Since taking charge of the sprawling engineering conglomerate Siemens, Joe Kaeser has put the company through its largest restructuring program in 25 years. He has sold non-core assets and made some significant acquisitions including oil and gas equipment maker Dresser-Rand.
He is at Davos this year to make sure the company is still visible, technologically innovative and nimble.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Kaeser, how many times have you been to the World Economic Forum?
Joe Kaeser: This is the third time.
So you’ve only been coming to the Swiss Alps since you became chief executive of Siemens? Weren’t you allowed to come as a mere board member for finance, or didn’t you want to?
It wasn’t so much about hierarchy as the fact that you want to see as many clients and business partners in Davos as possible. A CEO, or the board member in charge of business, is always more in demand than the finance guy. That’s really what Davos is all about, establishing or catching up with an incredible number of contacts in a very short time and all in one place.
What was your first time like?
Well, of course you have to become familiar with the logistics first and find your way around in all the hustle and bustle. But that doesn’t take long. And then you’re caught up in a maelstrom of appointments, so typical of Davos, because this is where bosses meet bosses.
Not just bosses. This is also where you meet politicians and the odd non-government organization - surely just as important for big companies nowadays. How is all that organized in advance?
Like a social media platform. Everyone has to go through the accreditation process months in advance and then see who else is coming. Then the enquiries go back-and-forth to arrange meetings. It all works out in the course of a few weeks, and then you have a well-filled and organized schedule of appointments.
How long do you stay there?
As a rule, two or three days at the most. It usually starts early with various breakfast meetings and carries on until late in the evening.
That sounds as if you only have a short time for each meeting.
A typical meeting lasts about half an hour – any longer is an exception. That is enough on the one hand, on the other hand, you wouldn’t want anything less …. You don’t want to jump straight in with hard business figures, you ask the guy first of all how he’s doing.
Well that’s a relief!
Social relationships are still cultivated in Davos to a certain extent, and that is quite in keeping with the special atmosphere of the location. But at the same time, if it wasn’t so efficient, you wouldn’t go there. Just think about the costs and effort involved …..
... surely not a big deal for the companies concerned.
Big companies are also mindful of the costs, but above all they have to prioritize the time they devote to everything. Hotel rates are considerable during the event and the rooms can only be booked for the entire five-day duration, even if you’re only there for two days.
How big is the Siemens delegation?
I have five colleagues with me.
Who are some of the people you have arranged to meet?
The boss of the Saudi Aramco company, for example, the world’s biggest oil producing company. Also the bosses of BP and Petrobras and many other important clients. You can also make contact with various heads of government. If you have a minimum of 10 top meetings of this nature every day, that makes 30 in three days. If I wanted to see these people elsewhere, it would be much more complicated, and I would be traveling around the world for several weeks.
The criticisms of Davos are as old as the event itself. Are they justified?
Well, you can’t please everyone. But anyone who has the impression that the World Economic Forum is not worthwhile, doesn’t have to go there. Believe me: None of the entrepreneurs, top managers, politicians and NGOs who are there, would come if it was just a Vanity Fair occasion.
Do you get to do any skiing?
No, I leave the sporting and social elements of the event to other people. If you have to get up at 5.30 in the morning for the first breakfast meeting at 6.30, you have other priorities. Only the traditional invitation from Jürgen Grossmann (a billionaire German steel entrepreneur) is a must – and a most agreeable obligation.
The dominating theme of Davos this year is digitalization. Wouldn’t the waves of refugees now on the move globally be more important?
Automation and the speed of changes have taken on dimensions affecting the world community at all levels. That is why it is a central theme. But Mr. Schwab (Klaus Schwab, a German engineer and economist) ….
... the founder of the forum ...
... will certainly bear in mind that the refugee question is one of the most urgent issues in the world today.
If you were not head of Siemens and were still able to visit Davos, what would interest you above all?
All the podiums with debates about the effects of modern technologies on society. Also the question of how new middle classes are forming globally or old middle classes being marginalized. How innovations affect global peace and how we all deal with each other. That is what I find interesting. I remember socio-economic debates in years gone by about the value of business for a society. We should never lose sight of the big picture and that companies should serve society and not vice versa.
Is there something which should be changed at Davos?
The programs are becoming increasingly tighter and more diversified. On the other hand, everyone can set his own priorities. Klaus Schwab organizes a kind of global community here once a year ….
... and a global government too?
No, there is no such thing; even if there are individuals who might claim the right to such a thing.
So, in the final analysis, what does Davos stand for?
For a globally unique marketplace to establish and renew contacts of all kinds. For me, the forum offers three valuable opportunities: To cultivate my own networks, to meet the maximum number of people in the shortest possible time, and to pick up the occasional idea.
Thomas Tuma is a deputy editor in chief at Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]