than Ever Before
Klaus Furler believes that sustainability and growth have been inseparable from each other at the Koehler Group for generations now and will continue to be vital to the company’s future. Currently a company shareholder, he ran the family business together with his brother Wolfgang Furler as its seventh generation with enormous success for nearly 30 years. In this interview, he explains why he thinks the Koehler Group is well-positioned for upcoming generations and the kind of role that handing responsibility over to the next generation at the right moment plays.
When we talk of sustainable growth, what comes to mind for you?
Klaus Furler For us, sustainable growth is a fundamental principle that we have followed for generations and that enables us to continue developing our industrial family-run enterprise successfully in the long term. The changing of the guard between generations – that is, when the older generation hands over the reins to the next generation – is particularly important within this context. This amicable transfer of responsibility for the company’s operations is important and needs to be carried out in a timely manner. And that also goes for the commitment of all shareholders, which should be as unanimous as possible, to the principle of not distributing a large share of the profits and leaving them in the company instead in order to help it develop and grow – and that’s the case with Koehler.
What was the changing of the guard like for you and your brother when you both joined the Executive Board in 1978?
KF Back in the 70s, Koehler was focusing more and more on the carbonless paper market, which was quickly growing across all of Europe, and experienced quite a bit of success in that area. However, profit margins were getting smaller and smaller as a result of heavy competition throughout Europe, so at the time we only saw one way out to restore our profitability and ensure job security for what, at the time, were about 750 employees: building a large high-performance production line customized for carbonless paper. The required investment was huge – literally about a whole year’s worth of revenue, so we had to finance it predominantly with loans. With the full approval of the Supervisory Board, the sole CEO at the time, Werner Koehler, handed over complete responsibility for the project to my brother and me in 1978. He did stand behind the project, but he just didn’t want to be the sole party responsible for it anymore. He also transferred the better part of his shares in what, at the time, was Koehler AG, to us. The company’s value had dropped to a low point by the end of the 70s, so that made the transfer easier.
Werner Koehler’s gutsy decision to pass on the reins to the seventh Koehler generation at the age of 64, as well as his extraordinary commitment to ensuring job security for all our employees out of a deep sense of responsibility for their well-being, made him a role model for us when we were in charge of turning things around. And he remained a role model in good times too, which was part of why we decided to hand over the reins for our global operations in what had, by then, become the Koehler Group to Koehler’s eight generation, in the form of Kai Furler, on our 2007 anniversary.
As a shareholder, what do you think of the way that the Koehler Group has evolved in the last 15 years after you moved to the Supervisory Board and handed over responsibility for the company’s operations?
KF To put it mildly, the Koehler Group’s evolution since 2007 has exceeded even our wildest expectations at the time. The Executive Board team comprising Dr. Stefan Karrer, Frank Lendowski, and CEO Kai Furler has been remarkably clear-sighted and turned the company into a hugely dynamic entity. The 300-million-euro investment in Production Line 8, for instance, allowed us to successfully tap into the flexible packaging paper market, which will keep growing in the long term, and to expand our environmentally friendly and tremendously successful Blue4est® thermal paper portfolio. In fact, we’re a recognized global industry leader when it comes to thermal paper in particular, and that also extends to the premium game card and coaster markets.
In addition, the founding of Koehler Renewable Energy was a very smart way to make the Koehler Group diversify by entering what is a very strong additional business area in the field of renewable energy. Large investments in biomass combined heat and power plants, wind farms, solar arrays, and hydroelectric power plants are playing a key role in making sure that we can confidently meet what is a very ambitious goal on schedule: by 2030, we want to generate more energy from renewable sources using our own facilities than we require for our paper production, which is set to grow in volume. That’s our “2030 Koehler Promise.”
Finally, we’ve set up modern and future-proof business structures in the last few years with an industrial holding company on top that meets all the legal tax requirements involved in making it easier for our shareholders to transfer their shares to their children or other close family members. In fact, my brother and I have already transferred the better part of our shares to the family’s eighth and ninth generations.
In my opinion, the Koehler Group is not only larger and more diversified than ever before with its workforce of around 2,500 employees, but it also has a much stronger focus on sustainability everywhere.