A Generation of Uncertainty: Companies Prepare for Future that Can't Be Predicted

By Dietmar Hawranek, Martin Hesse and Alexander Jung

Part 2: Reliable Forecasts 'Virtually Impossible'

Photo Gallery: Preparing for the Unpredictable Photos
DPA

Reitzle takes a similar approach to managing the Linde Group. The CEO says that it's no longer possible to approve a five-year plan in the belief that the company will actually attain such goals. "That no longer works." He says today's companies need "an entirely different kind of flexibility".

This means that various divisions in a corporation have to be managed in highly diverse ways. In growth regions, he says it's important to play an offensive game and make major investments. By contrast, cutbacks are necessary in stagnating markets.

And everything has to be continuously better, faster and more efficient. The High Performance Organization (HPO) program has just been approved, and Reitzle is already introducing HPO II, which aims to save up to €900 million ($1.2 billion) over the next four years. Some executives are grumbling over this. Why now, they ask, when everything is going so well, should we become even better, and leaner?

Reitzle says he doesn't understand such an attitude. On the one hand, he says the corporation has to give itself sufficient leeway to take advantage of opportunities and buy out competitors -- such as the recent acquisition of the US company Lincare, which Linde purchased for some €3.6 billion. On the other hand, he says it's also necessary to work with early warning systems "to be prepared for the worst-case scenario." Ideally, he says, a company cannot be seriously threatened by any crisis, no matter how surprising it may be. Or, as Reitzle puts it: Linde will then be "indestructible."

And it's more than just a certain number of companies listed on Germany's DAX index of blue chip companies that are bracing themselves for the next crisis. Many small and medium-sized companies, Germany's so-called Mittelstand, are also preparing for an uncertain future. One such firm is Phoenix Contact.

The company is a "hidden champion," one of the many German global market leaders that very few people know. Working out of its headquarters in Blomberg in eastern Westphalia, it sets global standards for electrical connection technology. Phoenix Contact makes one-quarter of all the electrical connectors used in switch cabinets or other devices around the world.

Using a Lull to Gain an Edge

Over the past 12 years, the company has more than tripled its annual sales to over €1.5 billion. But now that growth is starting to falter. According to CEO Roland Bent, sales have declined in China and, not surprisingly, they are in a slump in Southern Europe. So what is the head of the company doing? He's investing.

In 2013, the company will open an experimental laboratory in Blomberg. It's also building a nearby center for trainees. There are 360 of them -- more than ever before. And, to top it all off, Phoenix Contact is investing tens of millions of euros in the development of a charging plug for electric cars.

Such perseverance -- one could also call it stubbornness -- is typical of this company. Even during the current crisis, it's sticking to the strategy that it thinks is right. Phoenix Contact is using the temporary lull to gain a technological edge on the competition.

During the recession in 2009, for instance, Phoenix engineers purchased a device that was revolutionary at the time: a 3-D printer to produce prototypes of pin and socket connectors. This allows the company to hand its clients a model made of plastic, instead of merely showing them an image on a monitor.

Phoenix Contact is consistently taking an anti-cyclical approach: While others are tightening their belts, the company is going on the offensive. This family-owned company can only afford to do this, though, because it is independent -- especially of shareholders and banks. Phoenix Contact doesn't require any outside capital.

In the current climate of uncertainty, many German global market leaders are adopting a mindset similar to that of executives at Phoenix Contact. They seek their own way through the maze of the financial and euro crises. A reliable forecast, says Phoenix Contact CEO Bent, is "virtually impossible" anyway.

Rattled Investors

The uncertainty over the future economic development has also rattled people who are looking to invest their money. These days, savings accounts produce virtually no interest. After deducting losses due to inflation, the account balance actually shrinks. Anyone who saves their money gets the short end of the stick. But what alternative remains?

Many people purchase an apartment, a house, precious metals or stocks. In some cases, prices have risen considerably. In urban centers such as Munich, Hamburg and Berlin, apartments and buildings are worth one-fifth more than they were two years ago. The price of gold has nearly doubled over the past five years. Last week, the DAX reached its highest level in five years.

