Britain Has Much to Learn from German Firms

Daily Mail March 2013A new German word has entered the English language after ‘Rucksack’, ‘Kindergarten’ and the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’, namely Mittelstand.

It means different, yet related things – it describes a medium-sized company, but it also means doing business in a very German way.

Mittelstand companies are family owned, in 95 per cent of cases, and 85 per cent are owner-managed. They are oriented towards customers, employees and communities rather than just obsessed with shareholder value.

They are typically embedded into a region, where they take their responsibilities seriously. Often, they are strong exporters, world leaders in their chosen field of operation like Brita Water Filters, which has raked up around £7billion annual turnover in 2012 from very humble beginnings.

Although the official definition of a Mittelstand company is up to €50million turnover and 500 employees, many have outgrown these numbers by far – including my former company, the €2.2billion turnover fork-lift truck maker Jungheinrich AG. But culturally, they retain the Mittelstand outlook.

Staying with the narrower definition, Germany has 3.5 million Mittelstand companies, representing 52 per cent of total economic output, 61 per cent of employment and €200billion of exports from Germany. Of these, 1,300 rank as so-called ‘hidden champions’ – world market leaders in their niche, against 67 in the UK and 366 in the US.

These companies are regarded as the backbone of German manufacturing, giving it a resilience that has stood the economy in good stead in the economic turmoil.

That leads to an inevitable question. Why can’t the UK create a Mittelstand of its own? Britain has brilliant inventors and entrepreneurs, but is not so successful at evolving their ideas into the creation of sustainable businesses, which can grow in to the world-leaders of tomorrow. The likes of Sir James Dyson and the Bamford family of JCB fame are the exception, not the rule.

The talent is there, but it seems to be driven too early into the wrong direction. 
Entrepreneurs cash in, either through a trade sale, to private equity, or by floating on the stock market. It may bring personal rewards, but getting into the short-term profit race can be detrimental to developing new products and markets.

I believe that the key difference between our two countries lies largely in the financing of these companies, and the role of banks.

Typically, Mittelstand firms finance themselves from retained profits, with bank debt and equity funding playing a smaller role. Germany has around 3,000 independent banks with excellent regional coverage, while the UK has not even a dozen business banks. Although they have many branches, they no longer have bank managers who can make local lending decisions based on a thorough knowledge of customers.

The manager of a small or medium-sized regional Sparkasse, Volksbank or Raiffeisenbank in Bavaria or Lower Saxony knows the businesses in his area and probably plays tennis or golf with the owners. Their kids attend the same school. During their last few years at school children make frequent trips to companies in the area and the companies make presentations to get the best candidates for apprenticeships.

Universities and colleges also work closely with the companies in their region.

Here, we have an opportunity right under our nose. Around 1,000 branches of Lloyds and RBS are up for sale. Rather than selling them to a City conglomerate which no doubt would offer a similar centralised structure, they should be offered in small clusters to regional institutions or individuals with the right background.

In co-operation with the Local Enterprise Partnerships they could be part of the ‘business bank’ structure for small and medium firms, which the Government is trying to get off the ground. Lord Heseltine has pointed the way in this direction.

The UK could make a start in following this model and building a unique and successful Brit-elstand right now.

This article was published in the Daily Mail, 24 March 2013

Hit the Loan Sharks

Published 23 Jan 2012, Daily Mail, Letters to the Editor

Sir

James Coney in the Money Mail 18th January 2012 (“Banks can easily fix this flawed system”) highlights rightly the fact that the system is geared towards “the vulnerable paying for the better off”.

However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Banks, Credit Card and Store Card operators, Mail Order companies and worst of all loan sharks and those known by a camouflaged name, the so-called Pay-Day loan providers all work on a similar principle. They can afford to lend money out indiscriminately at exorbitant rates, as these include provisions for defaulting customers: The higher the risk, the higher the interest rate. They are exploiting the socially weak and uneducated by luring them often  into spending money they do not have and  in the most expensive way. Frequently they are driven  deeper into debt and in the end it is invariably the state that has to pick up the pieces with social welfare support. It is a disgrace of the first order and one of the reasons for British private household debt to stand at 1.5 trillion.

The Mail has often been critical of European ways – I wished it could break with this tradition and start a campaign to outlawing this practice of exploiting the weakest group in society. Countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland have tough usury laws to protect this most vulnerable group. There any contract or deal that carries interest rates above 18-20% pa are nil and void and unenforceable in court. Repeated offenders can be imprisoned. It is noticeable that the above mentioned countries are also those doing reasonably well in the present economic climate.

As this proposal would put half of Britain’s financial services operators behind bars, a law like this would have to be introduced over time and with decreasing rates starting maybe with 30%, which put at least an immediate end to the horrible loan sharks.

Bob Bischof

Bob Bischof Letter printed in the Daily Mail January 2012
The letter as printed in the Daily Mail, 23 January 2012

Predicting Boom and Bust

In 2004 Bob Bischof wrote for the Observer that credit levels needed to be kept in check in Britain’s manufacturing sector

In 2004 Bob Bischof wrote for the Observer that credit levels needed to be kept in check in Britain’s manufacturing sector. Read the full article here