When Antje von Dewitz took over Vaude, the outdoor sports manufacturer founded by her father, she did things her way – which has benefited the company and its staff
• The main road twists and turns through hills in a verdant landscape, with expansive views of fields of hops and apple orchards punctuated by the occasional village. This is Swabia, in southern Germany, and just as the satnav and phone signal give up on us, we’re there: in Obereisenbach, Tettnang, a few miles north of Lake Constance – the place from where Antje von Dewitz wants to save the world. It has about 1,000 people, a church, a sports hall, a lido and an inn. It also has Vaude, the German outdoor clothing and equipment manufacturer.
Arriving in the village, Vaude is the first thing you see: a bright, modern complex around a courtyard with wildflowers and a climbing wall. Inside and out, there’s a lot of wood, glass and light; the open-plan offices feature light green sofas and desks covered in laptops, muesli bars and bowls of fruit. Von Dewitz, Vaude’s chief executive, is sitting in a conference room looking out at the church. Today is her 45th birthday, and asked how she thinks her life might look in 25 years’ time, she laughs. “I'll be 70!” she says. “At 70, I certainly don’t want to still be working. I’d like to travel, a lot actually. But mainly, I’d like to be sitting at home, looking out at the lake, with my children and, I hope, plenty of grandchildren.”
Six thousand miles to the east, her father is probably either at his desk or doing his rounds in the rucksack factory he runs in Vietnam. Production at the south-east Asian site – with him at the helm – started shortly after Albrecht von Dewitz, then 65, passed on the managing directorship of Vaude to his daughter Antje. He wanted to try something different, achieve something new. Clearly, in terms of retirement, he’s not built like his daughter, and there are some differences in how they build and lead organisations, too.
According to Daniela Jäkel-Wurzer, a consultant based in Nuremberg, the Von Dewitz succession is part of a broader development – one that will be defining for family-owned companies in the coming years. Once upon a time, it was the exception for a daughter to take over a business from her father; today, a study by the Witten Institute for Family Business, near Dortmund, found daughters had taken over at 47% of the family firms surveyed – and the percentage is rising. Jäkel-Wurzer sees advantages in female successors. “Daughters are not caught up in the competitive pressure and rivalry of classic father-son relations,” she explains, “and they are not compared with their fathers by others outside the family to the same degree, either.”
The handover took four years. Eventually, Von Dewitz Sr cleared out his office and his daughter moved in the same day. “It wasn’t an easy process for either of us,” she says, “and what the founder is parting with – the emotions that come into play – was something I only understood later. He didn’t keep his thoughts to himself, but he did let go and he did let me do things my way.” Her father became the sole member of the advisory board, set up the Vietnam site, and promptly became the company’s most important manufacturer. “We took on completely new roles,” says Antje, smiling briefly at the suggestion that it had been a deft move by her father to retain influence – and declining to comment further.
By this time, Vaude had become a supplier of everything that outdoor types could possibly need: performance clothing, boots, rucksacks, sleeping bags, tents and camping equipment. Last year, the company and its staff of 580 oversaw the manufacturing of more than 2.5 million products, a third produced in Obereisenbach and the Vietnam factory, and the rest by independent suppliers in Europe and Asia. Vaude doesn’t published detailed figures, but its most recent annual turnover is said to be about €100m (£88.85m), 9% up on the previous year. It is a minor sensation in a market stagnating after a boom.
The outdoor sector is highly competitive and divided between a handful of global brands, such as North Face, and a panoply of regional manufacturers. Vaude, Schöffel and Jack Wolfskin are three of the biggest German-based companies, then there is also cheap own-brand gear made by textile producers. As the performance and materials of all the products become increasingly similar, so it becomes ever more difficult for producers to stand out against the competition.
Vaude set itself apart early on with its environmental awareness. Performance textiles use a lot of chemical processes to keep dirt and water off, and this represents a danger for workers in the countries where they are produced – as well as being an issue for both the person selling and the person buying the materials. This is a sensitive issue for the industry, and organisations such as Greenpeace are piling on pressure. In 1994, Albrecht von Dewitz set up a recycling network for outdoor clothes and in 2001 Vaude became the first sports clothing company to produce to the world’s strictest environmental standards, banning particularly harmful substances from the outset. The proportion of its output produced to this standard has grown continuously ever since.