But it can't go on like this forever. Responsible financial consultants admit to their clients that there are no safe tips for investments. They recommend diversifying and putting money into different types of investments. This at least makes it possible to spread the risk of suffering losses.

While investors, company CEOs, and small and medium-size companies increasingly accept that they no longer know how the economy will develop, the new sense of uncertainty has apparently made little impression on one group of professionals: economic analysts. They continue to make forecasts as if there were a mathematical formula to calculate the future. And they don't allow themselves to be bothered by the fact that their previous predictions were frequently off the mark.

Even the United Nations is warning of a worldwide recession. In its report "World Economic Situation and Prospects 2013," the UN writes: Economic growth could be close to zero. But the experts also predict that growth could be 2.4 percent, or even 3.8 percent, depending on the assumptions made. Everything is possible.

It's also interesting to note that the black swan has meanwhile extended its natural range of distribution. It's now endemic to New Zealand. A few specimens have even been sighted in the Netherlands.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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1. Certainty and uncertainty!
SHBasse 12/31/2012
For the ones like "The Spiegel" readers it will not come as a surprise that no fundamentally positive developments has taken place and is goint to take place in the near future. That is the certainty! The uncertainty is the political and human factor which determins when "time is up" for further artificial measures intended to postpone the enevitable "reckoning day"! As nobody is doing anything about the fundamental problem of lost competitiveness, the crisis will just go on and on! http://unifiedscience2.blogspot.com/2011/02/deeper-causes-of-downturn.html Next step will be tensions between the "Old Industrial Countries" and the "Newly industrialized Countries" and industry will be wise to prepare for trade wars.
2. The man who knows does not predict, the one who predicts does not know
titus_norberto 01/01/2013
The man who knows does not predict, the one who predicts does not know, an old Chinese proverb. We have to admit that we are fallible, we have no control over the universe in which we dwell and our past “control” was merely an illusion… Perhaps trying to control gas emissions we will trigger the opposite effect; I do believe that historian Paul Johnson who coined the “law of unintended consequences”, a law that plagues our history and prehistory… Just 60 years of relative peace made US complacent and delusional, but reality tells US that we can plan very little and more, “no plan resists contact”, anyone that read the ancient Greeks knows that…, and yes, black swans do exist, they are based on certain CERTAINTY about social diseases, although I doubt that there are “swans” from the same genus of the Europeans since the Southern fauna developed totally independent from the northern hemisphere; let US say that they are as similar as ostriches are to ñandúes in South America, fair enough, but a completely different kind of animal… Back to the lottery or financial Chaldean horoscopes, the lack of a TRUE international currency (since the US dollar is FIAT money with no backing but debt) is the real culprit of our current woes..., another culprit is massive production of useless artifacts such as remote-controlled helicopters at $ 20 USD (ea), a technological feat BUT an economic disaster “ad portas”… Macroeconomic figures mask all problems and confuse financial horoscopic professional journalists, which they leverage their confusion under the banner: “every problem is an opportunity“ giving false certainties that last less than one day to the readers… The real problem, and I refuse to predict its consequences, is that we BELIEVE in a XIX century superstition invented by the Satanist Mandeville who coined the phrase “the invisible hand of the market” later made reputable and dressed-up with a scientific veil by Adam Smith BUT we ACT contradicting its main tenets… there is no credit and extremely low interest rates... a sensible person would smell a rat, not professional journalists though... Take for instance the American (or Japanese) interest rates, they are ARTIFICIALLY kept low utilizing EMISSION with no backing by the FED, thus the system is totally DISTORTED, nevertheless the journalists keep utilizing the other “laws” as if we are living in a pristine "free market" economy... in which governments are nationalizing DEBT ! The fact that the US reference interest rate is a LIE ironically confers more power to rating agencies since there is no way to calculate risk… And the horoscopic agencies pluck them out of thin air… We have all the ingredients necessary for a collapsing pyramid or cosmic bubble bursting up. The only way out is to develop a new model to supersede the obsolete current to debunk for one in all the financial gamble ACROSS globalized stock exchanges... To isolate them certainly will help, and limiting access to "punters" will help as well. Unlike the white swan, it is said that the black swan distrusts Chaldean horoscopes… Norberto
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