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The next big step

With 35 years Arndt G. Kirchhoff took over the management of the family company. Today he is 61 and prepares the transfer of the company himself. Thereby, he relies on his father‘s education—and scientific advice.

A dining room in Iserlohn in East Westphalia at the beginning of the 70s. Around the table, father, mother and the four children have gathered. The parents highly value a communal meal. The oldest son, Arndt Günter, listens casually. Topics are discussed which determine the life of Jochen Kirchhoff, a successful, middle-scale entrepreneur. It’s about customers, products or business trips. Work and private life can be hardly separated in a family-owned company. “We, the children, have only listened to these conversations”, says Arndt Kirchhoff, today employer and metal president of North Rhine Westphalia and managing partner of the KIRCHHOFF Group. “Our opinion was not requested at first. Our father has consciously kept us out.” Back then, the parents wanted the children to find their own path. So when the siblings asked their father for a vacation job in the company, he declines. He is concerned that they will be pampered or are not taken seriously. The three brothers and the sister are supposed to find out on their own, what life has to offer: school, education, doing sports, making music. “I always preferred sports, school was not my thing for a while”, remembers Arndt Kirchhoff. “When I felt I was treated unfair or a teacher just could pick me up, I would let things slide. In German I had all grades from A to F, as well as in math.” In exchange, the young Arndt can be found on the sports ground in the afternoon. Soccer, tennis, basketball, handball and athletics. Even though the parents give their children freedom, secretly the father Jochen clearly envisions their son’s future. “If you had asked him about his wishes for our jobs, it would have been engineer, economist and lawyer. But we didn’t do him this favor”, says the oldest son. Indeed, Arndt Kirchhoff studied industrial engineering with the focus mechanical engineering at the TU Darmstadt and fulfills partly his father’s wish. But also all other Kirchhoff-children will produce an engineering diploma in the end. Eva Kirchhoff as an architect—like mother Lore. Johannes, an inventor and tinkerer, studies mechanical engineering, just like the youngest, Wolfgang.

His father gives him freedom… and still has a clear vision for Arndt and his brothers’ futures. They only fulfill it partly.

All four of them had the qualifications to join the company. They would be the fourth generation. In 1921, the Babcock co-founder Friedrich Kirchhoff has completely taken over the needle company Stephan Witte & Comp., which has been established in the 19th century. He re-structured it into a press facility. Under the leadership of Fritz Kirchhoff the manufacture of tools was added, under Jochen Kirchhoff the company developed into a automotive supplier.

That his children will play any role in the company is not clear for a long time. “My father was a classical individual entrepreneur. He made everything as a sole director”, says Arndt Kirchhoff. That he shares power or tasks? Unimaginable. „That was possible as back then only two locations and a Germany customer base existed”, says Kirchhoff.

And then this memorable Sunday evening in the year 1987. Again the family sits together at the dining table, this time in a restaurant in Iserlohn. A vivid discussion evolves. The children start to talk into their by then 60-year old father’s believing: “The car industry starts to set themselves up internationally. The suppliers follow them abroad. Don’t you have to go as well?” Jochen Kirchhoff thinks about this: “Yes. One should really do that. But I won’t do that any more. Is someone of you interested in the family company?“ The children were thunderstruck. They had never talked about this before. Those days, Arndt Kirchhoff was employed at the German Babcock, the company his ancestor Friedrich Kirchhoff has co-founded. Johannes works at Daimler-Benz, Wolfgang at Schaeffler. Some more time passes until Arndt Kirchhoff decides in fall 1990: “Okay, I will join.” Both of the younger brothers follow in the next four years. Their sister Eva will implement the building projects abroad later on.

Entrepreneur, association president, family man: The days of Arndt Kirchhoff are packed. He has to delegate a lot. Deciding everything like his father once did, that does not work anymore.

This handover is only possible as Jochen Kirchhoff really conceded at the age of 63. With 35 years Arndt Kirchhoff takes over the role of the managing director. He is not afraid of this job. He already collected experience in leading positions at Babcock as the leader of the central order processing. The change into his father’s business becomes the clearance of the young Kirchhoff: “During my first days in my new office I suddenly realized: Gosh, you now have so much time!” Suddenly he did not have to dwell with the reporting system of a large corporation. “I was totally in charge of the situation. It was an amazingly good feeling.” And he takes this chance.

