How one young German is revolutionizing the business world | Generation 25 | DW | 20.09.2015
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Generation 25

How one young German is revolutionizing the business world

He has founded two successful businesses, but Armin is not driven by profit. He wants to revolutionize the business world. Join Armin on the train.

Armin Steuernagel's train is running five minutes late, but I knew that before the announcement, because he told me via Whatsapp. He makes it his business to know anything that might affect his plans, so he can inform everyone involved in a project of any changes in plenty of time.

Armin runs two companies, has 30 members of staff and customers in more than 20 countries around the world. Today he has a meeting at the headquarters of Germany's largest cooperative bank in Bochum.

He arrives at the station and strides towards me with two trolley cases. He is tall, gangly, has straw blonde hair, is dressed in jeans and a jacket and his sports shoes are tied up with neon-red laces.

Tinder for investors

In the first minutes of our meeting, as we head to the bank, Armin tells me about one of his many start-up ideas. Without going into too much detail, he says it would be a kind of Tinder for bank clients. Only in this case, rather than people sizing each other up on the strength of their looks, users would give points to the bank's investment projects, thereby deciding whether or not they should be granted a loan.

  • "Companies are there to offer solutions to problems, not to generate the largest possible profit for shareholders. I am convinced of that."

We arrive at the GLS Bank, Germany's leading social and ecological financial institution. On a banner hanging down the façade are anti-capitalist quotes from such figures as Ibsen and Gandhi. They are the kind of quotes that appear on Twitter and get thousands of retweets.

A childhood game

Armin Steuernagel, Copyright: DW/J. Bruck

Doesn't want to help a mainstream bank make more profit

Armin points to his favorite, which is by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. "Anyone who only fights for profit, harvests nothing that is worth living for," it reads.

And to prove he shares the sentiment, Armin says he would not be interested in advising a mainstream bank on how to make more profit. "There are other things to do in the world."

His life in business started with home-made chocolates, for which he had a particular fondness as a child. He drew catalogues, employed his cousins and delivered his chocolaty creations directly to his customers - who also happened to be his neighbors and relatives. He was 12 years old at the time.

"The company was just an extension of an instinct to play," he said. He would spend hours occupying the kitchen with his production - until he freed it up to let his mother clean up his mess, he adds with a laugh.

  • "As a good entrepreneur, you should never have the feeling that you're an administrator, but always a shaper, regardless of the setbacks. You should always ask yourself what you're going to make of something."

Armin grew up in Hanover, where he attended a Steiner school. The alternative approach to schooling taught him to use his initiative and trust in his own abilities. The spiritual philosophy of his school actually gave him another business idea.

Company boss at 16

For their eurhythmy classes, pupils at Steiner schools had to wear special silk clothing that their parents had to make for them. Seeing a gap in the market, Armin drew up patterns and had the garments made in the Czech Republic. The parents at the Steiner school were grateful to be able to buy the clothes, and an enterprise was born. Armin used his own bedroom for product storage, and slept in a box-room.

At the age of 16, he wanted to be recognized by law as the manager of his clothing company, so his parents applied to the guardianship court to have his age of consent brought forward. It was a long process, but he when he finally had the trade license, he felt "really proud."

Looking for meaning

At the GLS bank, he has them eating out of his hand. Those taking part in his workshop are all, without exception, older than him. Armin is there to help shape the company for a digital future.

Armin Steuernagel giving a workshop, Copyright: DW/J. Bruck

When Armin talks about the future, people listen

"Armin is charismatic, and can make people enthusiastic about his ideas," Frank Zientz, a board member who invited the young consultant in. "He is very well versed in digital transitions and combines the business element with a search for meaning, which is also what we are doing."

  • "The many opportunities we have today require us to ask the question: Why? And that means we have to work on ourselves. We have to be more reflective in our assessments of things."

Back at the railway station in Bochum, we board the train for Cologne, where the next appointment is waiting. There is enough time to learn a little more about this young high-flyer.

What is 'work-life balance' anyway?

Armin graduated from high school with top grades and then went on to study philosophy, politics and economics at the Witten/Herdecke private university and at Oxford. During his time as a student, he and a business partner founded his second company, "Mogli," an organic food label for kids. The products are designed to be "fun for children and to taste good while still being healthy."

Because he was working in the company too, he only employed people he "felt he could be friends with." He regards the much lauded division between work and leisure as schizophrenic.

  • "It's strange to say: This is my work time, so now I'm suffering, and the rest of the time, I have fun. Ultimately, our life is made up of all these hours combined - and that time is limited."

Armin dreams of creating new business models, in which employees don't graft to create wealth for anonymous shareholders, but have a greater stake in the company where they work - even in terms of ownership structures.

His ideas are not new, but they have to be transposed into a new age. Armin describes himself as an idealist, and he means it in the most positive way. He wants to set up foundations in which participating companies commit to giving ownership to those who identify with the company. In other words, the staff.

Armin Steuernagel outside the train, Copyright: DW/J. Bruck

His next telephone conference is at 8 p.m. On the train.

The next transition is coming

In Cologne we meet Armin's friend Manuel. He organizes major international start-up conferences, and Armin hopes to convince him about his idea for shared ownership foundations. Manuel is enthusiastic, and says the brains behind start-ups, especially the promising ones, are often squeezed out by investors.

"Our generation doesn't want to work for other people, it is about self-fulfillment," Manuel says. And Armin agrees.

Before Armin catches his ICE to Zurich, his home when he is not in Berlin, we have one final conversation. I ask him how he sees 25 years of unified Germany. From his generation's perspective, a quarter of a century later, he finds the way people set things up at the time completely absurd: "They found a way to live with a wall dividing their country, and just accepted it."

And then he asks a difficult question: "What are the things we could be doing now, to which we simply say 'that's just the way it is'?" The Wall, he says, was a man-made barrier that could be removed. He then makes an appeal to his generation: "We have to be prepared for such moments of transition and work on them. When they arrive, we have to be ready and say: We finally have the opportunity to change something." And then he hurries off to his platform, taking his two suitcases with him.