family business, we achieve a level of customer proximity and service that’s difficult for large corporations. From purchasing the materials for processing right through to shipping, all procedures and processes take place in our buildings. The short distances allow speedy arrangements, close cooperation between the individual departments and exceptional flexibility. If we ever need outside help, we’re able to draw from a trusted pool. Many of our external service providers, from suppliers to machine manufacturers to our law firm and auditing and tax consultancy company, are all already long-standing partners who understand our “corporate DNA” as well as our employees. This is also a great advantage in terms of fast, flexible and straightforward cooperation.

Another major aspect: throughout our company’s history, we’ve always been financially independent due to our capital resources, which are provided by the two shareholders, i.e. my brother and me. This affords us enormous flexibility and decision-making speed, both in terms of investments and strategic decisions. My position as Managing Director for Finance and Human Resources keeps me right up to speed with what’s going on in the company on a daily basis – in terms of the “hard figures”, if you will – as well as in terms of the company’s other essential resource: its people.

How do you see the role of your family business in the economy?

Medium-sized business culture has a long history in Sauerland and is part and parcel of life here. Our entire production is still located here in Olpe, and has been since the company was founded. It’s "made in Germany" at its finest.

In the meantime, however, we’ve expanded far beyond the borders of the town of Olpe and with subsidiaries in places such as Belgium, France, Poland, India and Singapore, we’ve become a global company with an export volume of more than 50%. But, together with many other family-run companies, SCHELL continues to be an important pillar of the region in terms of economic activity. Our colleagues reward us for this with their loyalty. We’re proud of the fact that we have a very low turnover among our employees. In fact, most of our colleagues have been working for our company for several years or even decades. This also means security for the region, for the people that live in our region – and therefore for the people who shape our region.
This doesn’t mean that we’ve become complacent by any means. Our employees are an outstanding mix incorporating many years of experience with new and innovative ideas. Indeed, despite the now much-discussed “shortage of skilled workers”, we have still been able to win people over as an employer and fill vacant positions with proven success. With our innovative products, we’re an attractive employer that offers future-oriented opportunities.

Here’s a little food for thought: I recently read the following answer to the question “Are medium-sized companies, and by extension many family-owned companies, the better start-ups?" which I am happy to repeat here: “Young people are increasingly drawn to start-ups. But they could develop just as well in many medium-sized companies. Perhaps it’s time to spread this idea.

What does leadership mean to you?

At our company in particular, leadership doesn't mean sitting back on your laurels in the executive suite, in fact, quite the opposite: it means taking an active part in day-to-day business. As managing directors, we take care of the various tasks within the scope of our areas of responsibility and, together with the departments, of day-to-day business. We always know what’s going on and are involved in shaping the future of the company on a daily basis. Because we’re all gathered at one site in Olpe, we can be reached every day. We have regular meetings on recurring topics, but when things suddenly get tense, we’re flexible enough that we can get together without too much hassle to coordinate our efforts and find a solution in the shortest time possible.

In a nutshell, leadership and management for me mean articulating clear goals, convincing others, initiating changes and innovating, reconciling different opinions among colleagues and rigorously implementing projects. This is what really matters, beyond all the management fads and buzzwords ranging from “agility” to “disruption”.
A few characteristics are important for good leadership – ambition and passion to achieve a goal, courage and optimism to win over employees, and willingness to communicate to create and maintain trust. Perseverance and tenacity – for me, these two are also key. Because if you lead, you need to be able to withstand adverse situations which includes having to make unpopular decisions every now and then. You also have to accept the distance that sometimes comes with leadership. But anyone who wants to lead well needs to like people first and foremost. Part of this is to actively involve the staff. I know for a fact that I rely on the team’s expertise, creativity and support.

What does the word “family” mean to you in family-run businesses? What self-image does it convey?

In a word: responsibility. By working closely with the individual departments, we maintain personal contact with most of our employees. It’s important to us to create a working environment that can cope with the ups and downs of life. Nevertheless, our day-to-day business also has serious sides to it, and calls for hard graft. Everyone settles into their work environment and performs their tasks with great reliability. The respect shown to each and every colleague is certainly a major source of motivation here. I’m deeply grateful for how reliable, loyal and flexible our employees are.