The harmonious change in CEO, from Wolfgang Eder to Herbert Eibensteiner, has been well planned and is a sign of continuity. In a joint interview the departing and future CEO of technology group voestalpine take a short look back, before focusing in more depth on future opportunities and challenges.
Mr. Eder, how difficult is the process of letting go after 41 years?
Eder: I find it amazingly undramatic—and that surprises even me a bit. You simply have to realize that after 41 years in the company, it is time to hand over the reins. To younger people who have new ideas and better ideas. I have no regrets as I leave. I leave with a sense of peace and even happiness. Because I know I am leaving the company in good hands. Herbert Eibensteiner and the Management Board team are colleagues and friends in whom I have great confidence—and they have 52,000 committed employees behind them.
Mr. Eibensteiner, you will take over the reins from Mr. Eder. How do you feel—a mixture of joy, pride and perhaps humility?
Eibensteiner: The joy and fun of the task clearly predominate. I am looking forward to being able to continue to develop the Group with its solid foundation and to working together with all colleagues to implement the path we have taken.
Where we are successful, we will do everything we can to become even better and grow further. We will continue with internationalization. We are ambitiously working on new, innovative products and pushing ahead with digitalization. We have challenging plans that we will now implement step by step.
Which brings us to our employees. Everyone agrees that the quality of our employees is the Group’s greatest asset. However, everyone is struggling with the shortage of apprentices and skilled workers and the lack of quality training. Is the company running out of qualified employees?
Eibensteiner: No. The war of talents has been going on for a long time. That’s nothing new. voestalpine has a perfect training system and offers training for 35 different vocations. We are committed to training young people and will continue to increase apprenticeship training. We will focus on ensuring that our training and education program makes up for the shortcomings of school education, for example in the area of digitalization. We are also expanding our management training and education program. This provides us with incentives that attract talented people to voestalpine and allows us to master the challenges of the future by constantly increasing expertise within our own company.
Eder: The most important prerequisite for finding qualified employees is the long-term success of the company. An enduringly successful, internationally recognized company can more easily find the right employees, even—and especially—in difficult times. Success also makes a company attractive.
Mr. Eder, despite all the appeals you have made about education policy, the company still has to do a lot for training. Did no one listen to you?
Eder: Not enough at any rate, and we are now talking about 20 lost years in which education policy primarily consisted of living out ideological fantasies. The subject has never been fully dealt with. First, we need to clarify which values we want to convey and then look at the topics of the future. This must be the basis for training in order to prepare young people for the future. The current Education Minister seems to be going down a more consistent path than his predecessors and sensibly taking one step after the other.
Mr. Eibensteiner, the employees who come to voestalpine have completely different, new ideas about working life: more leisure time, flexible working hours, home office, work-life balance. Does an attractive employer have to offer all this in order to get good employees?
Eibensteiner: I think so. Here in Austria and in many other countries, we use the entire range of working time models to attract the interest of young people, to allow older employees to work longer and stay healthy, to enable women to ideally combine raising children and pursuing a career. It is about the best way of combining work and private life. I’m sure this is the way to go.
The measure of a good employer is this wide range of offers. What will be the measure of good, desirable employees?
Eibensteiner: Performance. When work-life balance is important to employees, it does not mean that they are unwilling or unable to perform. Quite the opposite.
Eder: The message to the outside world is important to us: the company will support future, even more flexible working time models. Working time legislation, however, sets limits—very narrow limits compared to the individual wishes of many employees.
The economy is slowing down and the forecasts for 2019 are not looking so good. Mr. Eibensteiner, will your first task as CEO have to be to activate the crisis mode?
Eibensteiner: In the case of both tailwinds and headwinds, management’s job is to deliver the best performance and quickly adapt to new situations. We are very good at this, even though we are a large corporation.
voestalpine as a supplier as well as many others are banking on the electric car. What makes you sure this is really the future?
