“When an elephant walks through the village, all the dogs bark", as the Indians say, and because I don't position myself as a barking dog and still want to ask an important question, I rely on him having mellowed with age.
"Mr. Würth, you are a billionaire and a Christian..."
The company director nods.
"Then what would you say to Jesus' proclamation that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."
"But we're not doing bad things with the money."
“I know you have 70,000 employees worldwide, all with their respective families. You feed over 100,000 people... "
The eighth richest German nods.
“And beyond that, you are doing a great deal for art, culture and infrastructure in your region, but also for the unification of Europe. The working atmosphere at Würth is highly praised, you are social, charitable and fair - no, you don't do anything bad with the money, and that's why I ask how you see it. Was Jesus wrong, or are there exceptions to the rule? "
"Oh," says Reinhold Würth, and now he smiles "maybe he didn't mean it in that way".
In front of me sits an amiable old man in impeccable, respectable, but not uncomfortable attire. He has beautiful hands, and with fingers like that he could have made a career as a pianist or guitarist. He made one instead with screws.
Although they surround me everywhere, and without them my life would be completely different, I am not interested in screws. I'm interested in success, and Reinhold Würth is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in post-war Germany. That is why I am here, and have spared neither effort nor pain.
Because I want to think green at least once a year, I didn't use the car to get to Künzelsau, but opted for public transport. That was a big mistake. After Würzburg I bid the fabulous world of ICE farewell, and was left with regional trains, which are terrible for anyone who has ever suffered a slipped disc, pretty bad even for people who haven't, and not particularly the best way to enjoy the beauty of Franconian Switzerland, but at least it was still on the track to Bad Mergentheim. There the railway ends. There is only one bus to Künzelsau that takes about an hour, stopping at every milk bottle on the way. The corporate headquarters are in the middle of the countryside. And what kind of name is that? Künzelsau, ‘Pig stick’?
Are they serious? Yes, they are, that's exactly what the place-name sign says. But as soon as you arrive in the small town of 1,700 souls, you only see the name of my interviewee, in fact even before you get there. In a radius of at least 50 kilometers, "Würth" is present everywhere, and where there is no Würth on it, there is often Würth in it, as in the Gaisbach screw factory etc. The state’s name is actually spelled with tt, but with th, Baden Würt (h) enberg would make a lot more sense.
"Mr. Würth, at only 19 years old you took over your father's small screw business, with an annual turnover of 350,000 marks. It has since grown into a global corporation with an annual turnover of 17 billion. You made your first deliveries from village to village with a cart, whereas now an armada of trucks does the job for you. You can now be found either on an 87 meter long yacht, or in your Cessna, which you fly yourself... "
"No, not a Cessna."
"But I read that you had to make a stop in Ulaanbaatar on a flight back from your one of your branches in China to refuel your Cessna, which incidentally led to the establishment of a branch of Würth in Mongolia, and ..."
"It wasn't Cessna," says Reinhold Würth. "It was a trijet."
"Then my colleague must have misunderstood. I couldn't believe it either. With a Cessna from China to Germany! They jump from air pocket to air pocket. I once flew over the Bay of Lübeck with Beate Uhse in her Cessna, that was her condition for the interview. She would only do it in the Cessna. And once we were above the clouds, she handed me the controls, and I was only allowed to ask her my questions while I was flying the plane myself. Let me tell you, Mr. Würth, that was a very short interview. "
As I started the anecdote about the sex-product entrepreneur, I felt a slight discomfort in my counterpart, but he liked the end of the story. He finds it amusing that you could control an interview like that. Besides, he's not just an 83-year-old man of honor with a conservative value system, but also a pilot.
"Not any more," says Reinhold Würth. "I gave up my license two years ago. My eyes are getting weaker. It was important to me that I do that without being asked. I didn't want my doctor to have to ban me at some point. "
The company director had argued in a similarly sensible way about 20 years ago, when he stepped back from daily proceedings and left the management of the company to his managers.
He said he didn’t want any possible obstinacy to hamper the business, but at the same time he took over as Chairman of the Foundation Advisory Board, which gave him the final say, if necessary. When things threatened to get out of hand, he took back control. "It's your own fault," he liked to say to his people, "but as soon as you do everything right again, I'll be out of the way."
He just does everything properly. And that brings me back to my actual question, which, by the way, I answer myself, and then I think: this interview is terrible.
"Mr. Würth, when I meet extremely successful people like you, I would of course like to learn how one can become so successful ... (pause) ... but if I think about it, that doesn't really work. .. (pause) ... because everyone is who they are. "
“Yes,” says the Patriach of Screws. "That's true".
