Founder and Managing Partner
“I founded companies with a new product idea, I bought small companies that nobody wanted and made them big, I developed commodities into brand products. In all this, one valuable thing was in the foreground – TRUST. I have given much trust, and received much more trust in return. Brand products also make a promise and convey trust. When people, in-house and out of house, come to trust each other, long-term healthy development is secured.”
The founder and managing partner of the Stern-Wywiol Gruppe Volkmar Wywiol has an extraordinary success story. He is an exemplary entrepreneur in motivation, leadership and inspiration. He succeeded in transforming the Hamburg-based company he founded 40 years ago into a global market for functional ingredients for food and animal nutrition. Speaking to Miller Magazine, Wywiol draws attention to the entrepreneurial spirit behind his success. “If you have the “entrepreneur gene” you want to try it out yourself one day. 40 years ago I launched the start-up Sternchemie, without money but with big visions for the future. Roll up your sleeves and get to it!” In September 2020, his entrepreneurial character was crowned with the “Hamburg Founders Award".
Volkmar Wywiol, a doyen of the food industry, shared his more than 40 years of experience, principles that brought success, new projects and his predictions about the future of the industry.
Mr. Wywiol, I would like to thank you for accepting our interview request. It is an honor for me to interview a doyen like you... First of all, could you please provide us with some brief background information on Stern-Wywiol Gruppe?
In the Hamburg-based Stern-Wywiol Gruppe, twelve independent specialist firms develop, produce and distribute ingredients and additives that simplify and enhance the production of foods and animal feed. Each individual firm has specific competence of its own – in baked goods, dairy products, deli foods, meat, fish, chocolate, flavourings, lecithin, enzymes or vitamins. In many branches of the food industry, the outstanding competence of these specialist units has made them leading worldwide suppliers in their fields. The enterprise consisting of 12 specialist firms in Germany, 17 affiliates abroad and a total staff of 1,650 achieves an annual turnover of more than half a billion EUR.
You started your business life with a small company in 1980, and your business has become a global player in the market for functional ingredients for food and animal nutrition. What triggered your ambition for this inspiring success journey?
I worked for 25 years as an employee in the lecithin business, and worked my way up from apprentice to Managing Director. If you have the “entrepreneur gene” you want to try it out yourself one day. 40 years ago I launched the start-up Sternchemie, without money but with big visions for the future. Roll up your sleeves and get to it! Today, the start-up generation often has their eye more on the dollar signs and on selling the company.
In September, you received the Hamburg Founders Award in recognition of your life’s work. This award, highly coveted in North Germany’s business community, is conferred for exceptional entrepreneurial achievements. You created a global company from a small family business. Could you share your thoughts with us? What is the secret of this entrepreneurial success?
There aren’t really any secrets. My success is based on very personal characteristics like creativity and courage, initiative, drive and will, tenacity and teamwork. And of course also on coincidence, meeting the right people at the right time and winning them as employee. And then there is my special company philosophy of flat hierarchies, freedom to act in a sporting spirit. It also includes working at eye level, with my motto that “the boss is the first among equals.” Customers can sense that, also suppliers and they often help us to implement business ideas into practice. Passion for a task is recognised and appreciated, and as a result multiplies.
The Company is now managed in the second generation by the founder’s son Torsten Wywiol since 10 years.
What was the most memorable and valuable thing for you in your 40 years of business life?
That’s not a fair question! You can’t boil 40 years of entrepreneurship down to a single point. I founded companies with a new product idea, I bought small companies that nobody wanted and made them big, I developed commodities into brand products. In all this, one valuable thing was in the foreground – TRUST. I have given much trust, and received much more trust in return. Brand products also make a promise and convey trust. When people, in-house and out of house, come to trust each other, long-term healthy development is secured.
How do you explain the secret of your business success?
Ultimately, numerous factors have to come together at the right moment. But for me, it all revolved on three things: courage, creativity, and the thirst for action. Then there was my curiosity to discover and accomplish something new, again and again. One example is the decision to progress from a trader to a producer. Of course, this did not happen in one step. Through contract manufacturers, we have slowly but steadily built up our own product manufacturing. In Wittenburg near Schwerin, we found favourable conditions to build the most modern factory in Europe for powdered functional systems - our company STERNMAID. Here we not only produce for our own companies but also act as a contract manufacturer for third parties - for other large companies in the food industry.
R&D in the broad-based application and research facility Stern-Technology Center – Futuremakers with over 100 food technologists, scientists and technicians is the heart and soul of the group
I wonder what an ordinary day is like for Volkmar Wywiol. What kind of contributions are you currently making to company management?
