WONDER FIRM

Higher, Faster, Further

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Legging it courtesy of Ottobock.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Ottobock is the world market leader in prosthetics and a leading maker of wheelchairs.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Ottobock was founded in Berlin after World War I to produce artificial limbs for injured soldiers.
    • The company has 8,000 employees working at more than 50 production sites.
    • It has annual revenues of €1 billion ($1.22 billion).
  • Audio

    Audio

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It is the moment every athlete dreams of – wearing a gold medal as their national anthem plays and the whole world watches.

And it came true for the Chinese wheelchair relay team when they won first place at the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing.

The athletes were presented with their medals by Hans Georg Näder, the boss of Ottobock, a company without whom they may not have won any medals at all.

It would be hard to imagine the games without Ottobock. The mid-size firm, based in Duderstadt in central Germany, is a global leader in prosthetics and high-tech wheelchairs.

In 1988, it sent four technicians to the Seoul games, but today, the company is an established institution at the Paralympics, which could just as well be called the Ottobock Games. In Beijing, 80 technicians from 20 countries made 2,062 repairs in 22 days for athletes from 123 nations.

From the beginning, Ottobock has been a wonder company: helping the injured and lame to walk when it seemed impossible.

The company was founded after World War I to provide thousands of maimed soldiers with new limbs. It was impossible to carve out so many wooden legs and arms individually, as was customary at the time. So in March 1919, young Otto Bock automated the process and began making individual prosthetic limbs in series for the first time.

From the beginning, Ottobock has been a wonder company: helping the injured and lame to walk.

Today Ottobock is the world leader in prosthetics and a leading manufacturer of orthotics and wheelchairs. It has 8,000 employees, more than 50 production sites and annual revenues of €1 billion ($1.22 billion). The firm’s North American headquarters are in Minneapolis, but it announced plans this year to move operations to Austin, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Louisville, Kentucky.

Since 1990, the firm has been headed by Mr. Näder, the founder’s grandson, who is referred to respectfully only as HGN. “We have become an extremely professional company, with the culture of a family firm,” said Mr. Näder.

Video: The fast and furious world of wheelchair basketball, Ottobock-style.

Today, wooden legs have given way to models that are closer and closer to the original limb. Ottobock now produces 50,000 individual parts to assist mobility, and many are high-tech marvels.

The most successful is the C-Leg, the first completely computer-operated prosthetic leg system. It allows users a natural walking motion and provides amputees a great sense of security.

Artificial arms can be attached to nerve endings of lost limbs, making it possible for chest muscles to move them. Fingernails have white flecks of calcium; there can even be imitation moles on the artificial skin.

For the future, Google stands at the top of Mr. Näder’s to-do list. He wants to talk with the U.S. tech giant about human mobility and find areas where the companies can work together.

Mr. Näder never knew his grandfather, whose signature is still found on all company products. But his father Max passed down values that still guide the company. “His humanistic attitude, his humility toward Creation and his love of people serve as models today,” Mr. Näder said.

Now he wants to convey those principles to a fourth generation, to his daughters aged 24 and 17. “I try to take the two young ladies as much as possible throughout the world, so that they develop empathy for employees and awareness of markets.”

“We use our history as a mainspring for the future.”

Hans Georg Näder, CEO, Ottobock

He said he doesn’t want to force them into the firm, but lead them to it gently. “We use our history as a mainspring for the future,” said Mr. Näder.

It is one reason why Mr. Näder is attracted to Berlin, where his grandfather founded the company nearly 100 years ago. In 2009, he opened the Science Center for Medical Technology in the capital, in addition to a mix of apartments, shops and a wheelchair factory on the site of the former Bötzow Brewery.

Ottobock’s Berlin presence is meant to attract young, creative people that might not want to live in quiet, picturesque Duderstadt.

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Hans Georg Näder carries the Olympic flame in the build up to London 2012. Source: Ottobock

 

“Generation Y can’t be lured with scenic nature and stable social surroundings,” Mr. Näder said. “We get highly qualified, skilled laborers to come to Duderstadt. But the digital future is being played out in Berlin.”

Mr. Näder is only in Duderstadt for about 30 days a year, but said he would never abandon it as a production site. “It is extremely important for a company to have a dependable home harbor,” he said.

Though he is away a lot, Mr. Näder is still heavily involved in Duderstadt. He built a museum for his art collection there, and purchased the old train station and transformed it into offices for pediatricians. The Tabaluga House in the historic town center serves as a sort of youth hostel for children with disabilities.

But in the future, Mr. Näder favors Berlin. Soon the capital city could play an even larger role — as headquarters of a public company, Ottobock SE. In two or three years, Ottobock hopes for even greater achievements — as a marvel of the stock market.

 

The author is a Handelsblatt editor in Düsseldorf. To contact the author: panster@handelsblatt.com

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