Franz Huber, co-founder and CEO of KoKoTé
Franz Huber, entrepreneur from Uri and founder of KoKoTé, talks about what is important to him as an entrepreneur and how it came about that he set up an education and integration project for refugees. And he defines his idea of responsible entrepreneurship, of which the integration project and bag label KoKoTé is a successful example.
You have already managed a number of companies, including the family business Hubrol AG, a heating oil supplier from central Switzerland, which you have put on a more ecological footing. But you have also had to accept failure with other ideas and companies. What drives you to keep trying new things?
An entrepreneur simply does something (grins). Sometimes it turns out well, sometimes not. With KoKoTé, I just went for it and didn't have a concrete idea yet. I write business plans, but they get outdated every 3 months or so (laughs). Originally, it started with real estate conversions. I'm interested in how you can develop something further. I thought 30 years ago that burning fuel oil was not very intelligent. Since then, I've been studying how to develop it further. That's what drives and motivates me. Especially in my younger years, I was attracted to ideas that didn't seem possible. I was most motivated when someone said: that's impossible. That's why a few failures followed. It's possible that the wisdom of age catches up with you a bit, but never completely (laughs).
What do you think are the most important traits of an entrepreneur?
That it's not primarily about maximizing money, but about doing something meaningful. If you think through an idea and are convinced by it, then it usually works. In the business world, there are many people who have ideas but no money and people with money but no ideas. We have to find a middle ground there. That not only the money is in the foreground, but it still plays a role. At KoKoTé, too, the goal is to be able to earn the necessary money ourselves in 3 or 4 years, so that we can write off our machines, so that we are up to date and so that we can react to new developments. I also think it's important that entrepreneurs not only say that employees are the most important thing, but that they also live it. In other words, that theory and practice don't clash. If you take these two or three maxims into account, then a lot has already been done.
You have dedicated yourself entirely to responsible entrepreneurship. What exactly do you understand by this term?
Just making money doesn't appeal to me. The sense of purpose is very important to me and thinking in big contexts. No outsider should pay the bill for success. Be it nature, an employee or a supplier that you exploit, or customers that you cheat. It must be a win-win situation for everyone. At Hubrol AG, we introduced employee participation systems for all levels 30 years ago. If the company is doing well and only the owner is cashing in, I don't think that's responsible or honest. Whether that's a small company, or Microsoft, or Amazon, it's not a genius that got these companies this far. It's a broad system that only works if you work well together. If one is the boss then, it's more by chance than design. If you start from a craftsman: either he is a good craftsman or a good salesman, rarely both. If then the salesman pulls the craftsman over the table, then that is not ethical for me.
The inequalities have now been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the pandemic has also exposed weaknesses in the current economic system. In your view, should it be moving in this more responsible direction?
Absolutely. The point is that everyone who participates is visible and that no one pays a hidden price for success and suffers. And that doesn't just apply to me in Switzerland, but worldwide. If I work cleanly in Switzerland but profit because I produce in a low-wage country where no occupational health and safety measures etc. are observed, then that is not ethical for me. This also counts for us at KoKoTé. At KoKoTé we only use recycled products. The conscious choice of materials is not a marketing tool for us, but a conviction.
How did you come to set up an education and integration project for refugees in the first place?
I'll have to backtrack on that. When I was 19, I wanted to study psychology. But my father wanted me to join the company and do CT, so that's what I did. Then, 30 years later, I went on to train as a systemic consultant and coach. Every training does something to you. I came to the realization that living in Switzerland is not a merit, but a good fortune. And that I was especially lucky, on many levels. I wanted to build something for people who weren't as lucky as I was. So it was obvious to me in 2015 to get involved with refugees.
How did you then come up with the idea of developing products in the bags/accessories sector, a market that is highly competitive?
The first thought was not: what can we do to earn money? I wanted to combine work and education, and to sew well, you don't have to know the German language. The refugees in Switzerland often have very good handicraft skills. Among other things, some can sew and were already sewing in their home country, in Afghanistan, in Somalia, in Syria. This is a craft that almost no longer exists in our country. We wanted to use this resource and so we started. And in combination with something you are good at, it is then easier to learn something that is difficult - namely German and to find your way around here. So gradually a system of work and education emerged in the company, where practical work can be combined with different intensities of learning opportunities.
KoKoTé has already come a long way in a short time. What surprised you most, what did you not expect in the history of the project so far?
