25 years of German Centre GmbH and the idea is still working?

We’re taking a look back – and ahead – with Gabriele Greiner, Managing Director of German Centre for Industry and Trade Gmbh (German Centre GmbH), which was founded in Stuttgart on 28 November 1993 and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

A lot of people know about the German Centres in China, Mexico, Russia and Sin­ga­pore. So what does German Centre GmbH do in Stuttgart?

As a member of Landesbank Baden-Württemberg (LBBW) group, we are the holding and service company for the German Centres. Moreover, we are the licensor for the “German Centre” brand. We ensure that the brand promise of the German Centres is consistent and of comparable quality, and we are the first point of entry for companies and partners.

The company was founded in 1993, and LBBW’s first German Centre was launched in Sin­ga­pore in 1995. What was behind the idea at the time?

The idea was to bring German companies together under one roof – in particular those in South­east Asia that were not able to set up an office in every country – so that they could enter the market more easily and with less risk. It turned out that we had to offer more than “only” offices. It was just as important to companies to get practical advice, to have service providers within reach and to tap into networks quickly.

Which networks, for example?

Our key partners are those with whom we share a common goal: Helping companies to enter and get established in foreign countries. These are the consultants for international business of LBBW and the Sparkassen-Finanzgruppe, as well as the companies themselves and our tenants. We have good connections with German or international ministries of economics, economic development agencies and large associations as well as with international law firms, tax or personnel consultants, whether in Germany or in the target market,. On top of that, there is the Mechanical Engineering Industry Associ­ation (VDMA), the German Chambers of Industry and Commerce and their equivalents abroad. These partners gave us a great deal of support in the early days especially. I myself am a member of the Associ­ation of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry’s External Trade Committee for Germany and the Stuttgart region. The sharing of information in these committees gives me a good insight into how companies tick and what they’re up to right now. Many of them have branches abroad and are facing the same challenges we are. That exchange gives me a more defined sense of what our customers need now and what they will need in the future, and what we can do differently or better for our tenants.

Has the concept worked for you?

For me, the concept always works when there is enough demand, when our customers are satisfied and when we are economically self-sustaining. I feel that this is the reality at all our locations today. Obviously, over the years we’ve also had to learn a few things the hard way and shut locations down. If a location is not economically self-sustaining in the long term, it is one of our business duties to take the appropriate course of action.

You yourself were in the field for a long time, heading up the German Centre in Mexico and the German Centre in Sin­ga­pore. Through your work in Germany and abroad, you’ve met, advised and been a close part of the development of a large number of companies. When you think about how companies used to go about entering a new foreign market and what they do now, what has changed?

It used to be that companies would prepare more in Germany before they even got on a plane. Globalization and the broad internet access have led to greater transparency. Companies can get their hands on a lot of information faster and markets are no longer a closed book.

I still remember that the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce in their German Centre Sin­ga­pore office had two publicly accessible computers in the guest area that you could use to go online, because we didn’t all have Internet access in our offices back then. Today the world is very different. However no matter how much information you can get today, you still have to check its quality yourself.

And what would you advise a businessperson?

To come to a German Centre, to network with other businesspeople and to share information. None of that has changed. I would also tell them that obtaining a lot of information is good, to get a personal overview and to ponder what’s right for your company or not, has to be part of the process.

What else has changed?

What has definitely changed are the industries we see going abroad these days. Our tenants used to come mainly from manu­fac­tur­ing industries such as mechanical engineering, automotive or electrical engineering with sales or after-sales offices. Today there’s a whole range of other industries as well. In addition to service providers like lawyers and tax consultants there are also specialist service providers from the fields of IT, architecture, the environment, medical technology, engineering or education.

Procurement and sourcing play a much bigger role than before. Even food industry companies are increasingly going abroad. One of my favorite examples is a big dairy company – a tenant in the German Centre in Sin­ga­pore and now in Beijing as well. It probably would have raised a few eyebrows if we’d had a milk producer looking to go into business in Asia 25 years ago because milk and cheese don’t feature in Asian cuisine. Today eating habits have changed – burgers and pizza are a thing now, and for those you need cheese. This also shows that it’s always worth taking another look at a market to see if things have changed. Things that were non-starters yesterday can be a hit today.

And where do you see the German Centre in 25 years? Are there plans for new German Centres?

We are constantly developing the concept in line with customer requirements. The working world is changing, and so are the requirements for office sizes or equipment. We’re working with trends such as coworking space and now offer it at two locations. Innovative building tech­no­lo­gies and sustainability are on the agenda, too. In Sin­ga­pore we have received various awards because we’re so green and energy-efficient. Digitization is an issue for us just like for every other company – primarily to streamline processes, make them easier for customers, and to minimize costs as well. If the needs of our customers change, we want to be able to respond quickly. That’s why, for example, we rented a second building in Beijing three years ago and doubled our office space – in order to keep up with the rise in demand. And naturally we are always looking around the world to try out new locations.

You’ve been involved in the German Centres from the word go. What is it about your work that you find so fascinating?

Meeting people from different countries, cultures and companies. It’s especially true in my line of work that it’s a small world. One time recently, after 17 years I met someone again who had gifted the German Centre in Mexico a giant Ulm Sparrow made of stone for the opening ceremony. Remembering the sparrow immediately gave us something to talk about and created a good business atmosphere. Many superficial acquaintances have led to friendships all over the world. Talking to people in person – the diversity that this broad inter-culturalism enables – I still get as much a kick out of that as I did on my first day.

And how do you like working in an environment that is so varied in terms of different cultures?

It’s just fun, and it’s enormously rewarding because you have such great diversity. While intercultural differences used to be more prominent and my colleagues would think more locally, today the challenge is increasingly the differences between the generations. Digital natives are more global in the way they think and have much more in common at all our locations, even though they come from four different cultures. And expectations of us as an employer have changed as well. It used to be that a candidate applied and the company made its decision. Today companies have to put themselves out there much more, to show that they are an innovative employer and what they can offer their employees, and that’s not always just a question of money.

If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?

First of all, I would wish for our tenants and customers to be satisfied with our services. In connection with that, I would wish that we are fast enough with changes to keep our offers current in terms of new requirements and challenges, like with digitization, for instance. And I would be happy if we could continue to count on our many partners who have stuck with us through the boom years and the economically tougher times as well.

Speaking of partners and customers, how did you celebrate the anniversary?

We had a small gathering in our office and deliberately invited the people we’ve had close ties with in our day-to-day business and at a working level for years. We went through the material from 25 years of work and put it on exhibit. Going from old photos, yellowing faxes (or telefaxes, as they were called then), minutes, declarations of intent, press releases, all the way through to our marketing materials, where you can see how the colors, fonts and layouts have changed over the years. Looking at old documents and photos was probably more fun for us than for many of our guests who weren’t quite as involved. It showed us how much we have achieved together in the past 25 years, and that we – with our experience, our expertise and the many new ideas that make their way to us – are well prepared for the future.

Ms Greiner, we hope that your three wishes for you and your companies come true, and wish you all the best and every success for the next 25 years!

Here you can download the Press release of LBBW on 25 years German Centre GmbH.