Photos: Daniel Elke
This article appeared in MarktImpulse 4/2020
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Gerhard Schmitz GmbH from Duisburg is a diverse company, providing corrosion protection and painting services. A site visit to the Ruhr area proves it. There is plenty to do here – but still time to talk.
Authorized representative, Karl-Heinz Brinkmann, will be 80 next year. But that doesn’t stop him working. “At home I have a garden and my stamps, but there are more urgent things to be dealt with here.” Brinkmann has been working for Gerhard Schmitz GmbH for 49 years; “I was hired by the mother of our senior employee”. She taught me what makes this business special.
He remembers how, in his first month, he was given the job of finding protective masks. “Back then, there were two large manufacturers. One sold masks for around 100 Deutschmarks. The other product was significantly better quality, and cost around 250 Deutschmarks per item. I ordered the cheaper option. As soon as I arrived with the masks, I had to exchange them. The boss wanted only the best quality – for customers and for staff.
And that still applies here!” In any case, today’s bureaucratic burdens, ensuring adherence to safety standards, often makes work more difficult. So was everything better in the past? “Well…” muses Brinkmann, before carefully formulating an answer: “Circumstances these days are all very time-consuming. And today’s young people aren’t exactly convinced about the meaning of work.”
Thanks to his leadership style, my father was very popular with the team.
Hans-Jörg Schmitz-Senge on the most senior founder, Heinrich Gerhard Schmitz.
Every business in the construction industry knows how hard it is to find good trainees. It also affects the Schmitz firm in Duisburg. “So far, we’ve been lucky enough to find young people who are interested in the profession and successfully completing training. But it’s not a given,”says Sascha Sellmann, agreeing with his older colleague.
Sellmann has been with the company for some four years now, and since 2018, became the first managing director outside of the family business, ever. Among other things, the 45-year-old takes care of recruitment. Right now, he’s sitting with Karl-Heinz Brinkmann in the Duisburg offices, discussing a project over a cup of coffee. Beyond the office window, the view extends over spacious premises, lined with several halls.
“Our operating space is so big is because we’re not just painters, but also corrosion protectors,” explains Sellmann, going on to add: “I myself am a civil engineer and during my career, worked for various companies in the field of maintenance.
At some point, I realized that I wanted to take on more responsibility and work more strategically. So I spoke to our owner at the time, Hans-Jörg Schmitz-Senge, and then we decided to work together. One of my goals is to make Gerhard Schmitz as a company into a brand.”
This doesn't sound like a bad plan to Karl-Heinz Brinkmann, although he observes: “I am rather more of a pragmatic type. On that note, I need to go – the team is waiting for me on site.”
As he leaves, he hands over the comings-and-goings to Hans-Jörg Schmitz-Senge. He apologizes for the fact that his father – 91-year-old Heinrich Gerhard Schmitz – can’t be there today, due to health reasons.
“He’s not been involved in day-to-day business since 2000, but he normally calls by once a week. That’s an ongoing tradition, and the team values how close the family are to the business. We often spend time together.”
The team isn’t just about debates between father and son, both managing directors are often in conversation with each other – and with the rest of the team. “The firm is 95 years old this year, and things are going well. Regular communication and sharing ideas is absolutely vital to ensure things stay that way as well as allowing new developments. We’re also currently working with a consultant who is looking at the structures and responsibilities with us. And we’re deliberately involving our almost 100 employees in that, too. From time to time, it’s important to get everyone involved and make sure the entire team is playing for common goals.”
Hans-Jörg Schmitz-Senge is well aware that this openness to critical reflection is not common. “Many companies are family businesses, and that often goes hand in hand with a somewhat patriarchal leadership culture, that hardly ever changes over decades. In his time, my father did things very differently than I do today. Thanks to his leadership style, he was very popular with the team.
Despite that, it’s only right that Mr. Sellmann and I, as managing directors, act differently, namely in a more team-oriented, open way. One thing has not changed between us: Respect and esteeming one another – and the interaction between us all.”
Looking back at the company history, one thing becomes clear. Heinrich Gerhard Schmitz wasn’t just a popular boss, but also a clever businessperson.
