Frank Appel doesn’t have a typical postal-service career. The chief executive of Deutsche Post DHL studied chemistry and later earned a doctorate in neurobiology. But instead of pursing a career in science, he joined the business management consultancy McKinsey, where he rose to the top of the German operation. In 2000, he took over as head of corporate development at Deutsche Post and joined the board two years later. Since 2008, he has been the group’s chief executive. His current contract runs through 2017.
Deutsche Post, which is listed on the German blue-chip DAX index, is 21 percent owned by the country’s development bank, KfW, and the rest by other shareholders.
Handelsblatt met with Mr. Appel at the company’s headquarters in Bonn to discuss the refugee crisis, which is a priority for the 54-year-old executive and his company.
Handelsblatt: How far away does the refugee crisis seem when you’re the CEO of a DAX-listed company?
Frank Appel: Even though I’ve been traveling abroad a lot in recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about this issue. For instance, refugees are now being housed in a former Deutsche Post branch in Sankt Augustin, a city not far from Bonn. Both people and companies need to be involved, but not without ignoring reason.
How should politicians react?
In my view, our German politicians are doing their job very well, even though there are no easy answers to the many new questions we face. Germany can’t accept all the people who want to come here, but we can’t send the new arrivals back or build fences, either. This is a huge dilemma.
You recently announced plans to offer Deutsche Post apprenticeships to up to 1,000 refugees. Can you provide us with any interim results?
We want to help but can’t do everything we want to do just yet, because new rules are needed first. Under the current conditions, asylum seekers are not even allowed to work in most German states while their cases are still under review. That’s why it would be beneficial to companies, including ours, if the federal government would speed up the processing of cases.
Where exactly can Deutsche Post help refugees?
There are many places and positions in company like ours. Most of all, we want to familiarize them with the German labor market.
Hans-Werner Sinn, the president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, wants to see more low-wage jobs created for asylum seekers. Is that a good idea?
I wouldn’t get too excited about that. Many refugees will initially find work in the service sector. We’re talking about a completely different question here: How exactly do we handle the prior qualifications of refugees and migrants? It would be strange if we were to readily recognize a Syrian’s medical degree but not that of an American. If we did that, we would only be creating new injustices. We need preparation and rules.
So “Refugees Welcome” buttons are not enough?
Precisely. Incidentally, the refugees also have to prove themselves, but I’m convinced this is what they want to do. They don’t expect handouts, just prospects.
The Institute for Employment Research expects that the wave of migrants and refugees will add 70,000 people to the unemployment roll. Could this lead to new social tension?
Of course, we have to take seriously the fears of people who believe they will get the short end of the stick as a result of the redistribution of wealth. But we have 500,000 unfilled jobs in the country currently not taken by people already in Germany. This creates all kinds of opportunities.
Where do you see other difficulties?
We need to normalize the current chaos, because Germany can’t absorb five or 10 million people. But I don’t see a solution on the horizon yet, simply because major conflicts continue to rage in many parts of the world.
In which countries where refugees are coming from is Deutsche Post DHL active?
In all of them.
Isn’t that politically sensitive at times?
No, because we don’t engage in politics. All we do is create jobs in these countries, thereby contributing to prosperity. If the people in Syria and North Korea have no work, the situation there will certainly not improve. We do our small part to help people help themselves.
In this country, Deutsche Post is spending €1 million ($1.12 million) on language and integration courses – money that belongs to shareholders. Could less compassionate investors sue you for this?
In light of the massive challenge, I simply can’t imagine that sort of a lawsuit, especially as this is a company decision. Besides, we’re not giving the money to outside organizations but to our own employees, who then work together with hard-hitting partners like Aktion Deutschland, Teach First, Stiftung Lesen and the SOS Children’s Villages to provide local assistance.
It isn’t just a matter of aid money. You also intend to make a total of 100,000 square meters (1.07 million square feet) of space available to refugees, and allow about 100 employees to provide coordinate aid programs. What does the company get out of it?
Because our own employees are involved in the aid projects, we generate a pleasant side effect that can hardly be expressed in monetary terms: They experience greater pride and identification with the company. Ultimately, they recognize that the Deutsche Post DHL Group is doing something instead of simply waiting and hoping that things will improve. People from many different nations already work in our company today. In other words, our employees have both experience and expertise that they are happy to contribute.
How strongly were your aid projects influenced by the federal government, which still holds 21 percent of shares, making it your biggest shareholder?
I’ve mentioned our plans to members of the supervisory board, but there hasn’t been a vote. Of course, we talk to the federal authorities over whether and where we can make employees and properties available. One of our advantages is that we still have public servants working for us who can perform official duties.
Your refugee initiative could also provoke resentment in Eastern European countries, where you’re in the process of expanding with your delivery networks.
I understand there are smaller countries that have not yet reached the point where Germany is today. If you had asked German citizens 25 years ago whether we should accept more refugees, 80 percent would probably have said: We don’t want that. It’s different today. We can be proud of that, but it doesn’t mean that we need to criticize others.
So you don’t want to play the moralist?
That’s not us. Because we are much better off than most other European countries, we should assume a leading role when it comes to refugee policy. I am very proud of the fact that we are currently perceived as a country that is open to the world.
What will the country look like in five years?
We need more fundamental solutions. When civil wars like the one in Syria erupt, it isn’t helpful when Germany adopts an immigration law or defines “safe countries of origin.” This will not deter people who flee their countries because they are scared to death. The world powers must find solutions together. For instance, we would already be a step further if all arms shipments were cancelled worldwide today. But that will likely take a little while longer.