If knowledge is power, then shared knowledge must surely be the way for a company to maximise the potential of its employees. Here, Max Viessmann, CEO Viessmann Group, explains how, in a changing world climate, that principle enables the company not only to thrive commercially, but also to fulfill its vision of making a difference.
Hello, Mr. Viessmann. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. It is a great pleasure to have the opportunity to talk to you. To begin with, is there such a thing as a typical workday for you and what might it look like?
I don’t think I can describe my current workdays as typical workdays. These are extremely challenging times, with substantial changes to our production, our logistics and supply chains, our work practices, our workforce collaboration, our social responsibilities and the increasing importance of solidarity. Times like these demand excellence, compassion, innovation, foresight, speed of change and, indeed, courage. All I have learned and all that Viessmann stands for, has been brought into focus by today’s business environment and by the economic and social factors which concern all of us. I am extremely happy to say that our company ethos, honed for over a century, has proved resilient and has successfully met the many challenges of this pandemic – a testament to the many generations of my predecessors. The crisis has shown who we are, rather than maybe who we just wish to be.
The Viessmann company has been in business in a competitive industry for over 100 years, which is an impressive achievement. What would you say are the characteristics that have contributed to the company’s success?
I am convinced more than ever that our company culture is our biggest competitive advantage and, having taken a century to develop, one that is not easy to emulate. Today, competitive advantage is not just about financial results, but more about how we serve and treat our employees – our valued members of the extended Viessmann family. It’s also about our partners and end customers, and the people we live amongst – the society we operate in. This culture is embodied and embedded in our company DNA. It is all about creating a common mindset. A company that is successful over centuries must be doing something right and these positive attributes are passed down from generation to generation through our DNA. Viessmann has not only always been open to change, but actively looks for change. It has always been part of our company philosophy to focus more on opportunities than on threats, especially in challenging times. Change is an opportunity to learn, to develop and to grow. Every generation at Viessmann has faced technological, political, environmental and social change and has used disruption to learn how to serve people better than before. Today is no exception; digital and cultural transformation and the volatility caused by the current pandemic will produce a better and more proficient Viessmann, better able to meet the challenges of the coming decades. Digitalisation and sustainability are centennial opportunities that we will need to manage successfully, not only for ourselves, but for all generations to come.
Viessmann has always been a family-run company. Do you think that this influences the company’s approach to corporate responsibility towards its employees and towards society in general?
Yes, because being a family-owned firm enables us to take a long-term view. This is fundamental to serving all our stakeholders, to being aware of the bigger picture and not just this quarter or financial year. I am not talking about five-to-ten year planning, I am talking about looking at the impact of what we are doing now on the next generation. This is where my personal outlook and the company ethos come together. I recently became a father for the first time, and now I look at the generational aspect with heightened awareness, both of the responsibility my father handed to me and the world we will leave to our children. It saddens me that we, the human race, have disrupted the delicate ecological balance that has functioned for thousands of years, through industrialisation and the resulting carbon emissions. Now, it’s all the more imperative that we work together to make the necessary changes. The use of technology, for example, digital solutions and services, smart homes and ecosystems, as well as the Internet of Things, can help us transform. Indeed, I believe there is nothing else that can have the necessary impact and I am in the fortunate position that I can make an impact together with our 12,300 family members across the globe – because we create living spaces for generations to come.
The idea of “creating living spaces for generations to come” is an intriguing and inspiring one. Could you enlarge on what that concept means for the company?
Today, the dominant topics for us include climate change, global warming, energy efficiency and carbon-neutral energy through electric and hydrogen technologies, and how we can affect the environment for the better through more sustainable products and business practices. Creating living spaces for generations to come is Viessmann’s purpose and contribution to solving this existential issue. This again is the long-term view in action, both looking forward at what practical action Viessmann can take, and learning from, and building on, our heritage. It’s about combining our heritage and future. And it’s about the right culture with the right level of transparency, the right level of trust and courage. And it’s about co-creation. Many companies underestimate the creativity of their own people. We do not. Instead, we share, provide the right context for the right decisions and we encourage. For example, every month we discuss what drives the company with all our 12,300 global family members in what we call “State of the World” meetings. On our centenary anniversary, we developed our purpose from the bottom up, in close collaboration with many of our colleagues. One result is a change in perspective. Our impact is actually much higher than one might initially think. We are not just assembling machines which heat a room. We are creating a future for people, for our family members, our partners, society – everyone, in fact. Our focus is on energy efficiency and the reduction of CO2 emissions in single houses, large buildings and urban areas. We are aiming to create the smartest ecosystem everyone can access for the perfect temperature, the perfect climate environment and perfect air quality. Another digital aspect is the on-time delivery of warmth or coolness. Through our integrated solutions offering, including heating-as-a-service, our customers have the possibility of controlling their homes via smartphones or mobile devices. Combining our heating technology with other smart home systems that support geofencing and using the GPS data of the connected smartphones, the system recognises the current location of the residents. When you approach your smart home, the rooms are automatically heated to the desired temperature, and turned off, of course, when you do not need heating. There are incredible opportunities for the customer to save money, help the environment and improve their living space.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had something of a sledgehammer effect on countries and people around the world. Where would you say corporate social responsibility fits into this? Do you think that businesses have a role to play?
