Mittelstand

The New Head Gamemaker

84379164 Ravensburger Felix Kästle dpa
Ready to play. Source: DPA

The new head of Ravensburger is demonstrating how the toymaker’s latest showpiece, the GraviTrax, works. A little marble follows the track that includes ladders, slides and even a Gauss cannon, named after the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, that can boost the ball on its track. The set allows people to build a miniature Rube Goldberg machine, and Clemens Maier is using it to lay out his plans for the company founded by his great-grandfather.

The marketing for the GraviTrax will go beyond the German-speaking market. With it, Mr. Maier hopes to break into international markets dominated by Hasbro and Lego. Customers can buy a starter kit for a little less than €50 – or build a digital marble run on the app and watch it play out there. “We have to simultaneously be in the haptic and digital world,” Mr. Maier said at his first press conference as chief executive.

According to Mr. Maier’s research, 70 percent of two to 12-year-olds are immersed in digital play for at least 30 minutes a day. “Ravensburger has to be present there, too,” he said. “Our responsibility is to promote development in a playful manner, regardless if it’s in the digital or physical world.” To learn through play is the German way, with GraviTrax, it’s all about gravitation. “Perhaps the children could even learn who Gauss was,” said Mr. Maier, letting his dry sense of humor, adopted after many years in London, come out to play.

To turn his vision for the family business a reality, Mr. Maier has brought in new managers from the outside and brought in a generation change. For the last 15 years, outsider Karsten Schmidt has headed the firm, until Mr. Maier came in in April.

But Mr. Maier chose to make the path to his destiny more of a winding road, though it was always his intention to take over the company founded by his great-grandfather, Otto Maier, named after his hometown of Ravensburg. The younger Mr. Maier wanted to get out, see the world first, spending a gap year in Zurich, then studying economics and literature in London. “I’m grateful that my parents gave me the freedom to choose my own academic course and never put any pressure on me otherwise,” the 45-year-old executive said. He stayed in London for a decade, working at the children’s channel, Nickelodeon. He then headed across the pond to New York for a stint at a venture capital firm before making a stop at Bertelsmann and then one last position outside of Ravensburger, as the assistant to the management board at Random House.

“My son tells me to my face when we’re not as cool as the competition.”

Clemens Maier, Chief Executive of Ravensburger

When the prodigal son returned in 2005, he joined the family firm, but stayed away from the top position for some time, spending time in charge of the Spanish subsidiary and then in the games department. “I got to know the company really well,” he said. Mr. Maier entered management in 2011, heading the takeover of American toy developer Wonder Forge, which made it possible to develop games targeted at the US market.

In 2014, Ravensburger started making bigger moves, taking over the Swedish wooden-toy producer Brio. The new subsidiary saw an almost 20 percent increase in sales to earn €55 million, which made 11 percent of the company’s revenues.

Abroad, the Ravensburger Group is known for its puzzles, but it produces games, books for the German market and has its own theme park. The company is on solid financial footing as Mr. Maier ascends to the helm with more than 60 percent proprietary capital. Sales currently amount to €473 million after 6.6 percent growth – higher than the industry average. After-taxes profit were a solid €32 million with a return of 6.8 percent.

The firm belongs entirely to the Maier family. The last relative to have led the company was Mr. Maier’s aunt, Dorothee Hess-Maier. Altogether, there are only eight adult descendants of Otto Maier.

Family is important to the new boss. He emphasizes that he is happily married, living an idyllic life on the shores of Lake Constance. In Ravensburg, he is investing in modernizing the production process, tasking a 10-person team in Munich with the goal of ensuring Ravensburger isn’t too far behind in the game. “I consider it more important that Ravensburger keep in step with the times,” Mr. Maier said. That doesn’t mean being ahead of the times – but staying in tune with parents and children, of which he has three.

Those three, Mr. Maier states, are his toughest product testers. He is happy that they are finally old enough to test the strategy games, and they are not shy to share their opinions. “My son tells me to my face when we’re not as cool as the competition,” he says.

But Mr. Maier wants to be cool outside of his home and even his home country. He’s counting on his years abroad to help him keep a keen eye on international development with games like the GraviTrax or Ravensburger’s 3D puzzles. Publishing internationally, however, is not quite yet on his agenda as German picture books follow a different storytelling and illustration aesthetic from those that do well abroad.

The first game Otto Maier produced in 1883 was inspired by Jules Verne and was called “Journey Around the World”. The past could also be a lesson for Mr. Maier’s strategy.

 

Martin-Werner Buchenau reports from Stuttgart as Handelsblatt’s Baden-Württemberg correspondent. To contact the author: buchenau@handelsblatt.com.

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