Looking back on the great life's work of Heinz Hermann Thiele.
His determination and perseverance are legendary, along with his unwavering will to succeed and absolute dedication to his task. Heinz Hermann Thiele never shied away from any challenge or endeavor when it came to putting Knorr-Bremse on the road to success with a clear strategy. By shaping the corporate culture in this way, he has made an impression on Knorr-Bremse that will last long into the future.
One year ago, on February 23, 2021, Heinz Hermann Thiele passed away – the news came as a heavy blow to all employees worldwide, from the production halls to the offices and the boardroom, and to all those who had come to know him. For a moment, it was as if the world of Knorr-Bremse stood still.
Heinz Hermann Thiele devoted his entire life to the service of Knorr-Bremse and a wide range of other entrepreneurial ventures. He described discipline, fairness, willingness to perform and a sense of responsibility as his most important principles. With his unique entrepreneurial spirit, he inspired and influenced people all over the world: employees, customers, business partners and many other social and political figures. Heinz Hermann Thiele also supported a wide range of social, cultural and scientific projects around the world. With his passing, Germany lost one of its most distinguished business leaders. What remains is a unique and extraordinary life’s work.
Heinz Hermann Thiele was one of the great entrepreneurial figures in Germany, having built up and developed Knorr-Bremse over many decades. He had an unerring instinct for opportunities, which he seized with determination. With his entrepreneurial flair and willpower, he turned a relatively small business into an international group whose systems for road and rail are now trusted by millions of people around the world every day.
His company lives on, and with it his corporate culture: not settling for second best, striving with every ounce of strength for excellence and market leadership, always staying alert and driving innovation forward. This attitude to life, which many of today’s Knorr-Bremse employees have embraced and adopted, became particularly evident at a number of turning points in Heinz Hermann Thiele’s life.
Born on April 2, 1941, his flight from war-torn Berlin to West Germany as a four-year-old along with his mother and siblings is one of his formative experiences. “That’s when I learned how to survive in hard times.” Indeed, times remain tough for the family: their property in Berlin is lost, money is scarce. But Heinz Hermann Thiele reveals his fighting spirit from an early age. He initially turns his ambition towards athletics training, and eventually achieves a time of 10.8 seconds in the 100-meter sprint.
He joins Knorr-Bremse in 1969 at the age of 28 – as a clerk in the patent department. A passion for technology is already in his blood. Three years later he becomes Head of Legal and Patents; in 1975 he is responsible for the Commercial Vehicle Brakes division, and from 1979 for all sales activities. In 1984 he is appointed Chairman of the Executive Board of Knorr-Bremse AG.
Huge opportunity, great risk
Then, in 1985, he is suddenly faced with the opportunity of a lifetime. The owner at the time, Jens von Bandemer, asks Thiele, whom he has since put in charge of all business operations, to sell Knorr-Bremse for him. Thiele is tempted by the idea of making a purchase offer himself, especially as other potential buyers have not materialized. As he himself once recounted, at first glance it seemed absurd: “I had nothing but a house with a mortgage still to pay off.”
Heinz Hermann Thiele trusts in his own determination and talent. These prove credible enough to convince Deutsche Bank and its Chairman Alfred Herrhausen to grant him the necessary loans. From 1985 onwards, he gradually acquires the company’s shares via Knorr-Bremse Kommanditgesellschaft. A daring move. Many in the industry believed it was too late to turn Knorr-Bremse around. “Nothing was going right here,” confirms Thiele. In 1985, Knorr-Bremse had 3,500 employees and sales of EUR 254 million, of which EUR 180 million came from brakes. Today the company has almost 30,000 employees worldwide and sales of around EUR 6 billion.
Trusting his own judgment, trusting himself
Heinz Hermann Thiele confronted the mammoth task of turning the company around with great self-belief. Although the risk of failure was high, he saw it as an opportunity to make all final decisions himself as owner and Chairman of the Executive Board. Crucially, to get this right, he needed a clear strategy. A consulting firm came to the conclusion that brakes had little future and that Knorr-Bremse would do better to focus on industrial pneumatics. Thiele, who had developed a knack for business through his good contacts with customers, decided otherwise. Brake technology for rail and road was to be the core activity of his company. He gradually sold off all other activities. He also restructured his team. He wanted leaders with the most technical expertise to make swift and courageous management decisions – though these also had to stand up to scrutiny in discussions with Thiele.
