Prof. Hanns-Peter Knaebel has been the new CEO of the Röchling Group since the beginning of the year. What does it mean for him to work at a family company? What are his plans and ideas for developing the Group and what challenges does it face? What are the key issues for the future? The new CEO answers these questions, and more, for the Röchling magazine in a joint discussion with Johannes Freiherr von Salmuth, Chairman of the Supervisory Boards of the Röchling Group. Working in close collaboration, the Executive and Advisory Boards are responsible for setting the strategic course of the Group and the entrepreneurial family behind it.

Professor Knaebel, what have you seen from the Röchling Group in your first few months at the company?
Knaebel: Commitment, expertise and team spirit are probably the key words that best describe my experience of the first few months. The dedication that every employee brings to the company is admirable. Again and again, I see how broad and detailed the knowledge of our employees is when it comes to the material plastic and its various applications. I have also noticed that there is a very positive spirit at the company as well as a real willingness to work together.

Mr. von Salmuth, as a sixth-generation Röchling family member, what did it mean for you that the new CEO of Röchling had worked for a family company previously and even comes from an entrepreneurial family himself?
Salmuth: A great deal! For me, it was important to know that Professor Knaebel shares our set of values and, in addition, that he both values and understands the benefits and sensitive areas of a family business. However, for me, it was even more important that he had already been a CEO for many years and, as well as medical expertise, can also contribute a wealth of experience with digital transformation processes to our Group.

Knaebel: Background alone is not the secret to success. Having said that, I suspect that if you come from a family business, you know entrepreneurial families and understand their benefits and small challenges. But, more importantly, you are aware of the responsibility that is transferred to you, and that you must handle this responsibility with care. Therefore, a leadership position – especially at a family company – is always about responsibility, not power.


Prof. Hanns-Peter Knaebel
President & CEO Röchling Group

The topic of responsibility also plays a central role in the Röchling Enkel Award, which was presented for the first time in 2017. Why is the topic of responsibility so important for you?
Salmuth: We don’t only want to lead our company to be financially successful, but also to act with a sense of responsibility toward society. Companies are active participants in a close symbiotic relationship with society. Positive developments on one side benefit the other side as well. As a family-owned company, we plan in terms of generations, not years, and certainly not in terms of quarters. For us, acting responsibly means doing today what will be best for our children and grandchildren in the future. We are responsible for preparing for the future. With the Enkel Award, we celebrate employees who develop projects with a “cross-generational scope of responsibility.”

Professor Knaebel, what is important to you when dealing with your Executive Board colleagues and employees? What is your leadership style?
Knaebel: Mutual trust is a central element of my work philosophy. I have been a passionate supporter, for many years, of taking an appreciative and respectful approach. I also consider participation to be central to success – it doesn’t make sense for me not to make use of the range of experience and knowledge of the employees. However, you always come to a point where every discussion should lead to a decision and this is where decisiveness comes in – teamed with a little entrepreneurial courage. I’m always happy to support employees at this point if I can.

How would you assess the current situation and the challenges for Röchling’s three divisions: Industrial, Automotive and Medical?
Knaebel: Without a doubt, the most profound changes are in the Automotive division. The concept of mobility will be completely redefined, even against the backdrop of alternative solutions. Our technological strengths, our clear focus on specific product segments and, in particular, our courage to question existing concepts will all help us succeed here.

In the Industrial division, the biggest challenge is probably the balancing act between traditional product solutions, which will still be in demand for decades to come, and modern, sometimes digitally enhanced, product and services solutions. Here, it is important to preserve and maintain our traditional strengths without losing our desire for innovation.

In the Medical division, we currently have a lot of positive relationships with a wide range of industries – from the pharmaceutical industry to the traditional precision engineering of medical devices. As Röchling is still just beginning to develop here, this is where opportunities for growth are the greatest – even if the market has its own specific laws and regulatory challenges. We will also use our expertise and extensive knowledge to create stronger partnerships with existing customers, and win new customers. Overall, the company is in an excellent position and offers an unbelievable amount of opportunities for future growth.

The expansion of the Medical Division is one of the Röchling Group’s main declared objectives. This is your area of expertise. What will this come down to above all?
Knaebel: The days are long gone when technology on its own was simply sold. This means that, in the treatment process, we are constantly having to focus intensively on the challenge to ensure that our product solutions can be used in a way that improves the process. In medicine, the concept of product benefits is currently being intensively discussed. It is important to remember that the benefits of a product or service do not automatically apply to the patient alone but, for example, also the user, the safety of a process or the healthcare industry in general.