In the beginning there is always an idea. And the simpler it is, the more it can develop, because complicated ideas don't work. “Everyone needs screws” was the very simple idea of his father Adolf Würth. He had it at the right time - On July 16, 1945, he opened a screw wholesaler in the old mill in his hometown, because after the end of the Second World War there was a lot to rebuild in and around Künzelsau. “The whole world needs screws” being in turn the extremely simple idea of his son, who took over the small company in 1954.
Traditionally, screw dealers only supplied customers within their region, but Reinhold Würth was soon looking for and finding buyers beyond the Hohenlohe area, first in Germany, then in Europe, and finally around the globe. He did not leave any continent out. With the right kind of technology, as well as demand, he would with some certainty also be supplying our neighboring planets today. Würth on the moon, branches on Mars.
I'm joking, of course, but only half joking. Speaking of which, the right idea is one half of success, and the right man the other. And again his father comes into play. Because Adolf Würth had a heart defect, he wanted to start training his successor as early as possible, therefore taking his son out of school when at 14.
He had five years to turn the junior into a screw trading specialist and entrepreneur, and when he died in 1954 his knowledge and ability lived on in his son, as well as his mantra (achieve, achieve, achieve) and his character, whose main pillars are reliability and accountability. Reinhold Würth also inherited knowing the value of having the right woman at his side. Like his father, he found his true love in a church choir, and knew she was the one.
He did not speak to her immediately, but instead made enquiries as to her name and address, then asked her parents for their permission to take her out. Since then, Carmen Würth has done for him what his mother did for his father. She is his support, his sanctuary and a replenishing source of energy. Three children, two grandchildren, and a happy patriarch in their midst, you can't become like that if you haven't already always been so, or, to put it in the words of a Krupp, Georg Krupp, the former managing director of the German Bank: “Reinhold Würth is a born entrepreneur. It’s not something one can learn, its something he inherited. "
So I bid farewell to my wish to learn from a billionaire how to become a billionaire, and instead switch to philosophising. For example, about the nature of dreams.
“Mr. Würth, the Turks say that you lose your dreams as soon as you realize them. My experience confirms that, but it's not that bad for me because there are still enough dreams in my life that have never come true. With a billionaire, I imagine it would be more difficult, at least for the dreams that money can buy. "
And what does he say?
“Oh, you know,” says the billionaire, reaching into his pocket, “I actually never have any money with me. If I ever need any, I ask my chauffeur if he can lend me 20 euros ”.
Reinhold Würth smiles, but I have to laugh. This continues, because he responds to my next question with more humor. Maybe he isn’t taking me seriously anymore, or maybe the opposite is true, but in the end I don't care because whoever brings a laugh (as the Turks also say) always brings a gift. So I use my finger to draw an imaginary line across the fabulous conference table we are sitting at: rising steeply, without any crashes, and yes, even without any jagged edges, to demonstrate the trajectory of his success story.
"Has there really never been any misfortune in your life, Mr. Würth?"
"Oh yes," he says, pointing to his foot. "I broke my ankle once."
We’re both aware of the understatment. Obviously his father's early death was a huge blow, and a massive challenge. At 19, taking on not only the company, but having to provide for your mother and siblings, is more than jumping in the deep end, more than learning by doing, more like working with your back to the wall. Show-down every day. Either he brings in the orders, or the family suffers.
This pressure, along with the joy he takes in what he does explain his early (most amazing) as well as his later (gigantic) successes. “For me, sales is the most beautiful job in the world,” says Reinhold Würth, and this time he doesn't joke. “Why,” I ask, because I can't understand it.
“I don't like sales,” I say. “I find it embarrassing, I don't know why. I’d rather trust that the goods will sell themselves. "
Reinhold Würth nods.
"That's true. The goods sell, but the seller too, of course”.
Why does he love sales so much? He gives three reasons. The first is travel, this he had already mentioned.
“You once said: ‘Travel is life and life is travel.’ Is this an original quote of yours, Mr. Würth? "
"My compliments, the sentence is as beautiful as your globe."
“Well, the one in front of your office. I love globes, and this is certainly the most magnificent I've ever seen. How much was it? "
“Oh,” says Reinhold Würth and laughs, “I don't remember”.
A huge globe with the most important places from his travels engraved on the metal ring that wraps around it like a meteoroid belt.
- 1951 Switzerland, escort and chauffeur for his father.
- 1957, Rimini, 1st trip to Italy.
- 1967, first flight with own plane to Spain.
-1984, Istanbul, managing director - conference.
- 1985, 1st flight with the Concorde to the USA.
- 2015 Vienna, last flight as a pilot.
These are of course only a few examples from his list on the globe, which in turn is also incomplete because Reinhold Würth has been on the road his whole life and still is. Even just with his yacht, twice a year he spends two months on the world's oceans.
The second reason that Reinhold Würth gives for his love of sales is all the people you get to know, and all the interesting conversations you have with them, even these are engraved on his fabulous globe by Bellerby & Co.
