corporAID: Is globalization different after the crisis than it was before the pandemic?
Kühner: Not from my point of view. If you consider the challenges this crisis posed for global value chains, then you have to say that globalization has paid off. Even for us there were difficulties with the availability of preliminary products, but it was never the case that we ultimately did not get them. And before we are asked to bring productions back to Europe, we should first do our homework. As long as governments - such as the German one - do not allow goods paid for by Austria to cross the border, we do not need to think about European vaccine production. Of course, it can basically make sense to bring certain technologies back to Europe. But one shouldn't argue that international supply chains didn't work during the crisis - the opposite was the case.
How has the pandemic affected Greiner's business?
Kühner:Greiner is organized into four divisions, which have developed very differently. Medical technology achieved sales growth of more than a third - mainly due to Corona products. In food packaging, everything that goes straight to retail went very well, and everything that goes into the hospitality sector went relatively poorly. Overall, we grew by almost one percent in the packaging business. At the same time, the automotive and aerospace business was badly hit, the latter is still down. In addition, there were great uncertainties in the field of logistics at the beginning of the pandemic. But business is currently coming back in many industries faster than expected, which, in view of the reduced capacities due to the crisis, leads to rising prices, as can be seen, for example, with all raw materials.
How do crises affect the demand for your products?
Kühner: Food packaging, especially yogurt pots, is still the product we are most strongly identified with. Until three years ago I thought it was a safe bet because eating habits change slowly. But then we saw that suddenly less yoghurt and ayran were bought in Turkey as a result of the devaluation of the lira. That was a learning effect. We now see something similar in the opposite direction. In the pandemic, nobody bought anything that wasn't wrapped in plastic. During the crisis, people realized that plastic films are not primarily used for visual purposes, but to protect the contents. And we welcome that. Unfortunately, the public equates plastic with climate change. More plastic also means more climate protection - and not less. Replacing plastic packaging with other materials would reduce CO2-emissions by at least 60 percent because wood, glass and aluminum are much more energy-intensive in production and processing and are also heavier. The problem is, more plastic means more plastic waste in the environment. And you have to take action against it!
Will plastic win in the crisis?
Kühner: I think it would be unfair to see a balanced perspective on plastics as a gain from the crisis. Before the pandemic, the discussion was very one-sided and overlooked what packaging is for. The statement: “We don't need plastic” is an illusion because a life without plastic at our level of prosperity is inconceivable. Nevertheless, plastic must be avoided where it is not needed. We don't avoid that either. We were one of the first companies in Austria to take an offensive approach to the topic, and in 2015 we formulated our Plastics for Life strategy. Since then we have been dealing with the question of how plastic can be recycled.
So you don't have to worry about losing your license to operate?
Kühner: No, we don't see that. If we can do better what is indispensable today, then we will be successful. An example: What is the most sustainable way to make a cup of coffee - with an aluminum capsule, a plastic capsule or as a filter coffee? Of course everyone says: filter coffee. It's just not true. You only need six grams of coffee powder for a cup of coffee with capsules, and an average of nine grams for filter coffee. It does not matter which capsules you take, the larger ecological footprint is caused by coffee. A fundamentalist view of sustainability therefore makes no sense. We need to find better ways to reduce the impact on the environment and not endanger our prosperity.
Does sustainability need innovation?
Kühner: Both belong together. That is why innovation is needed to become more sustainable - and vice versa. A few years ago yogurt pots couldn't really be recycled. The waste was too heterogeneous to be reused. Today, in the spirit of design for recycling, we see that materials are standardized and thus form a homogeneous flow of materials. At the same time, we are improving the processing technology for polypropylene. In addition, there will be chemical recycling in the near future, i.e. the material will be converted back into oil, which will then be made into plastic. There is a lot of innovation in here.
How do you see Austria as a business location?
Kühner: The framework conditions are very good for a headquarters location. At the same time, we make around 40 percent of our investments in Austria, and a large part of our development takes place here. Of course, there is room for improvement when I think about the ancillary wage costs or the availability of skilled workers. We also have to stick hard. One only has to look at the development of Chinese patent applications over the past ten years. This means that we have to invest more in education, prioritize the networking between business, universities and research and make a conscious decision not to end up as an industrial museum. But: Greiner is active in almost forty countries, and in comparison Austria does not look bad. We have good relationships with the research community and we have excellently trained employees. Overall, I am convinced of Austria as a location, and not just for Greiner.
