They were turbulent times, the world of business was holding its breath during the financial crisis, and scores of companies were down on their knees, but it didn’t deter Axel Wittig from setting up his own company. Wittig founded Webo GmbH in 2008. And the success story of the tool manufacturer makes the question of whether he regrets his decision completely superfluous. TRANSFER met up with Wittig
for an interview.
Mr. Wittig, most of the successful business startups you hear about these days have something to do with smart or virtual technology, or they’re in the new economy offering services through the internet as the old economy gradually fades into the background and is replaced. The path you’ve been treading with your startup shows that things can be completely different. The old economy does still have the potential to innovate and offer technical advancement, even in a world of Industry 4.0 solutions. What’s the secret to success? And what characteristics of a company or an entrepreneur do you believe are central to this success?
I believe there are three key ingredients. Firstly, the product idea in the old economy has to have a link to the new economy and the technologies it offers. At Webo, we do produce traditional tools, but we use state-of-the-art technology. The second key ingredient is professional marketing of the product idea. This can be in order to get the right funding, or to go out into the market and attract highly qualified workers. The third prerequisite, which is no less important, is that the founder has to be totally aware of the fact that he’s not operating in some trendy, hip sector of industry. So he has to be all the more creative, because even if the idea’s in the old economy, that doesn’t stop the company culture from being part of the new economy!
You took part in the panel discussion at the Steinbeis Financing Arena in April and the central question was whether the lack of funding – not just from state coffers but also from private backers – is slowing down potentially successful startups in Germany. If we look back at your success, do you believe the right framework is in place in Germany to offer startup-friendly conditions, or do you think it could still be better?
The conditions in Germany are startup-friendly, I have no doubts about that. To win over funding providers or banks, an idea has to simply be so brilliant that it’s practically risk-free for the investor; then you also get financial support. If the bank doesn’t immediately understand the product idea then it will have to be all the more convinced about the team behind the idea and be given a credible reason to believe it will succeed. Where we do have some catching up to do is when it comes to supporting everyday businesses that are neither technologically cuttingedge nor hip. We actually need these totally conventional companies, no matter whether they’re in the simple manual trades, or small suppliers, or contract manufacturers. This is where, I believe, the Main Street banks have an obligation to provide more support and investment.
Webo is headquartered in the quaint little city of Amtzell in Allgäu. How do you overcome the challenges of attracting specialists to such a rural area, especially when there’s so much demand for young graduates and specialist engineers, as is currently the case?
We offer a highly appealing place to work not just in financial terms but also when it comes to the social benefits we offer our employees – this ranges from an extremely comprehensive accident insurance scheme to an improvement suggestion scheme, which could end up with you driving a Porsche: whoever makes the “suggestion of the month” gets to drive a Porsche for the weekend! We also offer treats at work like free drinks, fresh fruit, and two fridges brimming with candies to keep everyone perky. The aim is to steer clear of the traditional, somewhat staid world of tool-making and convince people we’re right for them.
German engineering is the international hallmark of quality. What challenges does the industry face at the moment when it comes to maintaining high standards and fulfilling customer requirements more profitably and more economically in terms of production costs? Also, how does an industry deliver in terms of speed, when quality was always about years of patiently tinkering about with things before starting again and making things better?
There’s one big driver in our industry: innovation. You need to continuously come up with new product ideas and innovate, hand in hand with the precision and quality that Germany is famous for. Also, you mustn’t be scared of foreign competitors; you have to be convinced you’re doing the right things. I think we have just the right blend of old and young companies in Germany for our engineering industry, but what’s important for all of us is that we constantly live the philosophy of innovation, development capability, and adaptability. In terms of the speed customers require, I think there’s just one aspect: you have to invest continuously because speed isn’t just about people, it’s also about the machines. We only use the fastest and most modern machines in our factory alongside the corresponding software solutions in order to implement innovations as quickly as possible.
In addition to making traditional tools used in molding technology, Webo also offers engineering solutions and consulting. What’s your strategic view of the future? Is the magic formula to shift the emphasis more toward services? And what are you already doing to respond to the demands placed by connected factories or Industry 4.0?
Webo has switched from classic tool manufacturing – that is, making tools based on drawings – to process-lateral tool making (which is parallel to processes). What this means is that customers come to us with a blank piece of paper and tell us the product they need and we make a component for them that’ll work in serial production. This now accounts for almost half of our turnover. The other half – and of course this has to go together – comes from producing these tools, or rather, supplying the production means. I believe that this combination of accompanying the client throughout the entire process will become more important in all areas in the future. We’re now getting more and more requests that are just ideas or concepts; the clients want us to tell them what these could look like in reality. So we start with development, create prototypes, and finally make serial production tools. We then send them to a company, which produces our Webo development concept for the customer.
Axel Wittig is the founder and managing director of Werkzeugbau Oberschwaben GmbH, or Webo for short, which is based in Amtzell. A highly modern engineering company specialized in process-lateral tool manufacturing, Webo offers its customers a portfolio of services ranging from component development to test bed calculations, FEM calculations, prototype manufacturing, process solutions, design, precision engineering, assembly, and “try-out solutions.” Webo works within a network, enabling the firm to develop all kinds of metal components that are manufactured using molding to go into motors. It also provides the tools for these parts. Webo’s success as an enterprise is underscored by numerous awards, including the Baden-Wurttemberg State Prize for Young Companies 2014 and being a finalist for the 2011 German Startup Award.