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A View from the Top: Interview with Fritz-Christoph Horstmann

In early November 2012 Codespring benefited again from the professional guidance of Mr. Fritz – Christoph Horstmann, an entrepreneur and voluntary senior consultant, under the framework of collaboration with the Senior Experten Service (SES), a non-profit organization of the German industry for international cooperation. We were delighted to hear about the experiences of a seasoned leader and would like to share with you some key thoughts and lessons of a remarkable player within the international ITC community.

Fritz-Christoph Horstmann is a long term entrepreneur and shareholder in various companies, a voluntary senior consultant at SES, and former member of the board of the Semiconductor Division of Siemens AG. With consistent track record of leading innovative companies and coordinating sales, marketing, and M&A activities, he has gained inspiring business experience occupying general and interim management, executive and nonexecutive director and consultancy positions at German and European companies active in the high-tech, media, and services industries.

We would like to address once again special thanks for Mr. Horstmann for his time, professional advice, and insightful comments. In today’s Silicon Valley driven technology world it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to learn personally from long-time professionals.

1. As an advisory board member, what is the best thing about being an adviser?

I have served as a nonexecutive director on various company boards for more than thirty years now. Quite frankly, in some cases the aim was just to safeguard my own investments. However, it has always proved rewarding working with bright executive boards on solving a company’s most pressing issues. As a nonexecutive you are free to advise, teach, and learn (!) without the burden of running the daily business, but you are deeply concerned with the success of the company anyway.

2. Why volunteering? Why SES?

When you ask why doing professional work voluntarily and why with SES, the one was prerequisite for the other. After more than thirty successful years in the ICT and Media industry I believe I owe society some return. To spend, let us say, a quarter or third of each year on a voluntary task in an area I am best at, i.e. an area I worked professionally in for so long a time, offers the best return for all involved. The Senior Expert Services ensures a very professional environment for both the expert (me) due to its organization, experience, and worldwide presence, as well as to the client for the extensive list of experts (currently more than 10.000) in various business areas it has access to. Other benefits for myself out of this setup are the satisfaction that comes with “helping to help yourself” in striving economies, working with bright young people, and last, not least, the pressure on myself to keep me completely up-to-date in my areas of expertise.

3. How would you describe your experience with Codespring?

I started working with Codespring mid-2009. Codespring requested expert advisory support specifically in the area of Sales and Marketing, my field of experience, and decided to “try me out” after receiving my CV. Up to the financial crisis of 2008, Sales and Marketing was of no concern to Codespring, as they were busy to serve the projects that got to their desk anyway. So it was very clever of them to ask for external advice as soon as that picture changed and the management team realized its potential weaknesses.

Right from the start, our collaboration was very open, friendly, targeted, professional, and, over time, covered the complete management setup of Codespring. From a very early first analysis of Codespring and its business, an on-going relationship to Codespring and its management developed over the last three and a half years, including two visits of more than five weeks total to Cluj-Napoca, regular meetings at the CeBIT trade fair in Hannover the last three times, and ongoing contacts using e-mail, Skype, telephone… In hindsight, looking specifically at Codespring´s marketing activities, they turned a weakness into a competitive advantage in less than two years.

4. What strikes you most about a mid-sized software development company from Cluj-Napoca, Romania?

Software development is a people dependent high tech business. Access to well trained and highly motivated people is of the essence, keeping them (happy) is the next crucial point.
Cluj-Napoca in Transylvania, with 400.000 + inhabitants plus 100.000 students, all at least bilingual, represents a perfect base for the recruitment of the people to run such a business. Cluj-Napoca is in all aspects closer to Berlin, Paris, London … than Bucharest.
Codespring is closely linked into the local academic society, last not least offering internships, Bachelor and Master Thesis workplaces to elite students. On the other hand Codespring is a very attractive employer due to its 14 years of business success in the market place, having access to international projects of highest complexity.

5. In your opinion what is the attitude of German IT&C executives towards the new generation working models?

In talking executives of German multinational companies, they are either driving the virtualization of project teams, including customers, suppliers, subcontractors, consultants, freelancers- or they are (as a company as well as personally) out of business anyway. From the way their own companies operate, they are supposed to be familiar with such set-ups for quite some time (The “not invented here syndrome” may still be a stumbling block- but not for long.).

In German middle-sized firms, however, you may still meet some resistance. Here the tendency towards near shoring as opposed to (far) off shoring may help a geographic and cultural location like Cluj-Napoca over, say, India – but not necessarily so. You should always take into consideration the stunning success of German mid-size companies in the world market, not possible with any kind of stubbornness. Another caveat in this context: Traditionally these companies rather direct their activities towards the geographies they are serving than towards those that are not their target markets. Germany as such represents quite a substantial home market, possibly leaving executives even in ICT markets a little less externally oriented than those in smaller, let us say e.g. Scandinavian, countries. However, if you convince the German executive, you may experience a stable, profitable, long term relationship – well worth the effort.

6. As a consultant what would be your advice for a company when selecting a software development outsourcing partner?

Look for competency, competency, and competency of the people of the prospective partner. Besides technological competency (self-evident) this clearly includes competency in the working language my people prefer, and it includes competency in (cross cultural) team building. The organization I want to work with has to show proof of a minimum of stability (years in business, turnover of key personal…). Then have a look at distances (geographical, cultural, communicational…): the larger the distance, the lower the bidding price. Finally, given all of the above, I will ask my stomach…

7. Over your career, when facing difficult times, what was your biggest challenge?

In turn around management situations, of which I experienced some, the biggest challenge for me was not the thread of my personal bankruptcy, which impended also twice, but the pressure to sacrifice the wellbeing of some (hundreds of) employees for the sake of the whole.

8. As a seasoned leader, what is your guiding principle?

That changed significantly over time, basically from “I am a democrat as long as everybody does what I say” to “nobody is perfect, but a team can be”. More seriously, all the years I held on to a story I got from one of my early bosses. Although it was not his, I never found out who I am quoting: “In the south I met an old man with a rowboat. He ferried passengers across a mile wide river. When I asked him: ”How often a day do you do this?” he answered: “As often as I can.” This is all you have to know; all there is to know about economy, prosperity, and self-respect.” Robert Frost’s short form of it: “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”

9. At this moment, what is your personal mission, what are your intentions in the near future and what message would you convey to your senior peers?

At the heart of my personal mission remain two tasks: Keeping on living by keeping on learning. So I am committed to continuing my SES assignments as long as I am asked to do so, and continuing with and adding some more non-executive director’s seats to my current ones when asked. All the people I can change are: just myself. So let me refrain from giving advice to my peers.