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Siblings and CEOs: "Our thought patterns are similar"


Kniggendorf bosses Cathrin Kalthoff and Frederik Otto in conversation, part 1

The siblings Cathrin Kalthoff and Frederik Otto steer Kniggendorf as managing directors. She is in charge of metal processing, he of security systems - together they ensure the continued existence and innovative strength of the family-owned company Kniggendorf GmbH. In the first part of a personal interview, the two talk about their first steps in production, their own careers, and the challenges of company succession.

Question: What is your first memory of Kniggendorf?

Cathrin: We lived across the street from the company when we were kids; that's when it started. I was five or six then. Our father just had to cross the yard, and then he was at work. And if you were looking for him, he was right across the street.

Frederik: That's right, from my window you could look right at the company.

Question: Did you already go over there from time to time as children?

Frederik: Between our home and the company there was a kind of break house. That's where we had lunch, and that's where we had hot meals. And sometimes we ate there.

Cathrin: That's right, they were frozen, and you had to warm up the aluminum trays in the oven. They were totally delicious! But our mother didn't think they were so great that we could eat that every day. (Both laugh)

Question: That means that the staff also knew both of you?

Cathrin: Yes. Some of the staff also address us by our first names since that time. Of course, there are fewer of them, but this year there is another employee who has been with us for 40 years. For him I have always been Cathrin and there are quite a few of them.

Question: What did you want to be when you were children?

Cathrin: When I was little, I wanted to be a stewardess. A flight attendant. We didn't fly as kids, so that was appealing, and there was a great book, "Renate Becomes a Flight Stewardess" I read that five times - and I wanted to be a stewardess, too. But that didn't last long.

Frederik: I liked dressing up as a businessman when I was a kid. (laughs) Our father is a businessman, our grandfather was a businessman - and so it was clear to me relatively early on that that was where the path should lead.

First own money: Holiday jobs at Kniggendorf

Question: And when did you turn to the company, Cathrin?

Cathrin: I got my first deep insight into our company when I earned money on the side at the age of 12 or 13. That's when I really wanted a few things. I spent my first money on a Pop-Swatch. 65 marks! (laughs) I didn't get it, I had to earn it myself. And that's what I did here. And that continued, and that's how I got to know the company much better.

Question: What was the first job you did to earn money for Pop-Swatch?

Cathrin: We manufacture cartridges. And there was a previous model where handles had to be screwed in. And we used to make piggy bank locks - and I operated a spot-welding machine for that. And the "Traumschiff", the MS Berlin, was equipped with our safes back then. And these safes had to be finished in the shortest possible time in order to deliver them to the shipyard. And I helped with that. That kind of thing.

Frederik: It was similar for me. We had six weeks of summer vacation. We were always on vacation with our parents for three weeks. And the other three weeks we always worked here in the company to earn our vacation money, so to speak, and to fulfill special wishes that went beyond our pocket money. At that time, I quickly felt drawn to production, and I also did various internships or was involved in toolmaking here. Then I realized, yes, that's quite nice and I also got to know interesting things, but then I saw myself more in the office than in manufacturing. And I realized that I would like to go in the direction of sales.

Question: So, with you two, manufacturing as an entry point...

Cathrin: Absolutely! There are still products that I have worked on myself; no one can fool me about that to this day. The assembly of the cassettes - I know that to this day, all of the handles are there. But the highlight for me was when I was allowed to sort invoices alphabetically and file them in a folder. I found that even more interesting. (laughs)

Education, work experience, stays abroad

Question: What happened at the end of school?

Cathrin: After finishing secondary school, I went to a commercial high school, because it was already clear to me that I wanted to study something commercial, such as business administration. So, I took my Abitur and then I studied business administration at the FHDW in Hanover. And during this time, I did various internships. I worked for manufacturing companies, for Deutsche Messe in the USA, for a logistics company in Canada, and for a tax consultant. It took three years to complete my studies, and then I finished and started working here directly at the beginning of 2003.

Question: Did the internships specifically prepare you for your future job?

Cathrin: Well, I would say that it simply gave me a lot of life experience. Just getting to know something different. I definitely took something away from each internship. Whether it prepared me for what I'm doing here today, I can't really say. But in any case, it gave me life experience that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Question: Why USA and Canada?

