Germany is an “export champion,” and many of these exports come from Mittelstand companies.
Companies that identify as a part of the German Mittelstand are often considered “hidden champions.” These businesses are frequently smaller and family-owned with a low level of publicity. They have a turnover of approximately five billion Euro and are considered either a Top 3 enterprise on the world market or they are ranked number one on a single continent.
Germany has 1307 hidden champions (16 per million inhabitants), placing it at the top of the chart. There are fewer in eastern Germany than in western Germany. This is likely due to the fact that eastern Germany was occupied by the Soviet government post-WWII when it split into four. It later became the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR) before Germany was reunited in October 1990. Still, 1307 is a large number. The historical system of mini states may have influenced the number of hidden champions present today. At that time, there was an openness to internationalization and a competence of international business. Today, these businesses create nearly 98,000 jobs each year.
But Mittelstand companies are not enormous organizations themselves. They can range from fifty to several hundred employees. Their media presence is also small. A hidden champion’s share of media presence with a big corporation is roughly 16%, while the big corporation is the other 84%. But hidden champions employ 80% of people, while big businesses employ a mere 20%. Hidden champions hold a social responsibility and view the working world as a social place. Employees and customers are very significant, even in decision-making processes. The top five qualities of a hidden champion (rated by a customer) are the product quality, delivery schedule adherence, economy, consulting before a sale, and customer proximity.
The strength of hidden champions comes from within. The employees are loyal, motivated, qualified, and flexible. The work atmosphere is positive and productive. Many hidden champions focus on the long term and invest in sustainability measures. It is no surprise that Mittelstand companies become so successful over time.
The Anti-Nuclear movement has led to renewable growth
For the second half of the day, we visited the EWS (Elektrixitätswerke Schönau) in Schönau, Germany. To get there, we took a bus towards the Black Forest. We walked into a building with solar panels covering the roof, and immediately started a lecture with one of the anti-nuclear activists, who now works at EWS. She presented to us many of the arguments against nuclear power that began the entire Energiewende movement in Germany. It was really interesting to hear about how the Chernobyl disaster affected the Germans, and through that, their energy policy.
The clouds from Chernobyl rolled into Germany and across Europe, leaving effects that still hurt people today. Nuclear resistance was reinforced by the Fukishima disaster. Now they are in the process of completely phasing out nuclear plants.
Chernobyle and Fukishima made it clear to many in Germany that nuclear disasters leave a hole on the earth that is basically non-recoverable for many lifetimes, not to mention the impact on human lives. The anti-nuclear movement has more subtle reasoning behind it than just the risks of a nuclear disaster, as well. Nuclear power plant waste can be used to create nuclear bombs, so many believe that one of the reasons governments push for nuclear is so that they can use that funding to go into the military.
We also discussed that there are a lot of public relations efforts vastly impacting how people feel about nuclear energy. With more public relations in the United States, and more money put into lobbying, we are much more open to the idea of nuclear energy than they might be here in Germany. These public relations efforts are also starting to affect Germany, and their energy policies are beginning to shift.
After the lecture, we were shown around a few of the faciliites and the town of Schonau. The EWS has a hydroelectric plant just down the road from their headquarters. There were windmills in the distance that power many homes.
During our tour, we were shown the original building of the EWS. We also discussed and passed some restaurants on the walk that were very supportive of renewables because of the aforementioned opposition to nuclear. We were also told many stories of the original protests to nuclear. One of the founders of the EWS smuggled a piece of paper into the white house to attempt to persuade former President Obama to turn away from nuclear. The EWS and anti-nuclear advocates have gone door to door asking people to vote against nuclear energy and for their own causes.
Diving into Freiburg and the sustainable measures the town has adopted
Day one in Freiburg and it is already like entering a different world. There are trams and bike paths that fill the city, solar panels on the roofs and natural green areas everywhere. Nothing like my suburban home in Cary, North Carolina with manicured lawns, multiple cars in every driveway, and hardly a bus let alone a tramline or train in sight.
For our first educational day here, we were introduced to Steffen, our instructor and tour guide for the day. In a classroom we focused on a few main topics: history of sustainability in Freiburg, energy efficiency in old homes and municipal buildings, supply and disposal, and finally mobility. Freiburg, known for ten to fifteen years now as a sustainable city, began its environmental movement in 1975 when students and farmers came together to protest the implementation of a power plant in the town. After the 1986 Chernobyl incident, citizens truly united, energy saving became crucial, and renewables a mainstay in the town.
Throughout the different topics, one theme became clear: the importance of engagement at the local level. Citizens own over 50 percent of renewables in the city. Additionally, a convention was held in 2008 on how to make old houses more energy efficient. Architects, financial managers, designers, and many others came together to teach the people what they can do in their own homes. Lessons on waste separation and recyclables are taught in local elementary schools – kids are provided cost free lunch boxes to encourage use of reusable products, and trips to landfills inspire them to be mindful of their waste. Finally, the construction community allows people the option of multimodal houses and cohousing, which allow the people to design their own home while also being efficient in the use of space and improving social and community life.
While local engagement was stressed throughout the presentation, a tour of the town had the group admiring Freiburg’s success in transportation and mobility. The ticket to decreasing car use was decreasing parking options. As the church parking lot was changed to a beautiful market square, parking garages placed further from homes, car ownership made more expensive, and efficient tramlines and bike paths installed, the city was transformed. There are only about 35 private cars per 100 residents, many of which are not used on a regular basis, and the centrally located train station provides an easy way to get anywhere in the region without stepping into a car.
One of the most interesting places I felt we visited on the tour was a parking garage. No, a parking garage does not sound exciting, but this one was implemented in an ingenious way. First of all, it was integrated into the surrounding area so that I could not even tell it was a garage when approaching. Second, houses were built on top so that no space was wasted. Finally, it served as a noise barrier between the town and the large road that surrounds it so that inside the town all that can be heard are birds chirping and people talking.
As it is the first day, we were left with many questions to look out for in our next adventures. How do less cars change daily and social life? How does society benefit from more public transportation and how does the district itself change? What kind of society arises from construction communities and cohousing? What are the keys to implementing these systems back home in North Carolina/U.S? Up next are bike tours in Rieselfeld and Vauban where we can evaluate these questions even more and look at examples of these initiatives in different towns.