How I Took the Helm of my Father’s Business and became Businesswoman of the Year
The NextWomen Generations & Family Business Theme.
Alexandra Knauer is the owner and CEO of KNAUER, a German based company that manufactures and designs specialist laboratory equipment around the world, including high performance liquid chromatography and osmometry devices. The company was originally set up by Alexandra's father, Dr Herbert Knauer and his wife Roswitha, following the invention of two ground breaking scientific devices.
Following other product developments, Alexandra first became General Manager of the company in 1995 before assuming sole ownership in 2000. After four years of management, she was then awarded the Berlin Prize for Female Entrepreneurs whilst continuing to drive product development forward.
Alexandra studied Business Economics in Berlin and also holds a Bachelor of Commerce. She has won many awards for her work with KNAUER including the Prix Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year 2010/11. She is also the patron of the Berlin entrepreneurs' network Connecting Women and the founding member of the Association Berlin.
We spoke to Alexandra about the challenges of sharing the helm with her father; the secret to successfully mixing work and family; and whether she’d like her children to run the company one day.
TNW: In 1995 you started to run KNAUER jointly with your father. What were the challenges you encountered whilst sharing the helm with your father and how did you overcome these?
AK: It was important to discover, together with my father, new ways of increasing worldwide turn-over and the performance and quality of osmometers, chromatography systems and columns for high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).
The challenge of working with my father was to transform the father-daughter relationship into a relationship of equal status.
I spent day and night studying all the aspects of developing, manufacturing, and selling laboratory instruments and gaining the necessary knowledge of chemistry. I introduced a quality management system and gave the heads of departments a lot more freedom to make their own decisions than they had under my father.
TNW: You joined KNAUER in 1994. Tell us a little about your career before that date. What made you decide to join your father’s business?
AK: I studied economics at Freie Universität Berlin and worked at a Berliner Bank subsidiary for a couple of months. It was never my plan to start working for the family business.
I did not want to work as much as my parents. What changed my mind was the aim to save the life’s work of my parents and most of the jobs.
TNW: When you were appointed General Manager, did you encounter any negative attitudes due to being the founder’s daughter? If yes, how did you deal with this?
AK: On the contrary. All employees were happy that the management was taken over by a younger generation and that the new leadership style brought the company back to success.
TNW: What’s the secret to successfully mixing work and family, whilst maintaining good relationships? Do you discuss business matters in family situations, or keep it strictly apart?
AK: From Monday to Friday I take extensive care of sticking to the company goals and increasing the level of satisfaction of our customers, suppliers, and employees.
The weekends belong solely to my family. Only sometimes do I talk to my husband about business matters.
He is not employed at KNAUER. He works as a geophysicist at research institution Geoforschungszentrum Potsdam.
TNW: How is the future of KNAUER being planned? Would you like your children to run the business one day? If one of them does lead the company in the future, what advice will you give them?
AK: My wish for KNAUER is to stay in business for another 50 years and to remain a family-owned business. I found out that co-operation with a non-family member as Dr Alexander Bünz as Managing Director is a good alternative.
Just as my parents did, I will not put any pressure on my son Lukas, 13, or my daughter Melina,10, to lead the company in the future.
In case my kids do not want to take over or are not qualified for the job, I can check the qualifications of my nephews and nieces, if they are interested in a management position.
TNW: What has been your highlight of your time at KNAUER?
AK: The amount of effort I put into running the company successfully and in engaging with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been noticed and awarded. This makes me proud and it motivates me. I was awarded several prizes, among which were the first Berliner Unternehmerinnenpreis (Award for Berlin Businesswomen) in 2004, the Prix Veuve Clicquot as Businesswoman of the Year in 2010 (I was selected among 1600 applicants nationwide) and several innovation awards.
TNW: What is one leadership lesson you learned the hard way and wish you’d known from the beginning?
I have always been led by the attitude that problems are not problems but offer chances for improvement.
TNW: KNAUER is among the most innovative small and medium-sized companies in Germany. What is the key to fostering innovation in your business?
AK: Our competitors in the HPLC world market are mainly huge American and Japanese enterprises. We watch them closely and keep an eye open for market niches, in order to develop suitable devices for special purposes. We employ very ambitious developers and scientists in our company with the goal of beating our competitors at price-performance ratio. The company creates an especially positive environment in which employees and innovations can blossom. Employees are explicitly allowed to make mistakes. We are developing new instruments for ion chromatography and protein purification as well as educational HPLC systems.
TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?
Dear women, let us make our surroundings, our cities, and our countries a little better with every day. We are thinking out of the box!
Big and small projects and actions can change a lot and bring happiness.
"As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.“ (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry)
"Be the change you wish to see in the world.” (Mahatma Ghandi)
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