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KN article: Altenholz entrepreneur in crisis mode: “This time is extremely stressful”

Entrepreneur in crisis mode: Head of Altenholzer Weihe GmbH looks anxiously to 2023

KIEL: He’s been coughing and sniffling a lot these days. Perhaps it’s also the stress that Axel Weihe can’t really get rid of his infection. His company, the welding technology specialist Weihe GmbH in Altenholz with just under 50 employees, has tough times behind it and challenging times ahead. Rising costs, rising interest rates and a lack of skilled workers – these are the issues that concern the boss as he looks ahead to the new year. But Weihe is not complaining: there are plenty of orders. The challenge is to process them on time.

How is the boss of a medium-sized metal company doing in January 2023? Axel Weihe: To be honest, if being an entrepreneur was always like it is at the moment, I would probably run out of steam at some point. It’s extremely exhausting. During the hot phase of the pandemic, there were already a lot of worries. There was significantly less turnover in the traditional welding and manufacturing sector. During this time, I was already thinking: How much longer can this go on? After all, we are a supplier for exporting industrial companies. And if they don’t sell anything, we don’t sell anything either. The burdens have not decreased, but the fear of losing a company has. Some of the problems we had at the height of the pandemic have shifted.

What does that mean in practice?

Of course, there were also challenges before the war and before coronavirus. But sales were good at the time and strategic issues were addressed. How do I position the company for the long term? How do I optimize processes? Where are there opportunities for innovation? We are still a long way from returning to this mode. At least we were lucky enough to have a young division that was still generating revenue: the construction of highly efficient plants that produce green electricity from waste heat. What is now keeping us on our toes, however, is the company’s entire cost structure.

Not only are energy costs rising, but also personnel costs. Employees are demanding massive pay rises in one fell swoop, and I can well understand that in view of inflation. Of course, you have to do justice to this if you don’t want to lose good people. But we’re not talking about one or two percent here, but ten percent, and that’s an order of magnitude that we can’t pass on to our customers. Finding new employees, especially specialists for a welding company, is illusory in a situation where there is a chronic shortage of skilled workers. I am glad that I have such a great team of employees. And that we haven’t had to cut staff despite the crises. The state aid has actually helped us a lot.

How are you personally coping with the stress? We closed the company between Christmas and New Year – that’s my rest period. I do a bit of sport to compensate, but there’s not much time for relaxation. In normal times, 10-hour days have become 14-hour days.

How is Weihe GmbH doing in concrete terms? The figures are slowly improving again. They were red due to corona, now they’re black again. The order situation is good. My concern at the moment is that we will be able to process the orders. I would actually need more staff for that, but I can’t get them. Interrupted supply chains continue to cause me headaches. Raw materials such as steel and stainless steel are working again. But the supply of electronic components is brutally disrupted. We never know whether we will get this component or not. A small part costing just one euro can mean that an entire system cannot be delivered. This postpones sales, and that hurts a lot because we have to pre-finance a lot. And that is also a point of concern: money has become much more expensive. We have also come out of corona under pressure, and then you can no longer get everything done on your own, you have to rely on banks. And they are taking a closer look than they did some time ago.

There is no shortage of negative news. What are you looking forward to in the coming year? What is developing really well is the business with the mobile efficiency systems that we build as an industrial partner of the Munich-based company Orcan. They fit in perfectly with the challenges of climate protection and rising energy prices. These systems can produce electricity wherever waste heat is generated that would otherwise be wasted – in power plants, for example, in cement works, in almost every large industrial operation. Together with our expertise in exhaust gas purification and noise protection, we have a green product portfolio that also makes the company attractive for new employees and potential successors in the company management. We have already put together a management team that is keen to do this. And that is very important to me. After all, I’m 62 years old and I want to have time for other plans in my life.

How well do you feel supported by politicians? The coronavirus aid has worked well, and I am very grateful to politicians for that. However, what is happening at the moment is very opaque to me. There’s a lot of talk about gas and electricity price brakes. But what does the relief look like for companies that use oil as energy, for example? There is a lot that is not clear to me. Another huge problem is the hurdles for small and medium-sized enterprises when applying for funding, for example for innovations and investments.

There are plenty of pots, but it’s almost impossible to access them – if you can’t afford the necessary specialists who know their way around the bureaucratic jungle. Sometimes it’s enough that you don’t include certain key words in your application and you’ve already failed. And of course politicians, but also companies and society as a whole, must finally tackle the huge problem of skills shortages.

Do you have any ideas? There are a lot of screws that we need to turn. In my view, however, the core issue is to increase the appreciation of skilled trades, starting at school. We simply have too many young people who want to do office jobs. There are fewer and fewer people who want to work in the trades. That makes me a bit perplexed.

Interview and text by ULRICH METSCHIES, published in the Kieler Nachrichten on January 02, 2023, photo by FRANK PETER

Interview mit Altenholzer Unternehmer Axel Weihe: Es ist ganz extrem anstrengend (kn-online.de) 

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