Cathrin: I wanted to improve my English and Deutsche Messe had a subsidiary in Princeton in New Jersey, and they regularly took on interns. I did that - and it was great. Those were other times, too. The CEBIT had to be prepared in the USA, and the CEBIT was still a big thing then. Trade shows were still a real highlight back then. In any case, I liked it so much in the U.S. that I said I would like to go abroad again. And I went to Canada, to Montreal, to improve my French. There I worked for a logistics specialist, Fritz Starber. However, I quickly realized that you can't speak French there if you know English well. But it was also nice. (laughs)

Question: Frederik, what was it like for you?

Frederik: After school, I did an apprenticeship as an office administrator at Kniggendorf. And then I did various internships with a focus on sales. I was at Würth and at Reyher Verbindungstechnik, I was also in Switzerland for a month. And there I went out with the sales staff and gained experience there. And then I started at Kniggendorf in sales. In the same year, Security GmbH was founded and soon had more and more products. I then joined Security completely and, together with an additional employee, built up the sales department. And ultimately the whole company, together with our father and with Cathrin.

Who does what at Kniggendorf

Question: What were your first tasks at Kniggendorf?

Cathrin: That's not so easy to answer. When I am asked, in which areas have you worked everywhere, I think in some companies there are 20 employees for that, and everyone is in a different department. It's always quite comprehensive and you have different topics. I took over the personnel matters quite quickly and the purchasing. Many things are also part of my studies, including accounting, and that always makes a difference in practice, but nevertheless I already had a certain basic idea. In short, there were different tasks right from the start.

Question: Did you start right away as a junior manager?

Cathrin: I didn't start as a managing director. I only became managing director alongside my father in 2005. First, I was employed for three years.

Question: Frederik, wasn't that also the year you started?

Frederik: Yes, I was initially employed by Kniggendorf GmbH, then I switched to Security, was there first as a normal sales employee, then I was given power of attorney and became Managing Director in 2010.

The challenge of company succession

Question: How can you imagine it: The father runs the business and then the children come along. Did he give you tips and tricks? Did you sit down together in the evenings? How do you ensure that the business will continue to run well without the senior at some point?

Frederik: We worked very openly with each other right from the start and also talked to each other. We almost never decided anything on our own, but always discussed things at a kind of round table. And we still do that today. We still exchange information regularly so that the level of knowledge is always the same. Of course, sometimes one or the other sees things differently or wants to take a different path, but that's the way it was and still is.

Cathrin: Our father has already handed over the business to us piecemeal. I used to laugh at that a bit: One of my majors was "medium-sized business" and there was a block on "business succession". It was said that a good business succession takes at least ten years! That seemed exaggerated to me. But I think that if I had had to do all that on my own in my first few years as managing director, I would have said that I was missing something. That's different today, of course. There are also company handovers where the older generation is out overnight. I imagine that would be much more difficult. In our case, it was more of a gradual transition, and at some point, the thought patterns are similar. There are so many decisions now that are the same. Our father makes them the same way we do. With exceptions, of course.

Frederik: I think so, too. And it's the same with Cathrin and me. There are points that don't need to be discussed at all, because we quickly agree on them and then they are implemented.

Cathrin: Such a succession is also a difficult process. For the senior to have to let go, that's quite a difficult task. And this process also takes time, you can't really define it in days and weeks. And on top of that, Frederik and I also have a certain responsibility to our father as children. No one wants to tell their parents, "You're going to stay home, and they'll just sit in front of the TV all day. Nobody wants that! They must also have a life afterwards, a task.

Valuable experience

Question: Is your father still with the company?

Frederik: Yes, our father is still with the company.

Cathrin: From Tuesdays on, he is usually there for three to four hours. But then he always has something else to do. And he still knows a lot about the business processes, maybe not everything. But he's still there.

Frederik: He's also still part of the round table that I mentioned earlier. And he's also a good advisor. There are always situations where the experience is very valuable. When our father says, why don't you try this or that - and then you do that and realize: yes, that works quite well. So, it's very positive that we have our father in the background and we can ask him "how would you have done it?" or "what would you recommend?" - I think that's very nice.

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