His daughter is going a step further and has now positioned Vaude as what she calls “Europe’s most sustainable outdoor company”. Her aim is not just to follow but to “set worldwide industry standards for sustainability”, she says. “It makes economic sense, and businesses need to start moving on this if we really want to combat climate change.”
A year after taking over, Vaude’s new boss announced that the company would, in the medium-term, refrain from using any damaging substances. According to the company’s figures, 95% of its clothing range is now free of environmentally harmful fluorocarbons – a chemical used for waterproofing; by next year, the entire summer collection should be fluorocarbon-free. As many customers want more durable products, Vaude has introduced a collection made of recycled materials, set up an online second-hand exchange site in partnership with eBay, and will undertake repairs.
“Pursuing sustainability was an opportunity to build a strong brand in an ever tougher market,” says Von Dewitz, noting that sustainability includes the working conditions in producer countries. In 2010, Vaude joined the independent Fair Wear Foundation, a non-profit organisation working to improve conditions for workers in garment factories, and Vaude has been allowing local, impartial observers and trade unions to examine and certify its sites since. In addition, the company’s internal code of conduct obliges it to extend its responsibility to ensure that working conditions conform to the highest legal standards throughout the entire supply chain – including secondary suppliers.
Bernd Hinzmann of the campaigning Inkota network, a partner in another garment industry initiative, the Clean Clothes Campaign, attests to Vaude’s “transparency and credibility in the way it acts. The company never refuses to engage, but is open about problems and tackles challenges. They evaluate all their measures according to the impact they have, and report comprehensively on it.”
The company’s communications strategy is one of the things that has changed noticeably. Under Von Dewitz Sr, Vaude advertised its quality and performance – and said nothing about environmental awareness. Yet no medium-sized company can afford to invest in something that customers ignore.
Given that its advertising budget is limited, and that ecological and social initiatives are complex, Vaude works with its own labels; it has built out its corporate website into an all-purpose information portal and offers training for sales staff. Since 2015, it has also published a sustainability report, looking at social as well as economic and environmental factors.
Von Dewitz’s course of direction has garnered her award after award, but that isn’t what motivates her. “What we do is very fulfilling,” she explains, “and working towards a meaningful purpose is what helps me stay energised.”
That being equitable in business includes fair dealings with staff was something her father was well aware of, she says. “Vaude has always taken care of its employees because my father likes to take on responsibility for people.” The Kinderhaus was his idea, she points out, referring to the onsite crèche he never got round to setting up, but which she launched soon after starting at the company when she realised she was pregnant. A classic patriarch, then, but one with a long to-do list full of new products, new techniques, and new suppliers. Did he, perhaps, neglect to position Vaude as a forerunner? “No,” his daughter says loyally, “because he was building from scratch. My father set this company up, and he is from another generation. I am not just a businesswoman – stress on ‘woman’ – but also someone from another generation, with different values. You can’t compare us on this.”
Vaude is a prime example of this. A few years ago, Jäkel-Wurzer profiled Von Dewitz Jr as part of a study about female successors in the family-run businesses that form the bedrock of the famous German Mittelstand (small and medium-sized companies). “She’s her own woman and is prepared to fight for her convictions,” says Jäkel-Wurzer, “and she has developed the brand, which meant making a lot of changes.” The daughter was able to do so without chipping away at her father’s image, however, because “she has a lot of respect for what he built up. And if she didn’t, then Vaude would not be around in its present incarnation,” adds Jäkel-Wurzer.
For many years, Antje – the middle of three daughters – was baffled by the world of business. She was a toddler in 1974 when, motivated by his love of mountaineering and the desire to be his own boss, her then 31-year-old father gave up his job as head of exports at a sports equipment sales firm to set up his own backpack company. The name is a German phonetic transcription of the family initials VD. At first, he worked out of a converted barn on a hop farm, but the company grew rapidly, expanding from rucksacks into sleeping bags and tents. In 1991, he launched production in China. It meant nothing to Antje, though. “To me, business people were nerds with briefcases, and I didn’t really grasp what my dad was actually doing.”
At university, she did cultural studies, working in environmental aid organisations, women’s charities and the media along the way. After graduating, she did an internship at the family firm. Vaude was expanding into bags by then, a new line, and she was put in charge of development, design and marketing. “That was the first time I realised the full societal implications of business life,” she says. “You decide if products get manufactured fairly and ecologically; you’re setting up global supply chains and employing people who will be affected by their working conditions and need to feel comfortable working for you.” This was the key realisation. “If I really want to change things,” she said to herself, “I can’t pass up this chance. You can change far more in a company than at any NGO.” So Antje von Dewitz stayed at Vaude, gained a doctorate in economics and had a child; she took charge of PR and marketing, and had another child. In 2005, she decided she wanted to run the company and as her father hadn’t dropped any hints about his intentions, she broached the topic. “Well, that’s good,” he replied.