Arguing with him was possible, but anything but easy. His expectations were very high. “Maybe I’m too hard on my people,” he himself once admitted. But it was equally true that he always demanded the most from himself. Close colleagues have plenty of tales to tell of the boss calling late in the evening or on Sundays to discuss new tasks or ideas.
A long and arduous, but successful journey
For decades, he personally handled the internationalization of the group and was constantly on the road, winning new customers and developing sites. “It was a struggle that was incredibly demanding on me and also on my people. I had imagined it would be easier.” In the process, he acquired a tremendous wealth of industry knowledge – technical expertise paired with the all-important understanding of the diverse customer and market requirements and an awareness of the cultural differences that affect how business is conducted across various regions of the world.
Despite all the exertion, the major tasks and challenges had a motivating effect on many of the people involved. “The spirit was simply fantastic,” recalls former Rail Management Board member Dr. Dieter Wilhelm. “All board members who were not on business trips met for lunch every day at 12:30. That was the law. Sitting at the table was the Chairman of the Executive Board and the owner all rolled into one; this allowed us to work through issues at an unbelievable speed. Heinz Hermann Thiele put a lot of pressure on us, but at the same time he gave us a lot of support.”
Growth driven by many sound decisions
After years of restructuring, Knorr-Bremse began to grow strongly. Heinz Hermann Thiele’s entrepreneurial decision to open up the Chinese market at an early stage and to build up trust with future business partners with a great deal of patience and tact bore fruit. Long-term partnerships forged at this time are still in place today. In addition to organic growth, he constantly drove inorganic growth through corporate acquisitions. Important milestones on this path included the acquisition of New York Air Brake for the North American rail market in 1991 and of Bendix for the North American commercial vehicle market in 2002.
The creation of East Germany’s first stock corporation in January 1990 – a rather bold move given that the GDR still legally existed – also throws a spotlight on Thiele’s decisiveness. Knorr-Bremse had been founded in Berlin in 1905. After the Second World War and the division of the city, the Knorr-Bremse site was located in East Berlin and became VEB Berliner Bremsenwerk (BBW). Immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, Thiele saw the opportunities that were opening up, pounced upon them and set the wheels in motion. The subsequent elaborate restoration of the old administrative building as a branch office was a matter of personal priority for Heinz Hermann Thiele.
“The good of the company has always been more important to me than personal and family interests,” says Heinz Hermann Thiele on October 12, 2018, the day of the IPO. It is now time to secure the company’s independence, he adds – with new shareholders who have a long-term interest in the company and want to invest in its future. At this juncture, Thiele set the course for the company’s future beyond his own lifetime: “The company needs to become less dependent on me, and I have an interest in other investors helping to keep the company on track.” From the first day of trading, it was clear that investors took a keen interest in Knorr-Bremse, in which the Thiele family still holds a majority stake. “I have played a major role in shaping this company over 40 years and have paid a high price for my dedication to the goal of turning a small family business into an international group. The company is now very strong, very successful and will continue on its path in this new constellation,” said Heinz Hermann Thiele as he bid farewell to the trading floor.
Thiele’s last major project: digitalizing the company
Though he always upheld tradition, experience and the company’s long history, Thiele was constantly looking ahead, forever on the lookout for new technology, new ways to grow. He attached great importance to research and development, as evidenced by the construction of the large development center at the Munich site, which simultaneously underscored his commitment to Germany and to Bavaria as a technology hub. Similarly, he was under no illusions about how crucial the topic of digitalization would be for the company in the future. It is therefore surely no coincidence that Jan Mrosik, a recognized digitalization expert, came on board as Chairman of the Executive Board at the beginning of 2021.
The entire Executive Board team has made a commitment to uphold the legacy of Heinz Hermann Thiele and to continue to run the company in his spirit. Many employees also do this on a daily basis, pouring their heart and soul into the tasks that will shape the future of Knorr-Bremse – just as Heinz Hermann Thiele demonstrated every day: “I am an entrepreneur and will remain an entrepreneur until my last breath.”
I am an entrepreneur and will remain an entrepreneur until my last breath.
Heinz Hermann Thiele – Heinz Hermann Thiele – former majority shareholder, long-time Chairman of the Executive Board and Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Knorr-Bremse AG, died on February 23, 2021.