Götz Werner - Gründer von dm Markt

So baute er auf Werten basierend ein Miliarden Unternehmen auf!

I would like to share with you my inspiring conversation with Götz Werner. Götz Werner is founder of the “dm” Germany's most popular company and Europe's largest chemist / drug store chain, pioneer of the unconditional basic income, pioneer of new management methods and lateral thinker in business ethics. As a billionaire, he has transferred his entire assets to the dm-Werner Foundation. The foundation ensures that the management continues to strive for only as much surplus as is needed for its financial security. If sufficient investment has been made in future security, the profits will be used for charitable purposes.

Barbara: You are the third generation in a family of chemists. You just needed to take over your father's business. Instead, you went completely different ways and were the first to introduce the discount chemist / drug store to the market. From where did you get this courage and belief in the success of your idea? 

Götz Werner: Rossmann and I, we were the pioneers. It wasn't just me. I was simply so convinced of the success of this idea. I have an entrepreneurial disposition. It doesn't work if someone says: "So, now I'm going to make something entrepreneurial out of it". It is important for an entrepreneur, to put it quite casually, to lie in wait, on the lookout. In order to develop something new, you have to observe that which exists and develop something new and better out of a kind of healthy dissatisfaction with the prevailing circumstances. Usually, this is connected with the thought: We can make this much easier, much more successful and better for our customers. Suddenly the idea for a new business model develops. You also have to be able to anticipate developments that others can't see. At that time, the chemists / drug stores had to get away from price maintenance and give a new impetus to the drug store business. However, the loan interest rate was 17%! One cannot imagine that today at all. These were not easy conditions for entrepreneurs and required a great deal of courage. Of course, everyone says afterwards: "I knew immediately that this would be successful". But you can't know that beforehand. They were difficult times back then. But the more difficult the times, the more new ideas are needed. I always say: “Something new arises through constructive dissatisfaction with the prevailing circumstances.”

Barbara: Many people are dissatisfied, but unlike you, they do not build a company out of this dissatisfaction. What makes the difference?
tz Werner: Unfortunately, most people are very dissatisfied, only this dissatisfaction is not constructive, but rather destructive. They only grumble, but do not shape, do not become active to change things in a positive way. We need this constructive dissatisfaction, from which new things develop. Back then I was 24 years old and I would have preferred to criticize my father from morning until night. But you don't develop a new business model from criticism alone. I could have criticized for another 30 years and there would be no “dm drug store chain”. Criticizing doesn't help. The art is to do it better yourself and turn your dissatisfaction into something constructive.

Barbara: Have you never doubted your success, especially since your father had no enthusiasm for your project (in fact nobody in your immediate surroundings)? Against all odds, you have pushed through your plan.
tz Werner: No, I never doubted it. It is important for an entrepreneur to recognize the signs of the times and to be so convinced of his idea that nobody can dissuade him from it.

Barbara: Many young entrepreneurs fail in the first five years. How can young entrepreneurs or people who want to fulfil their dream and become self-employed recognize whether their idea is viable and promising? What is important to bear in mind? What kind of advice would you give to start-ups and young companies?
tz Werner: Most start-up companies make the mistake, then as now, that they only pay attention to what they like and have too little of the customer's needs in mind. There is a very fitting saying: The worm must taste good for the fish and not for the angler! Most new founders only pay attention to what pleases them, what they like and not what the customer really needs or wants. The entrepreneur must serve the customer with his products or services. This is a central key to success.

Barbara: What made you and the dm so successful? What do you see as the basis for success, especially in the long term? tz Werner: We used to be a pioneering company. But continued success depends upon how we are able to renew ourselves again and again, creatively. It is important for established companies to constantly develop themselves further and not to fall for the principle of inertia. Our greatest challenge today is to keep reinvigorating our company. If you look closely, you will discover that many companies are based on the principle of inertia. In the long run, this is not very conducive to success. It is important for a company to find a good rhythm between renewal and preservation. Life, the whole of creation, is based on natural rhythms: Summer, winter, spring, autumn, breathing in and out. Courage and humility are also essential. One does not have to reinvent the wheel, but only perceive the given and make it usable. Or as Goethe said: "All good things have been thought of before". You just have to find them. At some point I came across the principle of balance. I have always striven for balance and made sure that all forces are in harmony. For example, creativity and continuity are equally important for a company. It needs people and structures that stabilise and strengthen a company and those that ensure creativity and innovation. As an entrepreneur, I must therefore pay attention to people and structures that stabilise the company, ensure a certain continuity and bring about renewal and innovation. A company must be both prepared to change and to hold on to what already exists, and must not neglect either one or the other. It is important that employees complement each other with their skills. However, it is not only a question of the balance of a company, but also that the entrepreneur balances the various forces within himself and does not act too one-sidedly. It is important to recognize early on: "Now we are doing too much new work. This confuses our customers and employees". Or: "Now we are clinging too much onto that which already exists. We need renewal.” It is always about balance. This applies not only to companies, but to our entire lives. If we become too one-sided, we have a heart attack.

