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The first non-family CEO to lead the family business after 140 years

January 29, 2021

reading time: 6 minutes

by Klaus Rathje, guest author

The first non-family CEO to lead the family business after 140 years: Axel Kühner.

Axel Kühner became CEO of Greiner AG in 2009 – until that time, the company had been managed by the family for four generations. We talked to him about what has changed since he took leadership.

The fact that history would catch up with him sooner or later hit home for Axel Kühner in October 2020 at the EY Entrepreneur of the Year event in Vienna’s Hofburg. Among the awards presented at the event hosted by Ernst & Young (EY), Axel Kühner had the pleasure of accepting the Family Business Award of Excellence.

The consulting firm bestows this award on family businesses that are run by at least the third generation of a family and that excel with regard to growth, future potential, innovation, employee management and social responsibility.

Greiner CEO Axel Kühner at the award ceremony
Axel Kühner at the award ceremony "EY Entrepreneur of the Year" in October 2020 (Photo © EY/Point of View).

"As CEO, when you get an award for a company whose history dates back over 150 years and you yourself have only been there for 12, it’s pretty clear that you have only played a modest part in it," explains Kühner. Before taking on this role, the manager had a stellar career at Daimler in Germany – at the age of 38, he had made it to the second highest management level.

Now he is 50 years old and heads a successful conglomerate as CEO. It processes plastics in areas as diverse as food packaging and medical technology. Car seats are also part of the business, but that’s the only connection with Kühner's former employer.

Expertise of the family business: optimizing coronavirus test

Coronatest with tubes of the family business Greiner.
"Without our tubes, many coronavirus tests simply wouldn’t work" (Photo © Greiner AG).

One of the reasons that the family-owned Greiner AG received the prize from EY in 2020, the year the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, is that its medical technology division Greiner Bio-One is making an important contribution to combating the crisis. The innovative product bears the unwieldly name "Virus Stabilization Tube".

This tube is used in PCR tests and solves a problem that arose at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis: "If you use a nasal or throat swab, the swab goes into our tube, which contains a buffered saline solution," says Kühner. "As a result, the virus can be stabilized for 72 hours, which facilitates the analysis process. That was a huge issue at the very beginning because many swabs that were taken were difficult to test as the virus had in some cases already degraded."

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This tube became a bestseller of the family business in 2020 – an achievement that not everyone in the company was fully comfortable with. “We do, of course, earn money with it. There was a big discussion about this internally,” Kühner explains. "The question came up as to whether we were benefiting from the crisis. But my view is that we are making an important contribution, because without our tubes, many coronavirus tests simply wouldn’t work. There is therefore no reason to be ashamed of the fact that in 2020, we reported the best results in our company’s history. After all, we are also reinvesting in the development of new innovative products."

Part of the corporate culture: Employees can try things out

The fact that such a discussion arose ultimately also shows that Greiner’s employees identify strongly with the company and its products – which is not unusual for family businesses. And this is something that the CEO is visibly pleased about: “That’s one of the things we can be particularly proud of at Greiner. The Virus Stabilization Tube is a prime example of our innovative strength – we managed to develop it within three weeks and then got it approved just as quickly. That’s because people in development don’t all have to go through numerous rounds and seniority levels to get projects approved. Our culture is one where employees can try things out.”

In fact, in 2019, the company created Greiner INNOVENTURES, an innovation hub. As a subsidiary, it is not directly linked to the business operations of Greiner AG.

Innovation as a family tradition: from corks to foam

This innovative spirit of the family business was first embodied by the company’s founder Carl Albert Greiner, who opened a colonial goods and hardware store in Nürtingen in 1868. He produced his own sparkling water, which he sold in bottles with a cork stopper. He optimized this to such an extent that he soon focused entirely on this product. In 1899, the company expanded to Kremsmünster in Austria, where the headquarters of Greiner AG are located today.

An important turning point in the history of the family business and the basis of its current successful strategy was when it began to produce foam under a license from Bayer. From there, it developed into a plastics and foam specialist. Today, Greiner AG consists of several family-controlled branches: the Packaging, Bio-One, Foam (foams for comfort, sports and technical applications) and Extrusion (tools, machines and plants for profile extrusion) divisions. In total, the multinational family business employs more than 11 000 people and generated nearly 1.7 billion euros in sales in 2019.

Owner family and non-family CEO: It’s all about how

Founder of a global family business: Carl Albert Greiner.
Founder Carl Albert Greiner (Photo © Greiner AG).

“Make us a modern company, but keep the core values that we have as a family-owned business.” This was the guiding principle that the Greiner family asked Kühner to follow when he took over as CEO of the family business in 2009. And it goes without saying that the fact that an executive from Germany had joined the family business a non-family CEO instead of the fifth generation of the owner family caused some irritation.

“There was some skepticism among the employees at the outset,” Kühner admits, and explains why this quickly turned out to be unjustified. Yes, the Greiner family had taken a step back from the business and an external person was now supposed to run it, “but with a family-owned business, it’s not so much about the connection with the respective family, in this case, the Greiners. It’s about how the company treats its employees, it’s about predictability and a long-term approach, it’s about social fairness and sustainability. That’s what you expect when you work for a family-owned business.”

The employees’ fears that they would become nothing more than a number were quickly put to rest: “Once the employees understood that I stand behind these values just as much as the Greiner family does, and that I also embody them as a person, the skepticism evaporated.”

Values of the owner family remain intact

To ensure a good flow of information and communication, Kühner meets with the Family Council about once a month. The Council gathers the opinions of the owners and shares them with the Supervisory and with the Management Board.

Two family members from the Family Council are board members on the Supervisory Board of Greiner AG. “The family has completely withdrawn from an operational standpoint, but has defined broad strategic guidelines for the Management Board,” Kühner says, explaining how the coordination between the owners and the company is organized. “For example, the family wants to ensure that the equity position is good, and they want the company to remain independent. In addition, sectors such as the weapons industry are taboo.”

So values ultimately take precedence over profits. Which is why Greiner AG is also committed to sustainability, for example through the online platform “Packaging with a Future”. On the product side, it is continuously simplifying food packaging, making it easier to recycle.

Kühner confirms that the shareholder family’s interest in the business goes beyond mere profit maximization: “The owner family is proud that their yogurt containers can be found everywhere on supermarket shelves, even if Greiner isn’t written on them for everyone to see. When it comes to blood collection, Greiner has a market share of over 50 percent in Europe – so at least every second blood sample is taken using our tubes. How much money is made as a result is less of a priority for the owners. That’s one of the things that makes it so great to be able to work for a family business. I have never even remotely regretted that decision.

Header Visual © Greiner AG.

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