For husband-and-wife team Benedikt and Isabelle Himbert, working together with the shared vision of taking the family business to greater heights is something they’ve been preparing for their whole lives.
“My family business, which is now in its fourth generation, was founded by my great-grandfather,” says Benedikt. “It used to be focussed on the import and trade of fruit and vegetables to big retail chains. The business has changed a bit since and now we work a lot in logistics and services – things like ripening, packaging, quality assurance…”
Having always thought that “Investment banking was really cool”, Benedikt completed a PhD in finance and embarked upon a career in consulting, spending some time working with American firm Bain & Company’s private equity consulting group before moving on to private equity fund diligence and post-acquisition strategy.
“That’s when I realised there's not only more potential, but it's also much more fun working with mid-sized companies, rather than with the big global corporates - which are often seen as sort of oil tankers, hard to steer and very slow to turn,” he says.
“Around the same time, I was mulling over managing director roles, there were discussions with Isabelle’s family about succession and her parents thinking about transitioning their family business to the next generation. So, we started a conversation, and I did my own due diligence. I love working with my wife and I do believe in the company - I've not regretted the decision to join at all.”
I am now the third generation where the daughter has taken over while bringing her husband on board.
- Isabelle Himbert
The business in question is Arno Arnold, a German firm that started out making bellows for musical instruments and over the years evolved into flexible machine protection and protective covers for industrial manufacturing.
“We are already in the sixth generation of managing the company now – and I am now the third generation where the daughter has taken over while bringing her husband on board,” says Isabelle. “I'm very happy that I was able to convince Benedikt to join, because I grew up with my parents managing the company together.”
For Isabelle, joining Arno Arnold wasn’t always a given, despite having grown up with the business – “My dad used to put me on his shoulders and show me the new machines that he was very proud of” – she felt that a career on her own terms was something she should explore first. So, after a series of internships in big companies while completing a bachelor’s and master’s in management, she spent a few years as a strategist and account manager for Google in Dublin.
But the call of the family firm was too hard to ignore, and she’s now happily working alongside her husband as joint managing directors.
“During my studies, I thought, maybe it was the easy option to join the family business. And now I really must laugh because it was not at all the easy option!”
Having made the decision to work together, Isabelle and Benedikt are mindful of the importance of continuing the family legacy.
“When I was a child, at mealtimes, we had a clear conversation rule - I was allowed to speak first about my day because I was the youngest, my brother spoke second about his day, and then third was my parents talking about the company,” says Isabelle. “If you grow up like this, you learn a lot about the business.”
For Benedikt, the appeal of Arno Arnold is that it’s the anthesis of all those oil tanker corporates. “It’s more like a speedboat,” he says. “It’s more adaptable and reactive, everything we think up can be usually implemented within days. It's a lot quicker to make decisions.”
This adaptability allows for greater innovation and the possibility of faster growth, an advantage the Himberts are keen to take advantage of.
We are very much grounded in family values.
We care for our people, and I think that's the main message.
- Benedikt Himbert
“We've been the inventor of the bellows for use in machine tools for years, but we've also been innovating the products too – and we want to continue doing that,” says Benedikt. “That means we will also keep rethinking our products, make them more innovative and adapt our products to bigger trends like becoming more sustainable in production.”
“But it also means making our products more accessible. The business has been very much focused on the core market of Europe, but over the past few years, our core customer groups has been growing in China and Asia. So, we also must innovate to become a well-known global player in this market. We are currently setting up our Asia hub and production site in China and looking to innovate our product portfolio into the underserved conveying industry.”
With an eye on global growth, both husband and wife believe its vitally important that the values and identity that have carried Arno Arnold through many generations remain intact. But how do you do that when entering a new territory?
“We will be sending people over to China to not only train the people on the machines and other products, but also to transfer the culture of our business,” says Benedikt. “We are very much grounded in family values. We care for our people, and I think that's the main message."
“It is extremely important for us to have this very global mindset,” says Isabelle. “But we also invest a lot of time in our employees to keep the retention rate high. We know every employee by name, and we know many of their families. We have a very close relationship with the team and need their full support with any ideas going forward. As we grow internationally, we aim to live up to those values. Obviously, it will be a challenge and to sustain that in Asia as well. But we're trying our best to do so.”
As with all aspects of industrial manufacturing, environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria, is being increasingly scrutinised. For the Himberts, it’s not only fundamentally important to make their business sustainable but they also see it as an opportunity for development.
“In Germany when we talk about sustainability, most of the time, people only talk about the ecological aspect,” says Isabelle. “But for us, sustainability has various pillars. Obviously, there's the ecological aspect, but there are also the social and economic parts. I think only if you have all those three pillars aligned can you be sustainable overall.
“When it comes to manufacturing our products, there can be a lot of residuals that we cannot use. We're finding a way to make our production more efficient, so that we have less waste. That's good for us economically, because we're buying less of the expensive material, and it's also ecologically more sustainable.
“I've got a strong belief that family businesses have the strongest aim to be sustainable, because we wish to handover the business to the next generation.”