Barbara: For seven years you were Chairman of Entrepreneurship at the University of Karlsruhe. You yourself did an apprenticeship as a chemist and like to call yourself a "toothpaste salesman".  How have you fared as a professor?
tz Werner: When I was offered the Chairman's position, I should have said: "People, someone else has to do that." That was funny. I didn't have a diploma or a degree - and then I get offered this role. But I thought to myself: You can't do more than fail. However, students don't always want to hear adventures from a professor about a chemist / drug store, but rather what is important to run a successful business. They want to know which principles are decisive for success. This starts with questions like: Why does success actually mean success? The German language is wonderfully pictorial. Success means success because it has consequences (Erfolg: Success / Folgen: follow, pursue). If you take the statement seriously it means: Now you have had success, great, but what is the consequence of success, what follows success? You can't rest on it, you have to change something. Under no circumstances should you continue in the same way as you came to success. You may not say: This is successful and remains as it is. That would already be the first nail in the coffin for the company. It might go well for a while, but then? The thinking, the structures that have made a company with 200 branches successful, can no longer apply to 1500 branches. You have to change things, otherwise you will fail. The saying: “Never change a winning team” is just not true. It needs further development and renewal. Someone with an entrepreneurial disposition says: "We did a good job, but we can't go on like this. Now we have to change the constellation in order to remain successful”. The bureaucratically inclined person says: “Never change a winning team. We have done a good job and we have to continue like this”. This is the difference between bureaucrats and entrepreneurs. It is also important for an entrepreneur to have a certain distance to things, to maintain a playful lightness and impartiality and not to become arrogant and presumptuous, but to remain humble. Schiller also says: "Man is only man when he plays," and the Bible: "If you do not become like children, you will not reach the kingdom of heaven”. This also applies to the entrepreneur and success, it is important to maintain a playful lightness and impartiality.

Barbara: You are an incredibly creative and extremely reflected philosophical spirit. Many people learn from you, your new approaches to  employee and enterprise management and about how to run a successful, human-oriented enterprise. From which entrepreneurs did you learn?
tz Werner: I learned a lot from Gottlieb Duttweiler, who built Migros in Switzerland. But most of all by observing my competitors. From my father, I learned how best not to do it. Because if I had continued like he did, I would have been broke in a year. As an entrepreneur, it's important to learn from your competitors. This has nothing to do with imitating, but rather the application of their qualities according to your own circumstances. No matter what the problem, it is important to keep in mind that there were already people before who had found a solution for this situation. When I have to solve any problem, I always ask myself: How do others solve the problem? There are always people who have been in a comparable situation and have found a good solution. Answers and solutions lie before us like sand in the sea, we just have to be open to them. Most people are too arrogant to do this, they think they know everything. The healthy impartiality and candour of a child helps us to open ourselves and to find solutions. Arrogance closes us off, makes us narrow and keeps us imprisoned.

Barbara: You are among the most successful entrepreneurs in Germany. Because of your particular style of business management, you have been described as "the best boss in the world". You put the employee and the customer in the foreground and say: The company should be there for people and not vice versa. What distinguishes your kind of leadership and your corporate management?
tz Werner: The term "the best boss in the world" is, of course, a legend. But that which makes a good boss is represented by two things:

  1. A) that the employees feel valued
  2. B) that they see a sense in their work, a sense in working for the company.

An entrepreneur should transport these two things not only to his employees, but also to his customers. Appreciation and meaning: This must be the basic maxim of every company. When buying from us, a customer must have the feeling that he supports a company whose values he can stand behind. And an employee must be able to tell his or her friends that I work for the dm without them blaming him: What kind of a sloppy shop is this? With us, the customer also gets the Nivea cream, but at the same time is part of our corporate culture. 30 years ago, people bought coffee. It had to taste good, be fresh and cheap. Those were the only three criteria. That's how the coffee brands all grew up. If you had said back then: "My coffee is fairtrade, too," everyone would have said: "Do you have a screw loose?” Today, on the other hand, sustainability plays a role, as do other factors that people pay attention to when buying a product. It is also no different with employees: they ask themselves much more about the meaning of their work and whether they are valued for it. Of course, employees are first and foremost concerned with an income. But then they ask themselves: Does it make sense to work here? Am I valued? It's not just about a job, it's about their lifetime. When the alarm clock rang this morning, my first idea was to stay in bed. I don't know how they feel. Maybe it's age. And so, we have to give important reasons to the people who work for us if they would rather stay in bed than go to work, so that they get up and say: No, I'm not staying here, I'm needed. I am important. When the cashier sits at the cash desk and collects money, she is our most important employee. And it is important that she feels this, that she knows this. The employees want to spend their lives sensibly, they need to be able to establish an inner connection to their work and to the company. These factors are becoming more and more important and the demands placed on a workplace are increasing.

Barbara: A company must also make a profit, otherwise it can close. How important is profit to you?
tz Werner: But of course, profit must also be profit. I am always asked the question about profit. Is profit our goal? No, profit cannot be our goal. Profit is like breathing in and breathing out. If you make no profit as a company, you disappear from the market. Profit is a condition. A condition is much more binding than a goal. You can't say while breathing: Next week I'll stop breathing. This is just as impossible with profit. When you're standing at the start and looking at the race track, you have to give everything. The moment you think you've already made it, you get too comfortable. Competition is total expenditure. Of course you must not exaggerate. It's a tightrope act.

Barbara: You have 3500 stores. This thought is quite dizzying. Has this magnitude ever overwhelmed you?
tz Werner: Despite the 3500 stores, we are not just 3500 stores - we are what happens here in this store right now. That's the reality. Everything else is in principle - if you want to put it that way - an addition. For the customer who lives here in Munich and for the employee who works in this store, there is only this store. And for me, too. If a customer comes and says: "Yes, but I'm not satisfied here at all,” it's no use telling her: "Listen, we just opened a new store in Berlin". So it has to be right at every stage. I think that's the point. When customers shop in this store, it's only the conditions here that matter. So we're not such a big company.

Barbara: You are a lateral thinker and want to introduce the unconditional basic income for everyone. Every citizen should receive EUR 1000 per month without having to go to work for it (Children half the amount). Which advantages do you see in this?
tz Werner: With the basic income, our society would change from a "should" to a "want". When people do something their whole lives that they cannot identify with, it is very stressful, a difficult fate. Anyone who forces himself to do something he does not want to do should not do it. How many people do something they don't want to do? This is a life of slavery. The basic income would give them the freedom to do what they like to do. It makes people much more autonomous, even towards their superiors. Instead of perceiving work as a compulsion, people can develop. The basic income would not automatically turn people into lazybones just because they receive 1000 euros a month. Doing nothing is perhaps quite nice for a few weeks, but it quickly becomes boring. We find goals and meaningful things in a job that gives us recognition and, of course, with the money with which we can satisfy our desires beyond our basic needs. People want to get involved and develop further. Productivity and social prosperity would be much higher if people could work of their own free will - and also say no to a bad job. Women who have worked hard for their families all their lives and have therefore been unable to earn their own pensions would also be much better off with a basic income.

Barbara: What motivates you, even at an age when others are retreating into retirement, to be so committed to the basic income?
tz Werner: I enjoy the fact that and people are interested in it. If nobody was interested in it, I would probably have given it up long ago.

Barbara: The title of your autobiography is "What I never expected". What did you really not expect?
tz Werner: Life itself is full of surprises. Any biography could bear this title. I think it's great, it was a real stroke of luck.

Barbara: And what do you like to read yourself?
tz Werner: The books of the Welsh bestselling author Ken Follett, such as "Pillars of the Earth", make a real impression on me. You should definitely read one. You will have your joy. It makes history accessible in the form of individual and family destinies.