Up until the corona pandemic I directed the Marketing Department for all the individual companies, naturally in consultation with my son Torsten as CEO. Management by video conference isn’t my thing. Today I take care of our social and cultural commitment; there is a lot to do. Also, compiling the history of the company, all the many ups and downs, has been neglected in my life’s motto “get up and get to it” which needs more attention.
What role does Stern-Wywiol Gruppe play in feeding the world's population and preventing hunger disease and mortality?
We are very active around the world in the enrichment of flour with vitamins and other micronutrients. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other NGOs have achieved much here, and have persuaded governments all over the globe to mandate the enrichment of staple foods with vital nutrients. Our special companies Mühlenchemie and SternVitamin work closely with these organisations, and formulate and produce country-specific premixes. In doing so we have a great responsibility, which our employees are very committed to.
The importance of this work is also shown by the fact that the World Food Programme was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2020 last week. This is an important signal and more than deserved. We congratulate the organisation and its staff wholeheartedly.
Stern-Wywiol Gruppe has now been managed in the second generation by your son Torsten Wywiol for 10 years. How should we view company management?
Every generation must adapt to rapidly changing situations and its environment. It is my good fortune that my son also has the entrepreneurial gene, and is continuing to build the family company with the same drive and intensity. Revenues have almost doubled in the last ten years, particularly through the continued expansion of foreign subsidiaries with office and production facilities.
In Wittenburg/Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Volkmar Wywiol found favourable conditions to build the most modern factory in Europe for powdered functional ingredient systems.
You’ve been in the flour industry for 40 years. What do you think flour means for human nutrition? What is the role of flour in our diet?
Every year millers face the challenge of the varying quality and baking properties of the annual grain harvest. Our Mühlenchemie is a partner to the worldwide milling industry, and through our efforts over 100 million tonnes of flour are improved each year. Wheat is the world’s leading staple food. Bread, biscuits, pizza and pasta are eaten everywhere and are fixtures in the diets of the world. Proteins from wheat are in demand and are also being used more and more in vegan meat alternatives.
PLANT-BASED PRODUCTS ARE CHANGING THE FOOD MARKET
What do you think will be more prominent in human nutrition in the upcoming period?
Plant-based alternatives to meat and fish will grow enormously; indeed, they are changing the food market. Some futurologists even speak of a 180-degree shift in western eating habits. Sustainability, health and animal welfare will guide our purchase decisions in the future. Our Hydrosol company has been providing leading-edge technology in this field for years. We recently set up a special company, Planteneers, that focuses exclusively on plant-based foods, with extensive applications technology and a strong technical team.
THE HEART OF STERN: TECHNOLOGY CENTER
Research and development are part of Stern-Wywiol Gruppe. What kind of work is your R&D team currently doing for the future?
Yes, R&D in our broad-based application and research facility Stern-Technology Center – Futuremakers is our heart and soul with over 100 food technologists, scientists and technicians. They work with an industry orientation on the improved products and economic solutions of tomorrow. Flour and baking with enzyme-based ingredients play an important role. Right now the focus is on
a) Enzyme systems for improvement of the shelf life (rollability) of flatbread - following the trend of increasing demand for flatbread sales via supermarkets,
b) Alphamalt Gloxy TGO, a new oxidizing enzyme system for dough stabilization, as replacement of chemical agents such as ADA and
c) Enzyme treatment of composite flours for improved yield.
A MONUMENTAL PLACE FOR MILLERS
You’re also the founder of the FlourWorld Museum. I know you attach great importance to this museum. How important is this museum to you?
The FlourWorld Museum is the result of finding a flour sack by chance on the beach in Dubai. Today it holds over 3500 flour sacks from 140 countries. The exhibits focus on the designs on the sacks, which tell exciting stories about the traditions, myths and benefits of flour. We created the museum as homage to the millers who make our daily flour. The curators make it an educational place, and the millers who visit it can’t believe what a monument we have built to honour them.
The decision to progress from a trader to a producer was one of the milestones in the developments of the company.
20 March was registered by the National Day Calendar as World Flour Day. I think this is important to appreciate the vital role of millers. Your share is big in that development. What would you like to say about this?
We established the day in order to remind the billions of consumers of flour - in the form of bread, cookies, pizza, and pasta - of this “Gift of Life”. It would be a success for me if every second mill in the world took this day as an occasion to come up with a special bakery item with their customers, and use it to celebrate with their end consumers.