"Anyone who has a big problem is a failure": Wolfgang Grupp's tough career tips for executives

  • For 51 years, Wolfgang Grupp has been the head of Trigema, a German manufacturer of sports and leisurewear.
  • In an interview with Business Insider, he provides insights into his company’s steep career ladders and talks about New Work and his leadership style.
  • Among other things, the Burladingen native becomes skeptical when young people apply to work for him instead of moving to the country’s metropolises.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

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Wolfgang Grupp has always known how to make his company Trigema the focus of media coverage. He most recently proved this in “coronavirus spring” in March 2020, when he unceremoniously switched his factories from making polo shirts and sportswear to producing face masks. He made 2.3 million masks at the time, he says in an interview with Business Insider. “After that, I was happy that we could go back to our normal production.”

In an interview with Business Insider, he reveals why the crisis hasn’t changed much in terms of corporate culture and why he rejects home offices. He also talks about his distrust of applicants from large metropolises and career ladders that can almost exclusively be climbed internally.

“Already knocked down all the walls 51 years ago”.

Grupp doesn’t think much of Anglicisms like “new work,” and he makes no secret of that. When asked whether the practices behind the pair of words are also practiced at Trigema, the company boss says: “New Work? I already had all the walls knocked down 51 years ago when I came to the company and we were all sitting in individual offices and no one knew the term open-plan office yet, because I couldn’t work like that.”

The company boss needs his people around him, which is why he also sits in the middle. That’s the only way he can make quick decisions and involve his people in the process, he says. “My employees expect serious decisions to be made by me. But all decisions are co-decided by my employees and, above all, they are also supported. If the employee stands behind the decision, he or she will also do everything possible to ensure that the decision does not become a negative one.”

Grupp also largely did not send his employees to work from home during the coronavirus crisis. “For me, working from home is not feasible,” he says. For one thing, he says, that’s because the seamstresses now can’t operate the machines used to make Polo shirts from home. Also, everything “has to be decided on a daily basis, and this is not possible with a home office,” Grupp says.

Those who give themselves to the business and its boss, however, can have stellar careers. Provided they don’t come from too far away.

Every manager started at the bottom

Grupp is suspicious of applicants from distant states and large cities. It has always been clear to him that “if someone from Hamburg, for example, applies to us and thinks he’s top but still doesn’t get an opportunity in Hamburg, then he doesn’t necessarily have to come to us in Burladingen”. Because if he were really so “top”, then “he would have received a position in Hamburg long ago.” Grupp has always known “that good people don’t want to come to Burladingen, but rather to the big cities.”

So if you want a management position in the business, you have to start as an apprentice: “At Trigema, it’s the case that all the management people were originally apprentices. We know them, and among them, we can select the best, and they reach the management positions because they perform consistently!” says the 78-year-old company boss. “So already the apprentices know that they have the chance, depending on their performance, to sit at the top later on.”

There is one thing, however, that aspirants to senior positions at Trigema need to understand. Hiding problems is not an option at the self-proclaimed “largest German manufacturer of sports and leisurewear”: “Problems are not there to be discussed, but to be solved. Anyone who comes to me with a question leaves with an answer!”. Anyone who has a big problem, Grupp told Business Insider, “is generally a failure for me, because every problem was small and if he had solved it as a small one, he wouldn’t have a big one!”

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