Knauf is a worldwide diverse company with numerous subsidiaries and national companies, which in some cases act very autonomously. At the same time you have central guidelines such as your corporate values. How do you ensure that, for sustainability, everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet?
Manfred Grundke: I think that any short-term action that is not based on sustainable parameters does more harm to the company than good at the end of the day. For example, if a company in the Knauf Group were to plunder raw materials to save mining costs, it would very quickly get into trouble with the local community or the region. For us it is important to run our business together with the communities in the various regions and not at their expense. This is, if you like, a self-regulating factor because the person concerned would otherwise harm themself.
Alexander Knauf: Our corporate values are the best way to impose a moral duty on the national companies. By acting in this way, we are telling them what’s in Knauf’s DNA and how they have to deal with the environment. I think this is the way it works best in a decentralised company.
To what extent does the concept of sustainability drive innovation at Knauf?
Manfred Grundke: I will take the classic example: flue gas desulphurisation technology was first developed by Babcock Noell and Knauf together. It was Knauf who built the first systems. Later we withdrew from the engineering business and concentrated entirely on the manufacture of building materials. As far as plaster is concerned, we developed plasters suitable for processing by machine. With insulation material, the first binding agents for glass and rock wool containing no formaldehyde came from Knauf. The list goes on. In each case the idea of environmentally friendly technology and modern building materials was specifically pursued through innovations.
Alexander Knauf: There are internal and external drivers, which lead us to sustainability. Internally we of course have an inherent interest in optimising energy consumption, for example in our production. At the same time, our customers keep asking us: How can you design buildings to be even more energy-efficient? How high is the share of recycled material in the product? And in this way, internal and external forces combine and are reflected in our R&D work.
On the subject of your employees: Many companies are finding it an ever greater challenge to find and retain qualified staff. What is Knauf doing to ensure it is involved in the competition for talent?
Alexander Knauf: I would like to summarise our policy in three words: attract, retain and develop. We attach great importance to making Knauf attractive to the best potential employees. That begins in the schools where, for example, we support the STEM initiative for the sciences (STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Our employees provide information in universities and take part in graduate job fairs. Many highly qualified graduates decide to join a family business because here they can see the results of their work sooner than if they are a just a number in a major corporation. We also do a lot when it comes to looking after our employees. Daily activities form part of it, but above all it’s a question of recognising achievements. A major part of our annual staff meeting is when we honour those celebrating special anniversaries who have shown themselves true to the company through many years of competent, loyal service. Recognising achievement plays an important role at Knauf. In terms of employee development, we hold thorough discussions, which then serve as the basis for structured development – for training and career planning. For young people, the work-life balance is very important and we put this into practice at Knauf.
Where do you see the biggest challenges for the future at Knauf?
Manfred Grundke: Gypsum as building material has been successfully used for over 5,000 years, and – as regards our business – we are convinced that this will not change. As far as insulation material is concerned, the question of energy efficiency will again be a long-term issue in spite of the current low cost of energy, and we are well prepared for it. Now it is a question of creating the conditions for the next 50 or 60 years of successful development by ensuring our staff have the right qualifications. Many companies may have a similar strategy but they don’t have the same employees. It will be a central assignment to ensure we have the exact blend of well qualified and motivated employees who can outperform others in competition.
What about political and economic risks? The Russia-Ukraine conflict must be having an effect on your business, too?
Manfred Grundke: It’s certainly having an effect. Knauf manages this effect by ensuring our value chain is invoiced in the same currency, confining the economic risks to exchange rate variation. We are therefore not as badly affected as other companies, which produce in a hard currency, for example, and now have to invoice in roubles. We are only affected by the exchange rate and we are well placed to be able to deal with this. Business in the local currency is running relatively undisturbed, as the Russian economy wasn’t going very well anyway. When your business is global this should be expected.