At first he promotes the internationalization. “Back then, only two people actually spoke English relative well. We have changed that completely.” The by now as KIRCHHOFF Group appearing company expanded abroad—at first to Western Europe, then to Eastern Europe, Mexico, Asia and into the whole NAFTA area. “I couldn’t have done that, such a small working. I would have felt constricted. Before I had looked after power plant constructions in Brasil, India, Pakistan, China and Argentina”, says Arndt Kirchhoff. Today the company reached a profit of more than 1.8 billion with its worldwide 10500 employees, it produced tools, manufactures cleaning and refuse vehicles and modifies vehicles for handicapped persons. But primarily the company is a classical automotive supplier.

Although, Arndt Kirchhoff had hardly an idea in the beginning. “Of course I could drive a car. But I had no idea about the sector”, he laughed. “From the project business I knew orders amounting to a billion sum. A solid power plant construction costed about three billion D-Mark back then. And now I found myself in a world with penny goods.” But soon he realizes that people in general always behave the same, no matter if they build power plants, vehicle parts or paper.

With the new generation a new managing style is also introduced. “My father was a company patriarch. Everything was much more direct during his time“, says Kirchhoff. „For me it was important to include the employees.“ Jochen Kirchhoff has promoted this change in culture enthusiastically. “He thought this was all very exciting. He still thinks that.”

Kirchhoff’s daughters do not want to work in the company. He would have not given them a birthright to the managing position either

The gigantic Kirchhoff ambles through the production halls in Attendorn, besides the main plant in Iserlohn the second biggest location in East Westphalia. “If you want to be good, you have to provide the people around you orientation and also have to convince them of the sense behind their action—no matter if the person watches the plant’s entrance, works at the press or works as the head of development.” One must not be shilly-shally, once a decision was made. “That does not mean to be stubborn”, he explains. Mistakes have to be corrected.

He passes an orange robot arm that puts the parts for the new Ford Mondeo in the correct position for welding. The boss stops at two employees, shakes their hands and asks if everything is alright. The looseness does not appear false. That transfers to the employees. No sign of tension when facing the powerful boss; the interaction seems to be respectful but also humorous.

In fact, it is hard to image due to his happy nature that the 61-year old can explode in front of the whole team. “My husband is usually in a good mood and strongly promoted harmony”, his wife Mrs. Ina Kirchhoff says. “If it really were to go band, he can barely stand that.” For more than 40 years the doctor and the manager are now married. As they could not have children, the couple adopted three girls from a Mother Teresa orphanage in Pakistan.

In two years Kirchhoff will be exactly his father’s age, when he brought his children into the company. That is why there are more than just thoughts of how the company will be run in the future: “I have started at an early stage to restructure the organization into business sectors—also in order to fulfill my honorary positions better.” At least one day per week Kirchhoff concentrates on his association positions. As the President of the entrepreneurs NRW he is the voice of the economy in the federal politics, as the President of the Metal NRW starring partner of the IG Metal Area Leader Knut Giesler during bargaining rounds. Together they have managed a pilot agreement the last time, which has been adopted in the other areas. Besides that, Kirchhoff is Vice President of the Federal Association of the German Employer Associations, Presidium Member of the Federal Association of the German Industry, Vice President of the Association of the German Automotive Industry and President of the Institute of the German Economy in Cologne.

This huge commitment and the expectations as an entrepreneur of course, interfere: “If you are sitting in a podium with ministers and corporation managers and there is suddenly a machine breakdown in one of your plants, you cannot get up, briefly apologize and then leave. You have to delegate that.” That is why he has founded years ago the KIRCHHOFF Holding, which he concentrates on by now.

This is not the only tool to manage a systematic handover to the next generation. Supported by the University Witten/Herdecke it is prepared step by step. “For that, we have founded a committee consisting of our twelve children between 18 and 31, in which we discuss future questions. Whoever wants to can take over tasks in the company.” Kirchhoff’s daughters have declined already. But the ones who are interested, have to face the competition just like everybody else. “It is unacceptable that someone gets the birth right for a position even though he or she is not prepared for it”, says Kirchhoff and there the education of his father flashes. “Then he or she would have enforcement problems.” Therefore, a three-person advisory board decides—by the way, also consisting of family entrepreneurs—whether somebody is suitable.

That the daughters have decided against a leading position is totally fine for Kirchhoff. “My wife and I support them in going their own way.” Kirchhoff defines himself as a family man, in the past he tried to be at home at least 50 percent of the time and be traveling at maximum half of the time. By now he is 70 percent in the country.

In the very tight free time the car fan gets enthusiastic about old-timer rallies. And also the enjoyment of sport has not dropped—even though the disciplines have changed: today these are sailing and golfing. “My handicap is 19. With that, I would still be employed in the company”, he says with a twinkle in his eye. “We always say, we cannot employ someone whose handicap is below twelve as they always have to practice.”

(Source: Rheinische Post)

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