Walter Winkler, WITRON
The Bavarians came to the USA with 42 colleagues. Today, they are more than 1,000 WITRON employees in the US and Canada. They are responsible for logistics projects in the food, non-food, spare parts, and medical technology market. “I still experience working in the USA and Canada as a great enrichment. It is a privilege to work with people from different cultural backgrounds”, explains Karl Högen. The man from the Upper Palatinate region knows about the requirements in the two markets and quotes the company founder, Walter Winkler: “You can lose money on a project, but you must never lose your good name.” Customer proximity, trust in the people involved, in the technology, and in personal relationships are decisive for success in Europe, but above all in the USA and Canada. “I have been working with the WITRON family for 19 years and with a little more than a decade of experience as CEO, I am a newcomer in the WITRON management team. Many executives have been with us for much longer. North American customers appreciate this very much. They trust us, because when you plan a mothership project together, you are aware of the upcoming fundamental changes for the organization, for the employees, for the internal and external processes within logistics.”
Kroger, one of the largest grocery retailers in North America, is no exception - the first OPM project worldwide was realized in the USA. “I stood in the logistics center with 50 colleagues and we planned (on site), tightened the screws, and tested until everything was running smoothly”, Högen recalls his exciting time. “At that time, the food retailing industry was looking for a solution to pick cases fully automatically, store-friendly and without errors onto pallets or roll containers. We presented our idea to Kroger and received the trust of those responsible.” Then there was work to do. Kroger reported special requirements for Parkstein, sent packing samples and the majority of the WITRON engineers did not spend their summer at the pond, but in the company. But the great commitment of the employees was rewarded. The Kroger project was the breakthrough for WITRON in the US and Canada and customers worldwide followed the example of the Americans and started to order OPM systems. In the meantime, more than 1,200 COMs have been sold. The system is already running for market-leading retailers in 13 countries in Europe, North America - even in Australia.
The projects in the USA and Canada were not only decisive for WITRON’s development in terms of technology. The business model of the general contractor for logistics from the Upper Palatinate region also changed significantly with the Kroger project. “All of a sudden, we built up a kind of production environment in the warehouse with an OPM system. We were not only responsible for the realization, but for the complete system operation. For this, we needed well-trained technicians in charge of service and maintenance. The customers did not want to do this with their own staff. They preferred to concentrate on their own core competence - retailing. Therefore, they handed this task over to WITRON specialists who are responsible for the system around the clock and thus guarantee a permanently high availability.” The idea of the “operator” was born. So-called OnSite teams were also integrated in the United States. “We have always continued to develop, were and have been different from the competition. We always want to be faster in terms of technology. We are pirates, not the Navy”, laughs Högen based on the famous Steve Jobs quote.
And in Parkstein? “We have learned a lot from the US colleagues, we have grown together. Many employees in the USA talk about the WITRON family. As a medium-sized German family-owned company, this is something you first have to work for. That’s a distinction.” But sometimes there are still the small language barriers. Högen laughs: “At the beginning of my career, I once got a call from an entrepreneur who wanted to sell me a kitchen and I thought he needed a logistics center for his products.”
What moves the North American market? “You can time the customer discussions well. Within the first five years, we mainly talked about IT structures, then about machines, then about the ROI, and today we are talking about intelligent automation for people, holistically “end-to-end” networked in the complete supply chain - from the supplier, over the logistics center, and through to the store or to the end consumer.” The customers are desperately looking for skilled workers. “Modern, ergonomic systems make the search easier.”
Listen to the next podcast episode to learn about Karl Högen’s plans in the US and the trends he sees for Europe.