Where do you expect growth?
Kühner: Growth is taking place in the foam, packaging and medical technology sectors. Medical technology is a capital-intensive industry with very decent margins, and the packaging industry also has high technological standards, but margins per se are not that strong. The foam business is less capital intensive, with an average, stable margin situation. We are trying to develop the three divisions equally. Regional focal points are currently very much the USA and, of course, Asia in the future.
And how do you see developing regions, for example Africa?
Kühner: Africa is difficult because the differences between the countries are greater than anywhere else. And it is unfortunately the case that the political systems also prevent development. That leads to very high risks. But Africa is also a promising market, although that will take some time. If you can also invest in Asia, that is of course a priority. We are also represented in Mexico and Brazil. Here you can see what effects political leadership has on the economy. Ten years ago Brazil was an absolute country of hope, today it is struggling with enormous problems.
Do these markets require specific innovations?
Kühner: That is certainly a point where we can get better. On the one hand, we still think culturally very much out of Austria. On the other hand, it is difficult for us as a supplier of premium products to create products that are “good enough”. But precisely such products are needed in developing countries: significantly cheaper, not entirely comparable in terms of quality, but they work. So far we haven't been able to think high-end and low-end at the same time. We have to develop in a more decentralized manner in the future.
What role do the global goals for sustainable development SDG play for Greiner?
Kühner: The SDGs form the basis of our sustainability strategy. Take SDG 14 - Life under water: If you find your own products on the beach, then you know that something has to be done here. For a diversified group like Greiner, there are only a few topics that, like sustainability, connect all areas and where everyone is happy about our commitment. Ten years ago the subject didn't have that meaning. Today you have to explain exactly what answers you give as a company in order to make a global contribution. And that has not always been easy as a plastics manufacturing company in recent years.
How do you see the role of companies in contributing to developing regions?
Kühner: It matters to us what happens in these countries. We can't say: globally, only two percent of plastic waste in the ocean comes from Europe, so it's not our problem. We produce worldwide. In this respect, we have to think about how waste gets into the sea in Indonesia, for example. Of course we know this is happening because there is no waste management system there. The solution, however, is not that we no longer produce plastic packaging because that would lead to more food spoiling, especially in such countries. We therefore support lighthouse projects, for example the Plastic Bank, which collect plastic waste and send it to further processing. It can make a difference because it shows governments that there are solutions.
And what is the significance of values?
Kühner: Values play a huge role, especially for a family company. As the first non-family CEO, I took up the mission: Make us a modern company, but keep the values that are important to the owner family! That is why we talk a lot about our four values of reliability, openness, striving for excellence and appreciation. From this, we have developed ten leadership and collaboration principles in a global participatory process. These are binding for the entire group, because we want a Greiner culture to be felt.
What makes a company fit for the future?
Kühner: What matters are people who think positively and try to do what they do today better tomorrow and do new things in general the day after tomorrow. And a corporate culture that enables this development.
Thank you for the interview.
Axel Kühner The 50-year-old from Karlsruhe has been on the board of directors of Greiner AG since 2009. Since 2010 he has been the first external CEO at the helm of the globally successful family company. Before that, the graduate in business administration worked for 15 years in various branches of Daimler AG.
Global player from Kremsmünster
Founded in 1868 by Carl Albert Greiner as a colonial and hardware store in Nürtingen (D), Greiner has become one of the world's largest suppliers of plastic and foam solutions. Today the German-Austrian family company based in Kremsmünster (Upper Austria) consists of four operational divisions: Packaging (plastic packaging for the food and non-food sector), Bio-One (medical technology and life science), Neveon (foams) and extrusion ( Tools, machines and complete systems for profile extrusion). With Innoventures, Greiner has also had its own in-house innovation forge since 2019. With around 2020 employees (11.500 of them in Austria) at 2.680 locations in 139 countries, the group generated sales of 34 billion euros in the 1,93 financial year (plus 15 percent compared to 2019) - the best group result in the more than 150 years of company history.