Building what’s missing
Jan Lorch and Erwin Gutensohn are old hands. They’ve both been with the company for more than 20 years. Lorch, 51, is in charge of corporate social responsibility. Gutensohn, 58, is head of finance. What did they make of Antje von Dewitz when she took over? Was she “Daddy’s little girl” trying to step into his boots? “No,” says Gutensohn, “nobody thought like that. Antje brought real change. A different wind was blowing suddenly. She has a clear vision, has clear ideas that she pursues. It was a cultural shift in the organisation.”
They both say this shift has been positive and that Von Dewitz Jr has sharpened Vaude’s strategic approach. “The focus on sustainability raised our pride in what we do and helped our staff identify more closely with the company,” says Lorch. Above all, however, she rethought the company management. “Before, decision-making structures weren’t so clearly defined,” he continues. “There was no management hierarchy. This meant Albrecht often took decisions by himself.” His daughter has set up various management levels, “so decisions are taken locally and often with several people working on them,” explains Gutensohn. “We come together to set goals and paths. The extent of individual responsibilities and remits has become more transparent,” says Lorch.
“I used to have countless things to take care of,” recalls Gutensohn, “so 12 to 15-hour days were standard. It was never overtime, as far as I was concerned. I did it because I enjoyed the work. But it was difficult to delegate responsibility. Antje has reorganised things cleverly. She said: ‘I don't want anyone here having to work later than 5pm’ – and she went home at 5pm as often as she could herself.”
Von Dewitz Jr was an early occupant of a niche no longer seen as such. At Vaude, sustainability means being a responsible employer with a genuine interest in staff wellbeing and commitment to the neighbourhood. The company runs a crèche and an organic canteen, produces its own green energy and uses climate-neutral manufacturing processes; its buildings’ ecological credentials are certified, and the only thing it is having trouble with in its rural location is sustainable transport.
Do women lead differently? She isn’t comfortable with ideas of “typically male” or “typically female” management styles. “I think when women take care of friends and family, they automatically develop a high degree of social competence,” she ventures, but highlights the increasing number of men who work part-time at Vaude to care for their children and parents. “These men have the same skills that, until now, we’ve been ascribing to women.”
Professor Martina Schraudner, a researcher at the Fraunhofer Society and head of gender and diversity in organisations at the Technical University of Berlin, agrees there is nothing specifically female about empathy, social skills and pragmatism. “These are characteristics that are part of leadership competence,” she says, “and they are becoming increasingly important.”
Wanting to take care of one’s family is not a gender cliché, Jäkel-Wurzel agrees. “More than anything, it’s about freedom. Young female entrepreneurs are not limiting themselves to one thing but doing everything they want to – working and having children, for instance. That, in turn, influences how they manage organisations. These female successors can only reconcile professional and family responsibilities if they don’t spend 70 hours a week at the company, as their fathers did. So they develop cooperative leadership styles, delegate responsibility and create strong teams.”
Miriam Schilling, 33, is head of personnel and has been at Vaude for two years. She previously worked for companies with an international outlook, travelling abroad frequently until she felt the pull of her Swabian homeland. Her old working life had been very controlled: keep everything contained, do not show any weakness, don’t complain. “That is different at Vaude,” she says. “There is a strong focus on allowing us to be human beings.”
The idea is that anyone feeling out of their depth or hemmed in, or who just has a different opinion, should be able to say so – preferably straight to the boss. “It is important for me to be on the same level as my staff and for that to be clear to everyone,” says Von Dewitz.
“It isn’t like emotions were forbidden at work before,” says Lorch, “but now they are part of the company culture. The trust we have in one another has increased, because we talk about things more.”
“Involving lots of people in lots of things can be difficult,” admits Schilling. “Sometimes I think ‘Good grief! This is a professional environment and we need a decision now!’ But, on the other hand, in a company culture dominated by men where feelings are kept under wraps and decisions are imposed top-down, appearances can be deceptive. Sure, things look like they’re under control, but is it any good for me as a person if I have to work like that?”