Eibensteiner: We see electromobility as a clear opportunity. There is the political will on the one hand and our customers’ requirements on the other. We are in constant contact with our customers’ development departments and will help ensure that our customers continue to be supplied with highly innovative products. Our high-strength and ultra-high-strength steels, for example, guarantee the best crashworthiness and make weight-saving construction methods possible.
Chairman of the Supervisory Board Lemppenau said that the time that is coming will not be easy—there will be a lot of massive changes. What changes is he talking about?
Eibensteiner: For example, steel production must prepare for a technology change in the next ten years so that we can support the CO2 requirements in the EU’s climate targets. There is still no groundbreaking, economically viable technology. We are therefore investing in advance in medium-term and long-term research projects such as the hydrogen project H2FUTURE and the SuSteel project where we are researching low-carbon steel production. However, the basic prerequisite for all activities is that enough renewable energy be available to consumers at competitive prices. Overcoming this challenge requires entrepreneurial input and above all courageous and landmark political decisions. Trade relations have also changed dramatically in recent years—between the EU and the US, between the US and China. We have to adapt and orient ourselves to these challenges.
Eder: Besides the critical aspects of the future, I also see positive aspects. Beyond e-mobility, digitalization represents a great opportunity. There are new areas, such as additive manufacturing, where other future worlds are opening up that we can probably take advantage of better than others can.
Eibensteiner: As you have certainly noticed, we are quite optimistic about the future and focus on the opportunities it holds. Whatever happens, the markets will remain interesting for us. The world has not become smaller. It offers many new possibilities.
So it’s about being permanently ahead of developments?
Eibensteiner: Exactly, and that is also the company’s clear strategy.
The transformation from a steel producer to a technology group was practically a cultural revolution. What will be, will have to be, the next quantum leap?
Eibensteiner: It was certainly a big step to develop from a pure steel producer into a technology group. There are other areas where we want to become even more involved in technology. The digital railway, for example, is a major topic for us. We also want to develop further in the aircraft sector. Additive manufacturing is still in its infancy. We want to develop evolutionarily and faster.
So the products need to become even smarter?
Eibensteiner: Yes, smarter and more connected. In the future, digitalization will be another USP for us—in production, in processes, and in service.
Mr. Eibensteiner, you have already addressed the issue of climate protection and hydrogen. voestalpine is an environmental role model, but still a very large emitter. How can this problem be solved?
Eibensteiner: As already mentioned, the decisive technology for steel production without carbon emissions does not yet exist. But we’re working very hard on it. However, we need the right framework conditions to be able to manage the transition phase. We need time to research, develop and then industrialize the technologies.
Mr. Eder, you once said that the day when voestalpine was 100% privatized on August 31, 2005, was the best day in your 41 years at voestalpine. Is that still true?
Eder: Yes! Absolutely.
There was no better day?
Eder: No. I will never forget this August 31, which is and remains the best day in my career. Today, nobody can imagine what it is like to be under the permanent supervision of a political owner. But there were a few days that were almost as good. Like the weeks of the IPO in 1995, which I wouldn’t want to have missed. And the two weeks spent making the decision to acquire Böhler-Uddeholm in 2007 were extremely exciting. The Lehman time starting in 2008 was an experience. Back then, I couldn’t imagine the outcome being as positive as it was in the end. I’m talking about how a success-spoiled organization like we were suddenly switched to the toughest crisis mode—including the works council and all employees. How we mastered that situation made me very happy and made me truly respect the joint effort on the part of everyone. It sounds almost a bit perverse and is not something I would wish for, but it will probably help us if times become difficult, because our company has always proven that we respond faster and more effectively than our competitors do in such situations.
Mr. Eibensteiner, the closing words are yours. Do you have a message for the employees as you take over the reins?
Eibensteiner: For the dynamic times ahead, I wish all employees adaptability, flexibility and an insatiable will to succeed. It is precisely this winning mentality that distinguishes us, especially in difficult times. For me, adaptability and a winning mentality are the decisive factors.
And how do you want to be measured?
Eibensteiner: CEOs are usually measured by their success.