During a tour of the company premises, his son tells the story of how the company expanded under his father, after being originally founded in 1924 in Duisburg by his grandfather. He expanded the range of services in 1957 by adding corrosion protection. Before then, most jobs consisted of painting work from the private sector, but now customers from heavy industry were a new addition.
Founded in 1924 in Duisburg by painter and master varnisher Gerhard Schmitz, who went on to expand the business towards the end of the 50s with corrosion protection as a second key part of the firm. New areas were added geographically, too. In 1967, a Munich brand was added, which was sold in 2014.
Today, the Duisburg-based company now employs more than 90 operational, technical, and commercial employees. In addition to large industrial firms, architects and private households are part of the customer base.
“Corrosion protection was a great opportunity after the war in the Ruhr area, that my father took advantage of. Just like before, we’re working for big names in the industry, and have many contract customers. That’s why we have a 2500 m² abrasive blasting and coating hall on the premises, among other things. But the painting work has always been on an even footing. We employ experts in both areas, our volume of work and our staff are divided across both fields of business,” explains Schmitz-Senge, opening the red metal door to the paint storage facility, where Dieter Deinert is the boss.
Deinert has now been part of the company for 30 years and working in the warehouse for 18. He is currently discussing the logistics of the coming week with Frank Korsten, head of the painting department.
There are currently around twenty sites that need to be supplied with material. In addition to the traditional painting activities such as coating, wallpapering, glazing or facade work, the company also provides services such as thermal insulation and floor covering work. “And in the future,” throws in Frank Korsten, “we want to focus once again more on developing the painting business with private customers. There is a risk that between all these major projects, we lose sight of the private households.” Everyone nods. That’s definitely the case.
Our operating space is so big is because we’re not just painters, but also corrosion protectors.
Sascha Sellmann, Managing Director
“By the way,” adds Sellman, waving to a young woman jumping out of one of the company’s white vans, “this member of the team is going to play an important role in the future when it comes to private customers. Alexandra Otten has just passed her final exam with flying colors, as the year’s best!” The 22-year-old smiles.
Continuing around the premises, Schmitz-Senge explains, in between brief chats with staff, how he played in the depot as a small boy and how he pilfered sausages from the warehouse manager’s sandwiches. In fact, he never underwent training in the trade or industry, but he spent time as an intern at a friendly competitors in the Hamburg port, blasting frigates, working in the laboratory, and completing countless technical training courses.
For this reason, he has great respect for the work his team do. Before he joined his father’s company in 1992, the graduate in business worked in the financial sector in Hamburg. What drew him to work in the family firm in his mid thirties was the desire to be entrepreneurially active and to take on responsibility for the family business with all its employees.
He moved his whole family and life to Munich. There had been a branch there since an architect tempted his father to Bavaria in the 1960s with a large order.
“My father and his team took on further work as part of the Olympic Games in 1972 and then were also responsible for painting the BMW headquarters. Back then it was his idea to spray the blue-white company logo on the round, flat roof of the museum – today it is almost a Munich landmark!”
The painting work has always been on an even footing to the corrosion protection.
Hans-Jörg Schmitz-Senge, Managing Director and owner
Many successful projects followed under Schmitz-Senge’s guidance, until the southern German branch was sold to a strategic competitor in 2014. Schmitz-Senge tells us how he also expanded to Bernburg, Leipzig, and Berlin with his father after the fall of the Berlin Wall. “This was purely developing the east of Germany, with many interesting construction and renovation projects, but it was more challenging than expected; we always found it hard to find the right staff!
But it was still an experience that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss and that was entirely without public subsidies. Just like before, we still work across the entire country, but today above all in the Ruhr area, where our name has been associated with renowned construction projects and the associated quality and service components for 95 years.”
The fact that the company name Gerhard Schmitz is so known in the industry is almost certainly because of the company’s construction conference held every three years. It always takes place in February or March – alternating– about the paint industry or corrosion protection. Builders, large companies, architects, engineering offices, manufacturers and suppliers are invited to lectures and panel discussions, and of course, the in-house team also take part. The whole thing takes place in the Veltins Arena in Schalke. “But the Dortmund fans still come,” confirms Sascha Sellmann, grinning. And it’s immediately clear that this business pair will manage to gather everyone around one table.