Ulrich Dietz: “Constantly new challenges are part of everyday life”

Ulrich Dietz is always good for surprises. He has given up the operative leadership of the IT service provider GFT, which he developed into a global player, in order to concentrate more strongly on his startup platform code_n. In the late summer of 2016 we talked to him about entrepreneurial navigation in a “world out of joint”.  

Mr. Dietz, we want to talk to you about the international development of your company after the crisis …

Excuse me, what crisis?

… well, we mean the most serious, the financial crisis of 2009.

This is precisely where the challenge lies: For several years, we have been in a permanent, latent state of crisis. The world is a bit out of joint. And it will probably stay that way for a while.From the financial crisis to the recent eruptions in Turkey – constantly new challenges are part of everyday life. For companies, that means they have to remain highly flexible. Of course we have long term strategies and projects. But it can change anytime, quickly and everywhere, for example, from a very positive to a stagnant or negative environment. Companies have to react to that without having to immediately release employees and without having to practice a “potato” strategy – that is, into the potatoes, out of the potatoes. Instead, it is important to develop a global view of resources, to produce and sell them in many locations in order to symbolically “hedge” individual problems.

Let’s talk about moving times in individual markets. How is GFT navigating the crisis in Brazil, one of its most important locations?

We have been in Brazil since 2005. At that time, we built it as a nearshoring location, but as such it literally pulverized. With the strengthening of the Brazilian currency, this approach was no longer attractive on the cost side. As a result, we worked hard to develop Brazil as a market. It took time, but meanwhile we have established a local management respected by the customers and can show a good development. The currency relation has also changed again – and so we also use Brazil again as a production location for the North American market. This is currently very attractive for us. The Russia-Ukraine crisis has led to shifts in US procurement towards Latin America. So Brazil is a very good example of the fact that it pays to stay on Balli. We recently invested again in Brazil: with WG Systems (Habber Tec), acquired in 2016, we have gained new employees and important customers despite the economic crisis. With our digital banking solutions, we are very well positioned in Brazil. With around 680 employees, we have now become a highly recognized local partner.

And Spain – do you see any parallels in the crisis?

No, the developments in Spain can not be compared one to one. The bursting of the real estate bubble hit the country hard. The crisis has also had a serious impact on the labor market. There was no labor cost increase, as in Brazil and many other countries. However, the Spanish economic crisis also had a positive effect on GFT, because we were able to find local employees easier and hire them cost-effectively. During the crisis, we set up training programs and help programs for our employees and their families. That was the basis for further expanding our Spanish location. As a global development location, Spain has great relevance for GFT. Incidentally, the Spanish banks are not so bad as some of their European competitors.

We will continue to expand GFT in Spain in the future. In 2015, we redeveloped the location Mexico via GFT Iberia. In addition, there is the presence in Costa Rica with great growth potential. Spain is becoming more and more important to us, especially globally. This is the result of a long-term commitment of more than 16 years now. International business – that means long breath!

What are the criteria for entering a new market? Is there a global master plan to follow?

Let me express it Swabian: A “Masterplänle” is the basis. This must not be carved in stone, it must be adapted over the years again and again to the developments. Beyond Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria and Romania have long been on the agenda for GFT in Central and Eastern Europe. Ultimately, however, developments in these countries have deterred us. Honestly, maybe we missed some opportunities, but I feel much better now that we have not built up massive resources there.

By the way, this does not apply to Asia. There we look around regularly and will be active sooner or later. But we are a medium-sized company. It is not that we – like the industry giant – can invest tens of millions in a new market. We have to make money in the end. In North America, we still have a huge potential that we have not yet exhausted. Business in Europe is also doing very well. Our products and services are very much in demand. The art here is sometimes to say “no” and focus to get the necessary horsepower out onto the street and not jump from one corner to the next.

How do you find people for the expansion? In the field of IT, they are certainly in fierce competition with the industry giants – worldwide.

IT experts are in high demand worldwide. Sustainable investments pay off here. We are a valued and well-known employer in many countries, such as Spain. Especially in times of crisis, we sent positive signals. This commitment is bearing fruit. In the management we encourage the countries in their individual developments. To emphasize that Spain is the Silicon Valley of Europe and that we are investing there sustainably – that’s the market message!

One must also see: We are in the countries not a classic “German” company, which simply puts on their corset. In Spain we are a Spanish, in England an English and in Poland a Polish company. For us, the European idea is the most important thought to be pursued. We do everything to live this idea in the company. That’s what people feel, and that’s why they like coming to us.

How do you keep the teams together across national companies?

We have a common approach – namely: One Company. There is no difference between Spanish, Brazilian, Swabian or Polish employees. Everyone has their jobs. We always look where we can do the tasks well. For example, for our own IT services, we hire colleagues in Poland who travel to our various locations. With another program, we have just brought employees from Brazil to Spain, who are trained there and integrated into projects. Of course, these colleagues go to Barcelona enthusiastically. This is how the GFT team becomes a colorful mix. I want to have good employees everywhere and be able to operate independently of locations. That makes us flexible in mind and mindset.

Is such a global corporate culture a crucial factor in the competition for talent?

Yes, the employees and especially the young people already find our internationality quite attractive. This was clearly noticeable when we opened our branch office in Warsaw a few weeks ago. Our employees worldwide are happy to come to our main location in Stuttgart as well. You do not even believe how important this location is for us today. What we have built up here in Stuttgart – the Innovation Campus CODE_n SPACES or the SW34 Restaurant Startup – all this has developed an eerie pull. International meetings in this atmosphere are great. We do things that are more and different than what a classic business or master plan would require of us.

How important is CODE_n meanwhile for the identity of the GFT?

Very important. Why am I an entrepreneur? Because I want to “do something” and not “refrain” things. In today’s increasingly globalized world, it’s my motivation to create something new and unexpected.It all started in 2012 with the CODE_n startup competition as part of CeBIT. We wanted to show what a 21st century IT show should look like to be attractive to the public. The partnership as well as the response from the public and the customers were very positive. In 2015, we had over 75,000 visitors in the CODE_n hall. With CODE_n we have successfully created a new format – which we organize for the first time in 2016 for the first time as a festival in Karlsruhe. But we are not an event agency. The aim is different: Ideas are quickly worked out today, but using them and doing business with them has become extremely complex. A network is needed in which one supports one another and mobilizes forces together. Compensate for weaknesses by learning from each other, generates new strengths and thus gains a great competitive advantage. We sensed this potential from the beginning and created CODE_n.

My motivation is to realize this on a much larger scale and to develop it globally. With the CODE_n new.New Festival we also specifically target the medium-sized industry in Baden-Württemberg. They can use the platform to understand the digital transformation as an opportunity and use it successfully. Germany is an industrial nation. Europe is one of the most exciting parts of the world. It must be possible that we present technology in such a way that it thrills many people.

Hans Gäng
14.11.2019
von Hans Gäng