1999- Künzelsau, visit of the Dalai Lama in the company headquarters.
2000 London, meeting with Nelson Mandela,
2002 Vatican, private audience with Pope John Paul II,
etc, etc ... and who did he like the most?
"Nelson Mandela. That an innocent man being jailed for 25 years doesn't want revenge afterwards, although he had the power to do so, impresses me to this day. "
Salesman’s pleasure no.3:
"In sales, I became a good judge of character," says Reinholdt Würth. "After being with someone for an hour, I’m able to get a good idea of them."
That helped him a lot when choosing his employees. The company is known for its internal careers. Many of those who started apprenticeships decades ago have stayed on and are now top managers. A good knowledge of human nature is like gold dust for any business, and for a brief moment I’m tempted to put it to the test, but we haven't been sitting together for an hour, only 40 minutes, and I'm not all that keen to find out what Reinhold Würth thinks of me.
Not because my trajectory of success resembles the panorama of a mountain range, with peaks and gorges alternating as far as the eye can see. That’s normal. And not because my love and family life was the opposite to his, because that's normal for my generation of crazy 68ers. My wardrobe, on the other hand, isn't normal at all. I am scandalously underdressed for a meeting with Reinhold Würth, him being well known for how important he finds a smart appearance.
I knew that, but knowing didn't help me because I’d come straight from a six-day book tour to Künzelsau, you can imagine what I’d look like after something like that. But I had a plan. In Hanover I bought a new shirt because I had half an hour between trains and I could see a nearby H&M from the platform. I bought new trousers before I got on the bus in Bad Mergentheim, and the shoes were scheduled for Künzelsau, but the bus, as I already mentioned, took a full hour to get through the beautiful Hohenloher countryside - uphill, downhill and winding through every remote village to collect and drop off schoolchildren was not part of my plan.
But not part of my shame either. It can happen that you don't know the bus timetables in Northern Franconia - or wherever we are here - off by heart, so the last emergency purchase didn’t work out. But what must not happen is that you start from top to bottom, instead of from bottom to top, because the shoes are the most important thing. I was sitting in battered old Nikes in front of the head of the company - all that schlepping around had torn a hole in my left shoe. Not a big one, but he saw it right away. No, I really don't want to know what impression he had of me after 40 minutes, but he tells me without being asked.
“You are a novelist,” Reinhold Würth says to me when we say goodbye, and this generosity instantly makes him my favourite billionaire.
Three days later.
I am well-dressed and sitting with 500 other well-dressed guests in a concert hall built by Reinhold Würth , within sight of the corporate headquarters, dedicated to his wife on her 80th birthday. Hence the reason why it bears her name: ‘Carmen Würth Forum’.
We listen to Beethoven's 9th, performed by the ‘Unesco World Orchestra for Peace’, in which classical musicians from all possible nations have been playing together for about 20 years. They are supported by the company's orchestra, the ‘Würth Philarmoniker’’, and the Bavarian Radio Choir. The man with the baton and the wild hairstyle is not just anyone, but Donald Runnicles, one of the most important contemporary conductors in the world, and since 2006 the General Music Director of the Deutsche Opera in Berlin. Before that he was Music Director of the San Francisco Opera and his Lulu production at the MET in New York caused a sensation. In Künzelsau he conducted Beethoven's 9th. It's a peace concert. The end of the 2nd World War was celebrating its centenary and what better way to go with it than the Ode to Joy and the hope for the end of all wars.
"All people become brothers
Where your gentle wing rests."
It is the most positive work of the great composer, created in divine intoxication, and while I listen it suddenly becomes clear to me why my question to Reinhold Würth of whether a billionaire does not lose all dreams at some point, was ridiculous. Beethoven premiered the symphony in Vienna in 1824, and Schiller wrote the text for it, almost 200 years ago. And yet to this day all people have by no means become brothers, not even the Europeans have managed it. No, the 11-time billionaire (that's 11,000 million) still has dreams and is working hard to make them come true, with concerts like this one. He's a staunch European and gives what he can, which is a lot. Nevertheless, the positive impression that Reinhold Würth makes in his appearance on stage is due to his respect for the audience, as well as a deeply New Apostolic modesty independent of his successes, which is rooted in the belief that we are all God’s creations a) only small, and b) fleeting screws, no matter how big and eternal the wheels seem that we turn in our lives.
Published in Bilanz Magazine
Author Helge Timmerberg
Many thanks to Reinhold Würth for the private family album.
Photo montage: Limousine in heaven: Maielin van Eilum
Karel Jaromír Erben / "Venceslav cerny svec a cert" / Wikimedia Commons
Photo Helge / Frederico Balboa
Translator / Artemis Meereis
Proofreading / Ada Delsolco