Antje von Dewitz likes to grab things by the horns. That is how the marketing expert approached the job when she took over management of the German outdoor goods brand Vaude from her father. Albrecht von Dewitz now watches over his 44-year-old daughter’s activities as the sole company supervisor.
He still holds 30 percent of shares; Ms. von Dewitz took over 46 percent. The other 24 per cent is held by her two sisters, who don’t work for the company. The family constitutes the shareholders’ committee.
Ever since Ms. von Dewitz took over, things have changed more than ever before at the 500-employee company headquartered in Obereisenbach, in the far southwest of Germany. And now, her entrepreneurial success has ushered her into the Handelsblatt Hall of Fame of Family Enterprises. No member was younger at the time of admission. So what exactly has she accomplished in record time?
In 2010, Ms. von Dewitz decided that in the medium term, Vaude would no longer use any harmful substances in the production of its tents, knapsacks and outdoor clothing. “Our products are used in nature. We consider that to be an obligation,” she said at the time.
“I’ve always fought for a better world.”
Initially belittled by the industry, she achieved amazing things. And she was more determined than most of her rivals. The head of Vaude speaks rapidly and with full concentration. She wants to bring her message to customers in the shortest time possible. “95 percent of the 2017 summer collection will be free of environmentally damaging fluorocarbons, or PFCs,” she announces. “And by 2020, we’ll manage to be completely PFC-free.”
Ms. von Dewitz has boldly tackled a touchy issue. There are all sorts of chemicals in functional textiles. Up to now, the substances have been used to make textiles dirt- and water-resistant. According to Greenpeace, PFCs can potentially harm people in areas where PFC-textiles are produced, such as China and Indonesia, because they can enter the environment via wastewater.
The charity claims that sales personnel in sporting-goods stores are also endangered by the substance as it is released into the air. And what outdoor enthusiast likes to wear poisonous textiles? Ms. von Dewitz recognized and exploited the anti-PFC trend, a move that didn’t please everyone in the industry. “If I wanted to make myself friends, I couldn’t allow myself to do that,” she acknowledges.
Vaude has endless studies and material tests to back up its stance. Sometimes the boss herself stands in a new rain-jacket beneath an ice-cold shower to test the functionality of its alternative eco-material. And she tries out the ultra-light knapsacks while hiking with her family.
The substantial investments in material development are paying off. Ms. von Dewitz has received award after award for her commitment. In May 2016, Vaude received the Green-Tec-Award in Munich for the sustainable renovation of its headquarters. In March, the second-hand program on eBay was honored by the Council for Sustainable Development. And so on.
Vaude is the first company to have been certified for sustainable and fair production conditions. Access to producers couldn’t be more direct with regard to knapsacks. Her father built up a knapsack production plant in Vietnam that belongs to him personally. This makes the senior von Dewitz one of the firm’s key suppliers.
The theme of sustainability is high on Ms. von Dewitz’s agenda – rightly so, according to industry experts. “She is the only one who is so unswerving,” says Philipp Prechtl, a sports expert at the consulting firm Dr. Wieselhuber & Partner. He is firmly convinced that she has an advantage over her competitors: “She manages to differentiate herself quite well.” He considers many of her rivals to lack a clear position.
Sporting-goods retailers are also supportive. She is “an accomplished business woman,” says Kim Roether, head of the German arm of sporting-goods retail chain Intersport. He believes her idea makes sense.
But Intersport management-board member Jochen Schnell is of the opinion that environmental awareness and high social standards won’t necessarily set the cash registers of store owners ringing: “Very few customers are willing to pay extra for sustainable products.”
Or are they? According to Ms. von Dewitz, Vaude grew more than 9 percent last year. That’s an astounding success under difficult circumstances. In 2015, Europeans spent around €11 billion ($11.7 billion) on rain-jackets, hiking boots and knapsacks. This corresponds to a meager yearly increase of around 2 percent, according to the industry association European Outdoor Group. “The market is okay, but in the past we were accustomed to other rates of growth,” says EOG president John Jansen.
Since the goods are for the most part interchangeable, there is enormous competition between countless suppliers. Beyond a few global brands such as The North Face and Columbia, there are hundreds of regional and local competitors. The biggest German brands are Jack Wolfskin, Schöffel and Vaude. The most important foreign providers in German sporting-goods stores are CMP, Mammut, Icepeak and Salewa. At the same time, store and cheap brands are piling their way into the market.
Ms. von Dewitz doesn’t fear contact with her gigantic distribution partners such as Amazon and Zalando: “We adapt to the reality of our customers, many of whom make purchases online.” And she boldly analyzes that physical retail stores have underestimated this business and basically left it to the Internet giants.
The competition is tough. So Ms. von Dewitz doesn’t reveal any figures, not even yearly sales. “We have a good 40 percent proprietary capital and are in the black,” is as much as she will say. The reason? “We don’t want our customers to know what share they have in our sales. Otherwise we could be put under pressure.” The heyday of the outdoor store is past.
With regard to soft data such as the percentage of women in the firm, the mother of four is more open: “60 percent overall, 40 percent in management.” Whether it be the company kindergarten, flexible working-time models or support by renting the local open-air swimming pool, Vaude is also a pioneer in family friendliness.
Ms. von Dewitz is sensitive to changes in society. This is evident in her most recent project iRentit. She wants to establish a lending system for knapsacks, bicycle bags and tents. “That’s our answer to the shared economy. We are in touch with the times,” she says. And via the repair platform iFixit, Vaude makes repair instructions available to customers online, where the entrepreneur explains how her products can be restored to use by the right tool and the appropriate replacement part. She sees this as a further contribution to sustainability and accepts that as a consequence, her company might sell fewer new products.
Vaude’s chief executive gives sustainability top priority. “What is even more important is that this goal stands on an equal footing with profitability throughout the company. For me, that is a part of entrepreneurship,” she says.
Ms. von Dewitz believes that if this view was more widespread, the world would be doing better. She considers the climate catastrophe, exploitation of nature and increasing gap between rich and poor to be the chief causes of major problems including the migrations of refugees. She is fearful of recent political developments. But giving up isn’t an option: “I’ve always fought for a better world.”
She believes things are going in the wrong direction in the economy. “Companies are too one-sidedly oriented toward profit and should be taxed according to how much they do for the common good,” she says. She puts her money where her mouth is: At the European Union in Brussels, she proposed a new model for inheritance taxes. She doesn’t believe that she alone can change the world. But she goes her own way with conviction.
The fact is that she comes from a family that always moved beyond the beaten path. In the early 1970s, her father, from northern Lower Saxony, was vacationing with his wife in Upper Swabia in the southwest, and liked the region. The couple moved to Lake Constance on the border with Switzerland, where in 1974 he founded Vaude. The name comes from the initials of the family surname, pronounced “Vau” and “De” in German.
Ms. von Dewitz grew up in this idyllic landscape. Closeness to nature marked her character. She hopes to soon fulfill a dream and buy a farm. If that happens, there won’t be a summer vacation outdoors next summer. “We’ll have to renovate,” she says.
Martin-Werner Buchenau reports from Stuttgart as Handelsblatt’s Baden-Württemberg correspondent. Joachim Hofer covers the sports, leisure and IT sectors for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org