Learning from the best

"Learning from each other in practice" - Panopa Logistics GmbH is an internationally active company with its company headquarter in Germany and locations in England, France, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal and Spain. Heinz-Gerd Sprenger, chairman of the board, and Bernhard Kuntze, Human Resources executive manager, share the secret of theircompany's success and report about intercultural challenges facing the company in its activities abroad.

Panopa Logistics GmbH employs 1400 people all over Europe. You must have daily contact to other cultures.

Panopa Logistics GmbH is one of four logistics companies belonging to Imperial Logistics International GmbH. Imperial Logistics International is a subsidiary of the South African company Imperial Holdings Limited. It's part of our corporate culture to hire employees from other countries, because it gives us the chance to learn from our employees. Before I go to, for example, Poland, or Spain, I ask employees what to pay attention to regarding customs and etiquette. We train not only our executives, but also all our employees in dealing with other cultures. If necessary we offer individual language courses and cultural trainings.  For us one thing is certain: We want people from other nations to work with us. We want to learn from each other in practice.

Kuntze: We have several models to support this goal. We practice job rotation and we send junior executives to sister firms. I myself have organized employee assignments to Australia or South Africa. Once they returned, the employees could implement what they'd learned abroad. The feedback we received on these assignments was very positive. One of these employees is CEO of one of our biggest subsidiaries now, incidentally. Sprenger: When we lead interviews, one of our most important questions is whether the applicant is flexible and mobile.

When you think of the intense exchange with colleagues from other countries, what cultural differences come to mind immediately?  

Sprenger: For example, sometimes German exactness isn't a matter of course for everybody. Maybe we exaggerate from time to time. But because of our company structure we're required to keep to certain standards. Thus we have to explain to employees from other cultures why we need certain numbers at a certain time in a certain format. But we learn from the working methods of other cultures, too.

How is intercultural experience transferred in your company? Do you have established instruments for it or do you handle it on a case-by-case basis?

Kuntze: On principle we practice a very open and active exchange of information, but it isn't standardized. We profit from our flat hierarchy. When we send somebody abroad, there's always an intense phase of preparation beforehand, including preparation for the local job, personal preparation for the local country and culture, and an introduction to the local contact. We always arrange for the employee to travel to the country they're sent to before the transfer, if possible with their family. It's important that the employee familiarizes himself with the country he's supposed to live in. They have to know what they're getting into. An employee who's unhappy with local conditions and wants to go home after a short time isn't useful to anybody.

Sprenger: The extent of preparation depends on the demands of the individual. It's important that the employee and his or her family are comfortable. If somebody from Duisburg administration goes to Poland, we don't follow a standardized procedure, we adapt to the individual situation.

Watching such a career path must motivate other employees. Which concrete measures does your company implement to motivate employees? Are your HR policies organized in a centralized or decentralized way? Does Panopa have the freedom to implement individual Human Resources policies?

Sprenger: Even though we're part of Imperial Logistics International, we're decentralized. That's a big advantage, especially when we need speedy decisions, for example when somebody has to be in Spain next week and needs an apartment. In cases like this we can count on our partners abroad, for example colleagues from transport who don't directly compete with us. We also enter into office-sharing partnerships or company integrations; one doesn't always need to be double- or triple-staffed abroad. Ultimately it depends on the concrete case: Either we have our own subsidiaries or we use existing synergies with our local partners.
But to get back to the subject: Of course our employees should be motivated.

Kuntze: Our highest goal is quality. Achievement is honored in our company. We recognized a correlation between motivation and absence, for example, and have developed a concept for this issue. Our Christmas bonus is linked to absences now; this model was developed together with the staff association. We want to support employees who are here constantly and honor their commitment by financial means and paid vacation days, because time off is valuable for everybody. This system works very well. We were able to lower our sick rate by 40 percent. Also, the annual output achieved by the whole of Panopa was honored this year: Each and every employee was granted one day of special vacation.
Sprenger: Additional to individual forms of motivation we place high value on team spirit. It's fun to work together towards a goal and achieve that goal together. We celebrate together. We organize regular company parties, Christmas parties and events. Our company parties take place at another location each year, and we always have a high number of participants, and we often have very interesting conversations.

You mentioned the correlation between innovation and employee satisfaction. On your homepage you mention a customer-oriented quality management system (QMS) to continually improve processes. Two elementary parts of QMS are raising customer and employee satisfaction. Where is the correlation between customer and employee satisfaction at Panopa?

Sprenger: No customers, no Panopa; no employees, no Panopa. For me the correlation is a very close one. We try to live by that example. Panopa's information policy is very open - that includes the staff association. We've made only positive experiences with this system. If I can't increase salaries for a particular year, then I explain why. At this point the correlation between employee and customer satisfaction becomes particularly clear. 

Because of our customer service contracts we're on location with the customer. We normally get feedback, positive and negative, which is communicated to our colleagues. The employee is an important gear wheel in the drive. Because we want our system to work, as Mr. Sprenger already mentioned, our communication policy is very open. We inform all employees in an annual New Year's letter about past and future projects and achievements.

You said, "Our employees are the basis of our success." Executives play a significant role in employee appreciation. Do you agree? On the subject of employee motivation, do you think your company does something different or better than other companies?

I agree, executives' behavior is a decisive factor for employee motivation, that's why we train our executives in this particular area. At our headquarters we offer trainings on sales as well as on conflict management.  The participants are nominated by their executives. In this case too the principle applies: We don't have a standardized concept, we act on demand and according to the problem. The demand for conflict management trainings, for example, came from our employees and was a result of our last employee survey.

Sprenger: Of course we strategically support our young executives beyond that aspect. Mr. Kuntze conducts a potential analysis and observes the "high potentials" closely. This list is dynamic and changes constantly. If there's demand we collaborate with external consultants.

How many personnel decisions do you make in Duisburg for other subsidiaries? Do jobs get assigned from Germany or locally?
Personnel decisions about executives abroad are made in Germany. We hire on the basis of qualification, meaning our topmost executive level is independent of nationality. The lower levels are generally staffed locally.

Since your staff is international, what languages do you use to communicate at Panopa?

Generally we communicate in German and English. Most of our assignees abroad also speak the local language to be able to communicate with local employees.
Sprenger: It's different when we integrate new companies into the Panopa group. If we buy a company abroad, we trust the experience of the existent management and mostly leave the top-level management in place. The second level management is then supported by Panopa personnel. We use the aforementioned potential analysis to find suitable candidates.

Closing Statement: For you personally, what's the most important aspect of the subject "customer satisfaction in an intercultural environment"? 

For me it's especially important that our company headquarters nurture interculturality by hiring people from other nationalities. We're extremely eager to learn, it's the basis of our success, especially abroad.