Recently, the regulatory barriers have been steadily increasing – especially in the field of medical products. For us, this means that we have to bring intelligent product solutions with a strong certification concept to the market.

Will the strategy of the Röchling Group change? What are your fundamental plans for the development of the company?
Knaebel: If need be, the strategic direction of the Röchling Group will be modified over the next few years but it will not change fundamentally. This means that the organic growth of all company divisions will continue, selectively supplemented by acquisitions. All divisions will have the same opportunities for development. They will support each other in the process, and no division, not even Medical, will be taken forward to the detriment of the other divisions. We have plenty of ideas for organic growth and acquisitions and that’s why I am really excited about the future.

Salmuth: I firmly believe that our basic Röchling strategy is still valid, to use our exceptional materials expertise in high performance plastics to conquer as many promising markets as possible, especially those that are largely independent of the economic situation. This is why we hope that Professor Knaebel will develop the field of medical technology into the third strong pillar of the company, while strengthening and expanding the other two divisions at the same time. It will also be essential to continuously adapt our strategy to the process of the digital transformation.

In light of this, how important is professional innovation management?
Knaebel: Innovations are not everything, but without innovations everything turns to nothing. This means that we must continue to resolutely pursue the development of product innovations in the future because the innovation cycles are accelerating in all divisions. There is also another facet of innovation management that is becoming more and more important – it will no longer be entirely about bringing the 120 percent solution to market but, instead, continuously improving the products in various development stages. These “iteration steps” are the key to speed, and are something we are very familiar with from the digital world. For example, an app on your smart phone is constantly improved using updates. This approach requires courage and good judgement. It is important to develop well-functioning products but not to get lost in the details when striving for innovations.

Salmuth: Innovativeness means future viability and being sustainable for future generations. This is the reason why innovativeness is a central element of Röchling’s DNA. In addition, the history of Röchling is one of constant reinvention. And, in operative business, we are proud that in the Industrial division, for example, more than 10 percent of sales are generated by new, innovative products. In the Automotive division, this figure is expected to climb to more than 30 percent by 2020.

You were just talking about the digital world. What exactly does digital transformation mean for the Röchling Group?
Knaebel: Our digital transformation encompasses the four major thematic areas of digital production, digital administration, the digital product and service portfolio, and digital sales. Our digital activity is based on these four pillars. In turn, the individual pillars consist of a variety of projects in all divisions, with which we are further improving the digital expertise of the Röchling Group. This is a continuous process, which at most has a start date but no end date. More specifically, it will be important for us to use all our digital activities to increase efficiency, improve effectiveness and efficacy, and create benefits for our customers.

Salmuth: Above all, I think the challenge lies in thinking in new dimensions. The young start-up generation is developing pioneering digital business models and technologies, which are also extremely relevant for our company, at quite a breathtaking pace. Here, there is no doubt that we need to learn from the working methods and best practices of the digital leaders. After all, no modern company will be able to circumvent the digital transformation. This is a management task, which Röchling is approaching openly, creatively and enthusiastically.

Professor Knaebel, you work in Mannheim and live in Konstanz. How does this work with your family life?
Knaebel: Let’s compare it with the innovation process. Together with my family, I am currently in a pilot phase, in which we are finding out whether this solution is right for the family. As I met my wife in Heidelberg and it is also where we got married, we have a great affinity with the Rhine-Neckar region. But we want to be sure that the amount of time I spend in Mannheim justifies the effort of moving four children from Konstanz to the metropolitan region. So far, we have still had enough quality time for each other.

Johannes Freiherr von Salmuth (52) has been the Chairman of Röchling’s Supervisory Boards since 2008 and 2011 respectively. He is also a member of the board of the Aluminium-Werke Wutöschingen AG & Co. KG and Vice President of the association for family businesses “Die Familienunternehmen”. The qualified economist is married and has four children.

Prof. Dr. Hanns-Peter Knaebel (49) has been President & CEO of the Executive Board of the Röchling Group since the beginning of the year 2018. Before this, he was a member of the board of Aesculap AG for ten years – for eight of which he was CEO – and a member of the board of Braun Melsungen AG. The habilitated surgeon is married and has four children.

Photos © Martin Joppen, Frankfurt am Main