The digitalisation of many B2B companies has been taking place at a snail’s pace for a long time now. And slowly, many of those responsible are recognising the necessity to actively drive forward their digital transformation. Peter F. Schmid, CEO of Visable GmbH, knows how this process can be a success in the B2B business. Under his leadership, the traditional publishing house Wer liefert was?, with wlw (formerly “Wer liefert was”) and europages has become the provider of Europe’s leading B2B online platforms.
This wide-reaching change process is described by Schmid in his new book Mission Wandel: Von einem Old-School-Unternehmen zu einer Tech-Company – die Geschichte einer Transformation (Mission change: From an old-school company to a tech company – the history of a transformation). In it, he talks about successes, growing pains and the challenges that arise when a start-up mentality meets up with a reserved Hanseatic way of doing things.
Mr Schmid, in your book you describe the company culture prevalent when you starting your position as CEO of “Wer liefert was?” in 2012. Formally addressing each other as Mr and Ms, obligatory business suites, clear hierarchies. Why does such a structure and system no longer fit into a modern tech company, and how is Visable structured and organised today?
When I arrived, an enormous distance could be seen between the individual hierarchy levels. The boss’ decisions were agreed with at a nod, the employees only spoke when spoken to. I believe that progress arises from new impulses, and these can and should come from every possible direction – but above all from those who handle the product intensively every day, completely regardless of where they are positioned in some sort of organigram or company hierarchy. I took away the Mr and Ms to shorten the distance in daily dialogue and to close the obvious gap between management and employees. The goal is to enable a free exchange of ideas and proposals on a level playing field, to deliver the foundation for new projects and future developments.
Not everyone was happy with this change process; the employee turnover was high. Did you ever doubt at the time if the path you were taking was the right one?
It naturally wasn’t easy to lose employees, some of which had been with the company for many years. However, it didn’t surprise me. The changes needed to bring the company into the 21st century were radical – as a result, I was prepared for some not being able to warm up to the change in direction. But only in this way could and can the transformation take place. At the time, we tried to bring together the existing know-how with external expertise by taking on additional employees. The new colleagues, however, often had a hard time at first and were seen rather as a threat.
My learning from the time: it takes a critical mass of employees, whether new or old, who are willing to change to get change rolling. We achieved this at the time with an idea: there were also many long-established colleagues who were sceptical at first but then became fully and completely involved in the process and continue to be on board today. And I’m very thankful for this.
A decisive aspect of the successful transformation was the internationalisation of the company. Why were the borders of the DACH region too limiting for you, and which barriers did you have to overcome along the way?
I started with the vision to build up a European B2B champion. All small and medium-sized B2B enterprises in Europe should be present on our platforms – making europages and wlw the most important sources for SMEs to gain new customers. The path to this destination is long and scattered with numerous challenges. This began with very banal things. Documents, presentations and the company meeting were switched to English. An apparently simple step, however due to a lack of knowledge about the language, information got lost in translation and misunderstandings occurred. Today, we have nearly overcome this. Our workforce is increasingly more international, speaks over 20 languages. On top of this, we successfully organise ourselves between the locations in Paris, Hamburg, Berlin and Münster. And our product, our two B2B platforms, is today visited by buyers from over 200 countries.
What steps were necessary, apart from the points you already mentioned, to make Visable fit for the future and successful?
A substantial factor for our transformation was, in particular, the investment in employees and in our new technologies. For instance, with our 100-per-cent subsidiary Visable Labs at our office in Berlin, we launched a competence centre for product and technology development, with the aim to expand our existing offer. This is important, as users’ behaviour has changed. For instance, more and more buyers are looking for new suppliers via mobile devices – which is why we developed our wlw app, which has been downloaded nearly 10,000 times since it was launched in September 2020. The new AI-based intelligent full-text search on wlw.de was also our answer to users’ demands, who today expect the same functionality and user-friendliness in the B2B segment as they know in the consumer area. Our standard continues to be to help buyers find the right supplier as quickly as possible – and the new search is essential and key to achieving this.
How far have German SMEs in 2021 already gone digital in your opinion? In which areas do you see huge room for improvement?
I wouldn’t like to generalise. However, certainly the corona crisis has significantly accelerated digitalisation. Many small and medium-sized enterprises have recognised by now the necessity for digitalisation in their marketing and sales and their procurement processes. The traditional ways of presenting your own product offering or tracing new suppliers have been largely undermined due to the halt of conventional trade fairs. Alternatives can be found on the Internet, particularly on platforms like ours, which is reflected in the skyrocketing numbers of traffic on wlw and europages. This has grown exponentially since the start of the pandemic. I’m convinced that only SMEs that have now gone digital will be able to survive this crisis successfully and even come out of it stronger.
What about digital competence on the job market? Is the know-how even there for being able to master the challenges?
Lack of know-how is less of an issue. Often, it is especially the in-company resistance and financial considerations which stand in the way of a successful digitalisation. But the corona pandemic has increased the pressure. At the same time, more and more are also understanding the digital transformation as a scalable process – not every SME, for instance, needs an IoT infrastructure or has to present a portfolio with augmented reality. Instead, more and more – especially due to the halt in trade fairs – are realising that even small steps towards digitalisation, such as in the direction of online marketing or sourcing via online platforms, can make a big difference.
Do you have a vision of what you, as CEO of Visable, and the company will face over the next ten years? Will the change management process continue?
As I see it, despite all the success we’ve experienced, we are still just starting. We will continue to invest in our products and technologies. With the comprehensive relaunch of wlw in the past year, including a new website, the new full-text search and the implementation of our sourcing services wlw Connect (German only) we have already taken huge leaps. In the coming years, we will likewise expand our offering for professional buyers and accommodate changing needs. Our goal in the medium term is to handle the entire communication between sellers and buyers via the platform and through our wlw app. We know this, for instance, from travel bookings, where the entire handling of the flight and hotel booking and the coordination with the airport shuttle service runs on the respective portals. This will also be possible with wlw and europages in the near future.