Everything surprised me. I am amazed at the many social entrepreneurs who order corporate bags from us. After all, they could order them much more cheaply in China. Especially in many small and medium-sized enterprises, there are managers where the theme of the social market economy is not only in the mission statement, but also implemented.
The project has been in existence since 2015, we appeared with the KoKoTé brand at the end of 2019, and we achieved our budget targets in 2020, even though we were massively affected by the lockdown. I was very surprised about that. And this is half from B2C and half from B2B business. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, people often talk about self-interest and egoism, but when I'm out and about - whether with business customers or private customers - I'm always amazed at how many socially committed people there are who not only appreciate quality, but also attach value to it.
What also never ceases to amaze me is that we don't sell the products that I like best, but that customers usually like other products better. I don't seem to have a nose for that (laughs), and we do develop our products together in a team with Carsten Joergensen.
What is your current vision for KoKoTé? Where do you see the brand in two or three years?
I have various visions. I would like the KoKoTé brand to become an outward sign of an inner attitude. And that the idea is copied and spreads. I am now 68 years old, and in the next few years I would like to bring the business to the point where it becomes economically independent of me. Many of the committed people at KoKoTé work voluntarily, my wife Yvonne Herzog and I even pay for it (laughs). For me, economic success is part of it. I don't want to keep an idea alive artificially; it also has to prove itself economically.
You founded the JLT Company and KoKoTé together with your wife Yvonne Herzog. How does your collaboration and the separation of private and business work?
We don't have a separation of personal and business. When I turned 50, we decided together that we would only do things we liked to do. That's not so easy. I get excited about an idea very quickly. That has the disadvantage that I also get involved in projects where I suddenly think: oh, I didn't want to do that. In the meantime, we are both over 60 and are more focused, it works well. We complement each other. I've learned a lot from my wife, and maybe she's learned a lot from me. We have always developed in parallel with our collaboration.
In addition to your work as an entrepreneur, you also work as a coach. Who comes to you for consulting?
The longer I work, the less I work as a consultant. I apply systemic knowledge in my dealings with refugees, with clients or with partners. I still find that very exciting.
Looking back now, was the training as a systemic consultant a turning point for you? And something that contributed significantly to the success of KoKoTé?
For sure, with this training I have changed a lot. One of the most important parts of this training is the solution focus. You start from the attitude: there are no problems, there are only situations that you perceive as problematic, and the solution is part of the problem. This is an important insight that has helped me the most. You can apply that everywhere. It's most difficult in leading people. When someone does a "shenanigan," you still have old patterns in you, and you're tearing your hair out.
I want to get the employee to find a solution on their own. Then it's sustainable. First, he or she then doesn't ask the same thing every week, but takes a developmental step, and in the end, everyone benefits. I find that very challenging, but also extremely exciting.
What do you think it would take for a fundamental change to happen in the current economic system and for social values to become more important again?
Quite simply, I call it a democratization of the economy. Lisa Herzog, a German economist and philosopher who has written books about this, describes how in the Middle Ages there were kings, princes, princes and the church who were untouchable. Now it's the big corporations, the big so-called leaders who don't behave democratically or transparently or respectfully. I recognize that you can't always vote democratically on everything. But you have to develop a system where you include everybody in the decision making, where that is possible. A simple example: I would never dream of hiring an employee without consulting those who will work with the person. If the team does not harmonize, it does not work. If companies are run with pressure from the top, then you can't expect the important information to come from the bottom up. They will then only get to hear what the employees feel they would like to hear. Thus, they do not receive the relevant information. This has a fatal effect sooner or later. In biology it is defined as follows: closed systems die. This is also true for us. It is also true for climatology. We are part of nature and live together with many other living beings. We are part of a whole and if we don't open up and carefully consider what is interconnected and take care of each other, then we die.
We are in the middle of very special and also challenging times. What do you personally want for 2021?
I have resolved to approach everything a little more calmly. I have a tendency to implement things quickly, which has many advantages, but there are no advantages that don't also have disadvantages. Over 25 years ago, I wanted to save the Tessag shoe factory and it failed. That was very painful for me. And I also learned a lot in the process.
My resolution and desire is to slow down, because often slower is faster. Being slow is difficult for me, I am often still very impatient. And with slowing down, I want to be concerned for my health well-being, go for walks and move a lot in nature.
Thank you very much, Franz, for this exciting interview!