Logistics tycoon talks The Ships that Sailed

Klaus-Michael Kühne may have made billions from his Swiss-based logistics firm, but he admits that love for his home city of Hamburg has led to some bad deals.

Klaus-Michael Kühne, 77, became CEO of his grandfather's transport and logistics company Kühne & Nagel in 1966. It now has 63,000 employees in more than 100 countries. With an estimated net worth of $10.3 billion, Mr. Kühne has now stepped back from day to day involvement in the firm, taking up the role of honorary chairman. A native of the port city of Hamburg, he has now turned his attentions to his beloved Hamburger SV soccer team, despite living in Switzerland. He is also involved in trying to salvage his investment in container ship company — and Hamburg institution — Hapag-Lloyd.

Die Zeit: Mr. Kühne, would you like to live in Hamburg again?

Klaus-Michael Kühne: Certainly! Hamburg is a very attractive and beautiful city. But I’ve decided to live in Switzerland and that’s the way it is.

You could always change your mind.

There are several flights each day between Zurich and Hamburg and I’m on the move a lot. The world has gotten smaller. I like the change. Maybe I’m a constant guest always moving around.

There’s a saying in German that you can learn how to save from the rich. Is it true you used to take your company’s mail to the post office?

Yes, but normally someone else did that. There was no email back then, but putting a few envelopes in your bag was no big deal. I am indeed very frugal. I think over everything and am annoyed when money is wasted for nothing.

You’re willing to spend lavishly on your hobby soccer. You have invested or lent millions in your favorite team, Hamburger SV.

Yes, that’s true. I think about that sometimes, but everyone needs a hobby and I picked football. I’ve been an HSV fan since I was small. I watch every match on TV and suffer.

Actually Hamburg business people should support the club, but very few do. I’m the only one left, but it’s a passion for me that just hasn’t gone the way I had hoped.

Hamburger SV is in danger of being relegated.

It’s a critical time that we have to go through. It’s very nerve racking.

Some dream of you investing €100 million ($120 million) to make everything fine.

I don’t want to become a (Roman) Abramovich (billionaire owner of Chelsea FC in London). I’ve sunk too much money into this hobby. A few million won’t do the trick at HSV, but I’m not a €100-million man, who wants total control.

That isn’t possible in Germany anyway, investors have absolutely no rights. In Spain and England that would be different and indeed something to think about.

Economically speaking, HSV was the worst deal of your life.

I mostly considered it a hobby.

Hapag-Lloyd is financially a big disappointment. It’s gone worse than it should have. Klaus-Michael Kühne

You have another expensive project in Hamburg: Your stake in Hapag-Lloyd, one of the world's leading container ship operators, has cost you more than €1 billion. Is that also a hobby?

No, that was out of responsibility to the city of Hamburg. A few business people and the city wanted to avoid Hapag-Lloyd being sold to a third party, but not as many took part as planned. Many got cold feet.

It was 2008 when the financial crisis started.

The beginning of a painful time for the shipping industry, when Hapag-Lloyd was one of the losers. It wasn’t big enough and was too old-fashioned. Only by merging with the Chileans, which I was part of the talks, was it possible to offer a chance for the future (Hapag-Lloyd last year announced a merger with Chile's CSAV, creating the world's fourth-largest container ship fleet).

Does it hurt that this investment in Hamburg isn’t thriving?

Hapag-Lloyd is financially a big disappointment, that has to be said. It’s gone worse than it should have. Emotionally, however, I think it’s vital to keep a leading German shipping firm. I have a missionary viewpoint about it, which is why I’m glad to take part. I could afford to, since I’ve been so lucky in life.

Do you actually know how much money you have?

Most of my wealth is tied up in Kühne + Nagel stock. It goes up and down. If the price drops ten percent, half to three-quarters of a billion is quickly gone. I always say that’s paper money. That’s the right way, as I don’t really have horribly high personal demands.

What did you have to forgo for your success?

I married late, hardly had a family life, and was constantly under stress. It really was a huge burden. I was only focused on developing the business. I hardly read books and only rarely went to the opera or theater. I took few vacations. Once I married in 1989 that changed. I tried to enjoy nice trips and a bit more free time. That all came too late for me.

What’s your tip on how someone can become rich and successful?

(Laughing) Work hard and use the chances you are given.


This interview originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the authors: [email protected]