Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard ‘88 is a proud man. He’s fit, maybe 5′ 11″ tall, his sharp chiseled facial features and touch of grey hair complement a finely tailored navy suit with a silver pocket square. When he speaks, he is assertive and charismatic, a commanding voice easily fills a room of 30 MBA students. Most importantly, Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard is a “car guy”.
Bernhard was the former Chief Executive Officer of Mercedes-AMG GmbH and would later hold various positions, including being a member of the board of management of Daimler AG, before retiring in 2017. Bernhard embodies the classic German ethos of discipline, hard work, first-one-in-last-one-out, and the “no bullshit, do-it-yourself” mentality. As an executive, he was not afraid to get his hands dirty by often taking monthly shifts on the Mercedes manufacturing line. “Know your business,” he tells us with a serious look, but slight smile. He continues to talk about German-engineering excellence and how hyper focus on attention to quality and improvement is unmatched. As he speaks to us, he is calm and composed…that is, until the topic of Tesla comes up.
“You need to be really good at manufacturing…they’re not. They’re just an IT company…that moved into auto…and they talk about the hell of manufacturing…that’s what it is! That’s what it takes to get the job done! And for them it’s hell and for us it’s art! For hundreds of years we have been honing that art!” he states with just the slightest hint of red in his face. The subtext of his words are more powerful than the literal criticism. This wasn’t just about Tesla versus Mercedes, massive disruption in the auto industry, or even Elon Musk’s hubris…it was about something much deeper…the German identity.
Bob Dylan famously writes, “Come gather ’round people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown…you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin.” While not as profoundly German as Nena’s 99 Luftballoons, Dylan’s quote encapsulates the point of contention at the heart of the German cultural and business identity as we approach the end of a decade. Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard’s career represents what has made the German auto industry so successful in the past, a commitment to excellence through laser-focus on the singular objective of car quality. But in a rapidly changing automotive and technology landscape, does putting on blinders stifle unique opportunities for innovation?
This is, of course, the opinion of Dr. Volker Bilgram, of HYVE – The innovation company, and Dominik Böhler, of the Technical University of Munich. In both presentations, the term “car guys” was used to describe the old school German state-of-being defined by risk aversion, over-engineering, and bureaucracy. This mentality was in straight opposition to the new wave of German startups that espouse bold innovation, human centered design, and flat decentralized work culture.
Founders of Proglove Paul Günther (product engineer) and Thomas Kirchner (CEO) embody this new wave of German startup culture. Kirchner is a former IDEO employee and with Günther, a former BMW employee, created a smart glove for industries. The glove was created through rapid prototyping and iterations incorporating continuous feedback from manufacturing workers. Contrary to the culture espoused by Wolfgang at Mercedes, the culture at Proglove empowers workers to choose when they start their days and provides access to unlimited vacation. But the auto industry isn’t the only sector German disruptors are attacking.
A short flight to Berlin, brought us to a fintech start up called Number 26 (N26). N26 is a mobile bank that offers millennial friendly features such as cash from any ATM without fees, instant account management and security, and real-time notifications. A week after CBS visited N26, the company closed a $160M round of funding which is one of largest European fintech investments ever and clearly causally linked to our visit. N26’s success comes as a revelation as traditional European lenders, such as Deutsche Bank AG, continue to struggle posting its 3rd annual loss in a row.
*Quick meta note that Deutsche Bank decided to cancel our company visit on the day of, which is also causally linked to their string of failures.
I’m losing my train of thought trying to balance a clear theme of lessons learned in Germany while also trying to sum up the company visits for the week. In the meanwhile…here are some more cool pictures to help illustrate the trip:
CBS visit to Factory Berlin – A community of startups
Ok, I’m back! So just to recap, we have this cultural shift in mentality from the big German business players represented by Wolfgang Bernhard, formerly of Mercedes, to the new wave of scrappy startups mostly based out of Berlin’s silicon allee. But a question remains in this risk averse German culture, where does the financial capital come from to fuel the German disruptors?
Our journey in Berlin, took us to Earlybird Venture Capital, a venture capital investor focused on European technology companies. The fund was established in 1997 and has over EUR 850 million under management. While the firm officially funds companies at all stages, they did emphasize that demonstrable traction, such as revenue, is significantly more important to them when compared to their Silicon Valley VC counterparts. We were especially pleased, however, to see that in a male dominated VC world, the two rising stars at Earlybird presenting to us were young women. It is VCs like Earlybird who are enabling the German startup scene to flourish.
It is safe to conclude that the success of traditional and new German businesses will be integral to the countries’ global position moving forward. While we got our healthy dose of what is “new and sexy” in terms of German startups – it would be foolish to throw the baby out with the bath water in terms of the culture that has made Germany so successful in the past – the hyper-focus on perfection. The future of innovation has unlimited potential in Germany, whether it will be the “car guys” or the disruptors (or a combination of both) who lead this future, is still being determined.