“Foundation phase successfully completed”
An interview with umlaut founder Thomas Prefi about his move to the company’s supervisory board.
In an interview with founder Thomas Prefi, we find out why umlaut is a kind of grass-roots movement, how to promote personal responsibility and what makes customer relationships last so long.
From founder to member of the supervisory board: Mr Prefi, why did you make this move?
I set up umlaut in 1996, back when it was still called P3, but I always wondered how long I would be the right person to ensure umlaut continues to develop. A company can only grow until it reaches the limits of its founders’ abilities. We now have a very good structure in place and great employees, so it was just the right time for a change. Strictly speaking, at 55, it is a bit early for me, but it was the right time for the company. And it’s better than waiting until the employees start saying “Oh no, not him again ...”.
You mean, better to go too soon than not soon enough. How does your role change with this shift in generations?
In recent years, my work has already become more strategic than operational. I will continue to perform this role, just in the function of the supervisory board. I will therefore continue to deal with our customers and work closely with my colleagues on the board of directors – whom I have known for years – in a spirit of trust. I will make sure that umlaut stays on course – for the next generation, too. After all, that’s exactly what a supervisory board is for.
I deliberately stay out of other topics; I let others take care of where we should open a new location or where the Christmas party should take place. This is all part of a generation shift.
umlaut - Facts and figures
decades of successful deliveries and completions
million € annual turnover
locations all over the world
experts, engineers and enthusiasts from
nations burning to add something towards your business success
From your point of view, what is umlaut’s recipe for success, one that is still valid today and which will carry the company forward?
Curiosity plays an important role. We like to break new ground and have been involved with 5G and electric mobility from a very early stage, for example. We also make a point of letting our curiosity take us where the competition is not yet so active. And we look at what is going on with our customers and what could help them. umlaut has always been a kind of grass-roots movement, where everyone works closely with their customers and courageously takes responsibility for new things.
Customer centricity has been your focus since the company was founded.
Long-term customer relationships have always been most important to umlaut. When you successfully break new ground together with your customers, that stabilises the relationship and it will then last even if competition increases.
However, focusing on the customer is not the only key to success. It is part of a trio of values that includes courageous employees and the diverse range of services that we offer. These three components – employees, customers and portfolio of services – need to go hand in hand with each other in an intelligent way.
How do you create a culture like that?
Of course, there are no manuals or guidelines to help you create a corporate culture that incorporates these three ingredients. For example, in order for employees to make a strong contribution themselves, you yourself have to be authentic and lead by example. And if you offer your employees the opportunity to act like entrepreneurs and increase their influence – as is the case with us and our partner model – it also means that you have to take a step back at a certain point. This is another reason for my move to the supervisory board. There’s no way around it if you want to stay true to your own way of doing things. Taking this step has turned what I have been talking about for 20 years into reality.
Yet, with this move, you must be afraid of your own convictions.
Absolutely. You need to have nerves of steel to make this move.
How would you like umlaut to develop?
In a relaxed and laid-back manner, would be the words I would use. Pretty much follow our typical style. We have got so familiar with it over the past few years that we can continue to follow it. Essentially, umlaut is now moving from the dominance of the founders into a phase of being a normal company. You could say that the foundation phase has been successfully completed after 25 years.
Prof. Dr Thomas Prefi is one of the three founders of umlaut (formerly P3 group AG), which the company developed out of its research at the Fraunhofer Institute. He joined the supervisory board in 2019. Dr Prefi is a guest professor at the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) Aachen.
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