"We go to work where others go on vacation!"

A discussion with Prof. Edmund Haupenthal

Professor Haupenthal, the region of Oberschwaben, Upper Swabia, has been your home for nearly 30 years now, and for a long time you worked in Friedrichshafen and Pfullendorf. Right next door, for 17 years, you’ve been director of the Gottmadingen-based Steinbeis Transfer Center for Technology – Organization – Human Resources. What have you come to appreciate in the region, what makes it unique?

I originally come from a region that doesn’t offer nearly as much as the Lake Constance area in terms of the countryside and tourism. I remember during my first few months here near Lake Constance, I’d be on my way to work, there was a warm wind from the south, and I’d pull over and think, “Wow, this is beautiful!” I can still say with confidence that “We go to work, where others go on vacation,” even after all these years. But one thing I cannot confirm is the original concern expressed by many of my friends – that getting attached to this region would “bang a nail in the coffin of my career.”

We have so many pioneers to thank for the fact that this area has flourished as an economic area – Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, Claude Dornier, Erwin Hymer, Hans Liebherr, or Helmut Vetter. The districts of Bodenseekreis and Ravensburg currently have among the lowest unemployment levels in Germany: 2.5 and 2.6% respectively.

There’s a kind of “blessed backwardness” and frugality in this area, yet on the other hand there’s a rich inventiveness and people are very generous. There are the occasional German terms that people use dialectically which still make me smirk though, like the word “carpet,” which can also be said here to mean a woolen blanket.

Oberschwaben is an attractive area in economic terms, making it all the more important that it gears itself early to regional and national challenges. Based on your projects in the region, what do you feel are the main issues that need tackling?

Oberschwaben is also affected by national issues like high energy costs and raw material prices, the lack of skilled workers, or the impact of the euro crisis. But some issues are more specific to the area. On the one hand, there’s been strong investment in environmental fields. On the other, the national transport infrastructure has been severely neglected. Highways coming down from Ulm and Freiburg (the B30 and B31) are totally overloaded. Something needs to be done, urgently.

Also, the proximity of the border to Austria and Switzerland can be seen as an opportunity or as a hindrance. I’ve been involved personally in crossborder efforts for years as an “Ambassador of Lake Constance/United Innovations,” to cultivate contacts in neighboring countries and make networks useful for our clients.

Despite this, on all these fronts, especially in terms of their economic significance for the regional economy, I think it’s quite fitting to say that people should “learn to grieve without affliction!”

Your role as an honorary professor at the Ravensburg-Weingarten University of Applied Sciences also brings you into close contact with the region of Oberschwaben. You’ve been working at the university since 1999 and, among other things, you set the ball rolling for the business studies and management degree and helped set it up. This has also brought you into close contact with regional business. What developments have shaped the business community in Oberschwaben in recent years, especially among SMEs?

The underlying concept for the business studies and management degree was based on demands, following a local survey we carried out involving not just big companies but also SMEs.

Little has been understood until now about the extent to which the university – including its research departments and areas involved in know-how transfer – has a direct impact on the local economy. But I’m convinced that supplying local businesses with graduates has played a role in the region’s economic fortune. This also applies to all the projects and thesis work that students complete at companies, or the consulting services, the joint research projects, having access to our scientists, or having access to key establishments like the library and labs. Not to mention the master’s programs for people in full-time work, and the seminars offered by the Academy of Scientific Education, which enjoys strong demand even beyond the region.

Most SMEs can’t afford the ongoing cost of special centers or expertise, especially during start-ups, so they’re particularly likely to need such services. The local services provided by Steinbeis have adapted perfectly to these regional requirements. Companies tell us that expanding the scope of the new degree allows them to attract students early to work for the company, for example by offering internships.

Turning to your current activities in the region, what services do your clients requesting more of, what requirements are intensifying?

Since Basel II came into effect, banks already broach the topic of company succession during rating discussions, even when managers are as young as 55. We believe that this effect, combined with the crisis in 2009 – when lots of firms found they’d lost the sugar coating they needed to attract a successor – have resulted in a kind of “succession backlog.”

So now one of the main areas we consult on is not just raising efficiency, or financing, but succession arrangements, for the incumbent and the successor. Is anyone seriously surprised to hear that managers who’ve been moved aside in their career plans are suddenly interested in returning to this amazing area?

Offering a broad selection of support services safeguards the attractiveness of our clients’ services. It also allows us to gaze out tranquilly over the rooftops of neighboring companies to Lake Constance and mountains beyond.

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