The philosophy of Götz Werner


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2018)

He is anything but a conventional entrepreneur, and this is precisely what has made him so successful and popular. Professor Götz Werner is the founder and patron of the drugstore chain dm. His focus has always been on people and – as a result – his management style has been based on appreciation, responsibility and meaning. Götz Werner has created one of the most successful and popular companies in Europe, focusing in particular on the perpetual question regarding the meaning of our own work and our personal contribution to the whole. In our interview, he spoke about the fulfilment of ideas, his great role model and his ‘Unternimm die Zukunft’ (Undertake the Future) initiative. 

Professor Werner, how did you come up with the idea for opening your first dm store? 

The idea was in the air. The entire retail sector was characterised by change back in the early 1970s. For me, it made sense to apply the principle of the food discount store to the drugstore sector. I suggested this to my boss at the time. I just had a feeling that this was the future. However, the concept was rejected and I decided to do it myself by opening my first dm shop. The response from customers was overwhelming, so we swiftly opened further stores. 

What makes dm so unique, to the point where there is absolutely no alternative for many people? 

It's all about a coherent composition. People must recognise that dm offers more than just the right products at the best prices in a suitable location. They have to sense that our customers are the focus of our every action. And let me tell you a really important secret: you have to love your customers. You have to do things with love, people always appreciate that. 

Things that are merely dreams for others have always been real to you. How do you succeed in bringing your ideas to life? 

Entrepreneurs are the merchants of desire. They have a knack for identifying those needs and desires that customers don't even know they have yet. You have to bring these dreams into the present. When you enter a dm shop, discover something and say: "I wasn't expecting that, but this is precisely what will help me make my life, my everyday existence better’"– then we have done our job properly. We have to surprise people and offer them meaningful things. 

Is there anybody whose work you would say has particularly inspired you? 

Gottlieb Duttweiler, the founder of Swiss retail giant Migros. He was my role model. Entrepreneurs learn from entrepreneurs, and I have learned the most from Duttweiler, and the following famous statement also comes from him: "Simultaneous surplus and shortage demand trade". Gottlieb Duttweiler understood how to balance surplus and shortage like no one else. 

You have approached things in a fundamentally new way from the very outset – both in regard to store concept and management style. Please explain this in a little more detail.

As a young entrepreneur, a consultant asked me three questions: "Is the company there for you or are you there for the company?", "Are the employees there for the company or is the company there for the employees?", and  "Are the customers there for the company or is the company there for the customers?" And you look at the world with different eyes depending on your answers here. For me, it is clear that people are the end, never the means. And I am convinced that a company can only be successful in the long term if those involved resolutely orient themselves by the customers and interact with colleagues as equals. 

You are described as ‘the world’s best boss’ and have received many awards and accolades. What does this mean to you? 

I am thrilled by them. But the most important thing is the support of my colleagues – there are now 60,000 of us throughout Europe – and the customers. Every day, 1.9 million customers visit us and if they vote us the most popular drugstore, then that is the best accolade we could ever expect. 

What do you believe makes somebody a good manager? 

Being interested in people. A good manager must be interested in their fellow people, interact with them as equals and appreciate the work of each and every individual. They must manage with awareness, which means asking the right questions. And tasks must be designed in such a way that they are manageable, customisable and meaningful. 

Your work focusses on making small things great. Who or what has impressed you most during all your time at dm and why? 

I am impressed when a colleague advises a customer well and extensively just before closing – in other words, they make the needs of the customer their own without glancing at the clock. So, whenever they really warm to the concerns and interests of others. I have often experienced such wonderful moments during my many visits to dm stores.

You have demonstrated that social responsibility is reconcilable with commercial success. Why do you think that others find this so difficult to understand? 

It's a question of the conception of man that we are guided by. If somebody believes that people ‘have to be kept busy’ or that ‘they have to be kept on their toes’, then they could quite possibly have short-term success. But this is not the way we do things. We see people as developmental beings without any preconceptions, beings who want to shape their lives with us. Here, the saying by Theodor Storm which guides us, is fitting: "Some ask: What happens next? Others just ask: Is it right? And that is the distinction between leader and follower". 

What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?

You have to resolutely make the needs of people your own. Many start-ups fail because those involved think they have to fulfil themselves. This is a mistake. Whatever entrepreneurs create has to be coherent and it has to slightly exceed contemporary tastes, or – in a manner of speaking – fashions. Simply offering what is expected is not enough. You can positively surprise your customers with new things, with exceptional things. It just can't be too distant from them.

With your ‘Unternimm die Zukunft’ (Undertake the Future) initiative, you have been advocating a basic income for all people for many years now. Why is this topic so close to your heart?

Because the general conditions of our lives together have changed so dramatically. For this reason, we have to re-examine our welfare-state model. I am very much in favour of us finally taking Article 1 of the German Constitution – "Human Dignity is Inviolable" – seriously and ending poverty. We have the ideas for this – and the resources. Now we simply need to consciously enforce it. 

In your view, what would a world look like in which we no longer had to work, but would like to work? 

Then we would be a lot closer to achieving the ideals of the French Revolution: liberté, égalité, fraternité in the sense of brotherliness. If we secure the existence of all people, this might result in an awareness of life as prevalent in the age of the great explorers. Columbus set off with the certainty that he was heading in the right direction, driven by the desire to discover the new. We also need to feel this again today. 

What fulfils you the most personally, apart from work? 

Spending time with lovely people, particularly my family. It gives me great joy to watch my children and grandchildren develop. And to see that dm and the people associated with the company continue to develop so wonderfully. 

What are you goals for the next few years? What would you still like to achieve? 

I want to continue helping to finally end poverty. We have the ability to do this. We now just have to sharpen our sense of perception, delve deeper into things and acknowledge: the time has come for everybody to receive an income, whether they work or not.

Picture credit © Alex Stierbritz

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