We have come to the realisation that this crisis will not be over for anyone until it is over for everyone. All contributors to this fight must think both locally and globally. There is no halfway or one-country-only solution. We are in this together, we live in mutually dependent economies, enterprises and societies that will succeed together in solidarity, or fail together apart. The biggest challenge we face is addressing the unequal access, or poor access, to medical or other forms of aid. Too many people face the impossible task of protecting themselves or their families with inadequate resources. How we help those with so little will define this period, and how we will be remembered – with pride in our new solidarity, or shame. At Viessmann, we have, in record time, rebuilt some of our production facilities to produce mobile solutions for the pandemic – mobile intensive care units and ventilators. This is our social responsibility and has been part of the Viessmann approach from the very beginning. Once we decided to venture into medical technology, everyone contributed. Our family members, who normally work as data scientists or product managers for fuel cell technology, really drove the implementation forward. They presented us with the first ventilator within a week. This is just remarkable, and I am so proud of our ability to reinvent ourselves. These ventilators, for example, use only parts that we already use for boilers and heat pumps. Of course, we also sought advice from outside, from hospitals, intensive care doctors and the medical faculty at the technical university of Aachen. The ventilator project was developed in one smooth, rapid process. With us, such projects simply utilise an existing, flexible operating system, enriched with courage and passion. We have the capacity now for several thousand appliances per week.
It is evident that the Internet of Things is now among us to stay. What are the principal opportunities of this that you see in your industry? And what are the pitfalls? Are there issues in terms of social responsibility?
With digitalisation and the Internet of Things, we will be able to turn ideas into smart solutions much faster and reduce the global consumption of energy. In Germany alone, two-thirds of our 21 million heat generators are outdated and inefficient. Something must be done – here and globally. There are many wonderful opportunities to do big or small things for the climate. That’s why we have called on our 12,300 family members to develop their own ideas and submit them to me. As for pitfalls, of course privacy is a major issue. This is something that Europe has taken an international lead in. We can turn our focus on privacy into a competitive advantage, if we do it right. You might smile hearing this from a German, but there is a fresh wind blowing through Europe, opening doors to new opportunities, and Germany must be courageous in catching this wind of change. Germany and Europe can utilise its culture, empathy and way of doing things to develop innovative solutions that we, and the generations to come, can benefit from. We must adopt new technologies faster than any other society. Germany must free itself from “Angst” and its fear of change, and encourage curiosity, reward experimentation, celebrate ideas, and focus on the benefits. We should understand any possible negative effects, but we should not let that paralyse our thinking. We should strive to know more, to understand more and to be more. We are explorers and should always be curious and try to improve the lives of those around us, near and far. Let’s be courageous!
How important for the company is the employee experience in terms of working environment and professional development? What is it like to work for Viessmann?
We all work together with one purpose: creating living spaces for generations to come, regardless of where we come from individually or which country we live in. It is that simple at Viessmann; there is no “us” and “them”, there is only “we”. This can be seen in our response to the pandemic. We formulated very clear principles for ourselves early on. Firstly, our top priority is our family members’ health. So far, we have had very few infections. The second principle is that solidarity and social responsibility are fundamental to getting through these challenging times successfully. And thirdly, we must do everything to ensure the survival of our 103-year-old family company. As we are relatively well represented in China, we gained knowledge and experience from our Chinese colleagues at the beginning of the pandemic and were able to put preventative measures in place at all our sites worldwide early on, because a lesson learned is only helpful if it is a lesson shared. In a way, this response epitomises Viessmann. I am all that I have learned. I have learned from my mother and father, my family and from my colleagues around me. And it is my responsibility to share my knowledge, just as it is the responsibility of each Viessmann family member to learn and share their knowledge with the next generation at Viessmann.
What aspects of your work to date have given you the most satisfaction? And what are some of the goals that remain?
Three aspects have given me most satisfaction, although everything is, of course, still a work in progress. Firstly, defining our purpose of creating living spaces for generations to come, with the incredible support of all our Viessmann family members. This has given each and every Viessmann employee a very clear connection and relevance to the future of our planet, to all the generations to come, that, perhaps, one might not have had. It has also given us an additional tool to measure and validate every decision we make – how well does this fit our purpose? Secondly, the digitalisation of traditional machinery that allows us to fulfill our purpose. Digitalisation is not a straight-forward initiative; the software and the hardware are the easy bits, but not the full story. The cultural changes needed, the hearts and minds of everyone involved, these are the real tools of success. Thirdly, the inclusiveness and transparency and open communications needed to undertake the digital transformation. The success of this can be seen in Viessmann’s rapid response to the pandemic. I must say that my pride in our 12,300-strong family can leave me speechless. Goals that remain? We are only 30 percent there. This is a lifelong task. Longer than that, you could say; it is generational. You will have to ask the next Viessmann generation.
What does success mean for you, personally?
I learned from my father that we are not owners, but custodians and serving leaders. He took over Viessmann from his father and further developed it before handing me a company with much greater potential than he inherited. I thank him for that every day. Currently, my father and I are leading the company and it is a privilege for me to learn from him and his experiences every day. To have the best advisor at my side – this is the power of two generations. The future will decide upon our successes. For me, one measure of personal success could be handing a more successful Viessmann company to the next generation of the Viessmann family. However, if the next generation wishes to take another path in life, then I need to ensure that I try to make the world a better place. A new digital Viessmann company or a better world – that is more than enough to get me up in the morning.
Max Viessmann is the CEO of Viessmann Group, a German manufacturer of heating, refrigeration and climate-control equipment. He is the great-grandson of founder Johann Viessmann. Max oversees the private company’s climate solutions portfolio and drives the digital transformation and cultural renewal of the group. He was a management consultant at The Boston Consulting Group in its Munich and Shanghai offices. Max studied industrial engineering at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and at the TU Darmstadt.