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Managing Your Own Transition In The Family Firm

Christian Weber is the CEO of Karslberg Brauerei in Germany and shares an insight into taking the helm, although there was a time when it looked like he may have taken a very different course.

Karlsberg Brauerei is a successful German brewing company with 1,400 employees and annual revenues of around 400 million euros. Christian Weber is the CEO and shared with us the journey that he has been on.

Christian was educated in the UK, and started his career at major multinationals like Nestle and Heineken, where his time included spells working abroad. He was open-minded about returning to the family business, but equally open to other possibilities. Then, in 2009, everything changed. A major transformation of Karlsberg turned it back into a ‘pure’ family business by dissolving a joint venture and cross-shareholding. “Suddenly, a career at Karlsberg looked a lot more attractive, and I started having discussions with my father about what it might look like.”

The result was a two-page paper in which Christian set out his plans in detail, setting out why he thought it would be better if he joined as successor in a role with overall responsibility, rather than taking charge of a division. His father agreed, and over the next few months Christian established himself in the business, and his father gradually took a less active role. “I worked hard to learn the business, and establish productive relationships within the company. Our ethos at Karlsberg is to ‘lead by sharing responsibility,’ and I made a point of not second-guessing experienced managers. It was a good time to join as we were making a lot of operational changes after the transformation, so everyone was receptive to new ideas and new ways of doing things. Within a year my father was coming into the office much less, which was a good way of signalling to people that they needed to talk to me about everyday decision-making.”

Christian’s father still has a strong presence in the business, all the same: “He is my most trusted and most valued sparring partner, and I can talk to him about everything from strategy to HR issues. So he still has a huge influence on the company, but indirectly, rather than by running it himself.”

The wider family has an important indirect influence too. There are four family members on the seven-post board, and 25 family shareholders. “When we hold our shareholders meetings the families, the children, and the next generation – everyone comes. The board updates them on what’s happening in the company, providing information and context, and allowing space for discussion. Governance mechanisms like this are an important anchor for family businesses.”

Christian’s arrival has also coincided with changes in the brewing industry that have led to a change in the company’s management style: “In the past, whoever was quickest won. Making fast decisions and implementing them quickly was the key to success. Today, anyone can be fast, but the real differentiator is good ideas. My job is to nurture those ideas, and create a culture where innovation can flourish. That’s about having the right people in the right roles.”

Christian is also aware of the potential for digital disruption in the brewing industry. “For us, the most important areas will probably be communication on the one hand and planning on the other. How will we supply the restaurateurs of the future before they even place an order?”

A family business can have real advantages in this brave new world: “We are as professional and ambitious as any other company, but we are also value-driven, which means we can communicate to both employees and consumers in an emotional way without it sounding artificial. That’s because our culture stems from our family rather than anonymous owners no-one knows. That builds loyalty inside the firm, and is very attractive to talented people outside. That’s a huge advantage.”

This insight was part of The Next Generation of Family Business Leaders published by PwC. It has been reproduced with their permission.

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