Half a century of Witron - “always busy and not a single layoff due to lack of work”
From: Clemens Fütterer / ONetz
Fifty years ago, Walter Winkler occupied himself with industrial electric installations. Today, as a logistics service provider, Witron is the international market leader for innovative food distribution centers. In an interview, Walter Winkler looks back at his life’s work.
There are only a few family entrepreneurs in Germany who go “full speed ahead” in their 50th year of existence - and despite all internationalization, remain down-to-earth. In a more than two-hour interview with “Oberpfalz Medien”, Walter Winkler looks back at his life’s work. “I never got bogged down and only think in terms of functions: What benefits the customer? How can I solve the customer’s problems?” And he makes it clear: “My word is my bond.” Credibility as a heartfelt matter. “For me, the decisive factor is that in 50 years of company history, I had always more than enough work for my people and there hasn’t been a single layoff due to lack of work at Witron during that time.”
With some remarkable Upper Palatinate stubbornness (Winkler about Winkler), or in other words with iron consistency, the 83-year-old Winkler made his way. His memories flashback to his high school and college time (graduating as an engineer at the age of 21): “Mathematics was my passion and algebra is training for logic par excellence.” To this day, the Witron owner, who will soon have 7,000 employees, gets by without a computer, calculator, or his own assistant. “My brain is always working.” Only a few people have the gift of a photographic memory: Walter Winkler is one of them. He can visually save his “layouts” of major projects.
Technology as a competitive advantage
Witron’s technological advantage is based primarily on the revolutionary OPM system – Order Picking Machinery, which fully automatically stacks a wide variety of cases from all temperature ranges onto pallets that are delivered to retail stores. An important asset of this technology is that it builds pallets according to a perfect pack pattern that is calculated for every single pallet individually. This pack pattern increases the packing density and stability of each pallet, and thus reduces transport costs, ensures a safer transportation of goods, and significantly improves the efficiency and thereby reduces costs of store logistics. Witron’s pack pattern calculation is a decisive competitive factor. These calculations and the control of the system require a massive processing power. Fail-safe server systems with their “processor cores” (like those of laptops or tablets), calculate these patterns and control the customer orders. More than 800 of these processor cores work in parallel in Witron’s largest systems. The Upper Palatinate company was never a stranger to highly sophisticated algorithms. Witron has been researching and developing in this field since 2004 - and continues to improve the algorithms.
“Crazy about thinking”
Trivial things oftentimes make work processes easier. Therefore, Walter Winkler’s dictum is to avoid any unnecessary complications and extra work steps. The Witron owner describes logic as his greatest strength: “I am always infatuated thinking in perfection.” Winkler brings this perfection to the customers in everything he does and in everything WITRON does. “I offer performance and technological solutions with customer benefit.” The 83-year-old reveals his impatience as both his greatest weakness and a great strength: “It moves the company forward.”
“I consider my company as a social institution that cannot be bequeathed. The company belongs to the employees.” Walter Winkler made this statement during the interview for his 80th birthday. With his wife Hildegard, he put this into practice “to the last detail”. Generated profits remain in the company, and only fixed distributions are made to charitable foundations. The charitable contributions amount to millions of Euros each year, without loudly beating the advertising drums. Following the foundation model, the Winkler family abstains from claiming company shares. Apart from this, Mr. Winkler’s children are financially secure. The foundation cannot be sold.
Pension provisions for employees
It is part of the corporate culture that “suppliers are not squeezed” and employees are treated with care. In the early years, Hildegard Winkler even cooked in the cafeteria. “Our cafeteria is the best.” The author can confirm that the term “cafeteria” is probably the biggest understatement of the year. There are numerous benefits for employees: from annual profit sharing to pension provisions, from disability to accident insurance. Witron is probably the only company of its size in Germany that does not provide company cars in the sense of equality for all employees and in order to use the funds for other social programs. But word has spread out about the worthwhile benefits. Meanwhile, specialists from all over the German-speaking region apply for a job at Witron. Absolute priority is given to apprenticeship, and young people are supported and trained in a wide range of fields.
The commitment is so deep that Hildegard and Walter Winkler offer their employees two exclusive apartments in Potsdam (Germany) directly at the Havel river to be used for vacation purposes. The 83-year-old still plays soccer in the company team in the position of the center forward and keeps himself fit by swimming, mountain biking, and skiing. His forecast: “Witron will continue to exist for many, many years.” And before the company pays penalty interests to banks, it prefers to invest in development - and employees. “I look forward to my work every day”, says Walter Winkler.
Witron grows from 4,800 to 7,000 employees by 2023
The enormous international demand is accelerating the growth of Witron from Parkstein. In its 50th year, customer orders add up to an order backlog of more than five years. This has positive consequences.
Based on the high order backlog, the company founded by Walter Winkler (83) in 1971 as a two-man operation, will increase the number of employees from currently 4,800 to 7,000 by 2023.
Walter Winkler and CEO Helmut Prieschenk confirmed this development to “Oberpfalz-Medien”. Despite Covid-19, the management board expects an increase in sales to almost one billion Euros this year: following 710 million Euros in 2020. At the headquarters in Parkstein, almost 2,500 specialists will be employed in the mid-term.
The current order volume and the resulting service contracts, as well as other upcoming major orders, ensure full workload for years to come - industry insiders speak of a decade. It is reported that this time span also applies to the technological lead of the logistics expert, specializing in the distribution centers of large grocery chains such as Walmart or Edeka.
The prerequisite for the expansion is the investment of almost 200 million Euros in order to double the capacity for production, warehousing, and offices at the Parkstein Headquarters. After a record-breaking construction time of less than 2 years, the grand opening is scheduled for September 3 in the presence of the Bavarian Finance Minister, Albert Füracker. The expansion enlargens the production at the headquarters from 100,000 to 220,000 square meters. The actual investment represents one of the largest private-sector construction projects in northern Bavaria.
“A lot has changed since 1971, but the essentials have remained”, Walter Winkler said on the 40th company anniversary. “That remains true today.” At the age of 83 years, the company’s founder still has an international reputation as an “innovation driver” and “pioneer”. The physically fit company patriarch reserves the final say on major projects to this day. He is assisted by his wife Hildegard - as his closest confidante, especially in social matters. “My employees are Witron’s greatest asset”, emphasizes Walter Winkler at the end.