• S. Völkle, D. Rüegger, A. Fradinger. (From the left; photo: Unilogistics)

18.05.2022 By: Thomas Rüegger

Artikel Nummer: 40880

Successful succession

Ensuring the future of the Unilogistics family business.

‘How can I put my house in order?’ presages what may be a difficult episode for an entrepreneur and the future of his firm. Thomas Rüegger, his family and team have crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s on Unilogistics’ succession and share a personal statement thereon with the ITJ. In addition to Thomas Rüegger’s practical guide his successor, daughter Deborah Rüegger, answered questions about herself and the future.

The first phase started with key questions that I had to ask myself as an entrepreneur. Are there capable offspring for a family succession? Does my daughter Deborah really want to take over? Is she willing and able to take on this task? Does a family succession make more sense than selling the firm to someone else?

A series of clarifications needed to be in place first, in order to be able to find out. Deborah agreed to return and work for the company on 1 February 2017, after she spent a year learning English in Canada. The issue of ‘Thomas Rüegger’s succession’ was thus actively discussed at an early stage in my family. We quickly found out that Deborah was the obvious choice as our future CEO.

As I have three descendants all issues were put on the table right from the beginning. It made sense to also conduct discreet discussions with a number of suitable employees, but these were soon terminated again. In this phase it was quite clear to me which solution was most important to me personally. We also set a deadline – after my daughter Deborah’s final exams on 1 October 2022 – by which we wanted to clarify any open and any previously unspoken questions.

We never had to attempt to be very discreet vis-à-vis the outside world. Even in the initial phase we wanted to and could keep everyone informed. There are other constellations, however, in which it makes sense to only communicate with staff, customers and suppliers after a solution has been finalised, in order to prevent unrest and uncertainty.

If you actually communicate too much and perhaps too soon, than you can’t go back anymore afterwards, and may cause irreparable damage to the company. This was never an issue for us. Deborah and I may often have had our differences of opinion, but they were never such rifts that could not be healed again.

What are our options?

After our overall assessment we conducted an analysis of the prevailing situation, to ensure clarity and provide a synopsis at this stage of the process. A clear overview of the topics and a neutral external perspective will be helpful to parcel and then conclude this process in the two years from 1 January 2022.

The starting point is that every succession is different and unique. According to a study on succession in Swiss SMEs conducted by the business consultancy Bisnode Dun & Bradstreet, entitled ‘Nachfolge-Studie KMU Schweiz 2018’, the process can take between 18 months and six and a half years – depending on the option.

1. Management buy-in (MBI); ø 1.6 years
2. Management buy-out (MBO); ø 3.3 years
3. Family buy-out (FBO); ø 6.6 years

We chose our option. Then we had to coordinate the time frame to fit the circumstances on the ground. An early discussion therefore made most sense. It took place at the end of 2021.

I asked myself the most important questions right at the beginning of the overall process. How should we organise the management and ownership succession? What ideas do the family and the team have? What about pensions and security, taxes and law? My own obligations towards and financial support for my successor are a key element of this.

Preparation phase and successor

In the case of our internal family business succession, the effective feasibility and the desire for this transfer was assessed in the first phase. Even without any mergers and acquisitions advisors on board we found a suitable successor in my daughter Deborah, in terms of her human, expert and personal suitability. She also has the necessary financial means at her disposal, either externally or from the family. So there was no need for long rounds of negotiations, nor for the usual careful assessment of the company (due diligence).

Deborah’s overall commitment was nevertheless crucial to the company being able to maintain continuity. All personal as well as all of the financial issues had to be explored.

Integration and implementation from 1 September to 31 December 2023

Our ‘aquarium office’ is set to be renovated in summer 2024. A mirror image of the same workplace will be created. A specific space for meetings will be built in the middle of our open-plan office.

Because hybrid forms of work are becoming normal, the focus of activities in the main office will be on communication, knowledge exchange and creative and innovative processes, and interaction for cultural development. This entails adapting the working environments to becoming more of a ‘marketplace’, a ‘courtyard for communication’, an ‘innovation space’. Individual and project work can be carried out at other locations.

In Andi Fradinger we found a new transition man for Deborah. He’s my old head of European activities and has been doing an outstanding job since May 2021.

In March this year Jennifer Rüegger returned from maternity leave and Xenia Montanaro-Taschner rejoined us, having completed a spell at Fiege Air & Ocean. In the long term we want to train one apprentice a year; and in future we’ll aim to recruit them from our own personal and professional environments.

In practice, the signing of the contract and the execution thereof don’t necessarily have to take place on the same date. In order to make contract execution free of complications, both parties to the contract should maintain effective proactive communication with employees, customers as well as with suppliers. Changes of ownership always involve a certain degree of uncertainty, but many issues have been resolved before they could even arise.

Smooth handover from 1 January to 31 December 2024

Independent management activities for my successor will begin after an integration and familiarisation period ends. As the retiring entrepreneur in this family succession I’m determined to find a good mix between professional support and a quick handover of the overall responsibilities.

This will make it easier for Deborah to take over, both at a professional level and in terms of the working atmosphere. As people find it difficult to deal with change it’s important to actively support change processes during any handover phase. With us, this phase will be positively received and welcomed.

Andreas Fradinger, an old-school manager for day-to-day business activities, is an important executive to accompany the handover. Stephanie Völkle was carefully and gently introduced to the sales and marketing position. Existing customers have all been personally informed of the forthcoming changes.

As a modern family enterprise we’re now successfully repositioning ourselves. Deborah is highly motivated for as well as pleased with her impending new role. The entire team and I all attach great importance to human interaction and are committed to the interests of our customers. We’re trustful, loyal, respectful, fair and reliable. We express ourselves in clear and comprehensible language and can stand surety for all of these good intentions with our own names.


Deborah Rüegger in conversation

What drew you to the CEO’s job?

I enjoy work, that’s one reason, and it combines team spirit, travelling, success and experience. On top of that I want to show that I can really prove myself in today’s difficult global economic environment. I’ve wanted to head a firm ever since I was a girl. Let’s see what comes out of the fact that I don’t always share my father’s opinions!

I completed a classic commercial apprenticeship in freight forwarding, then lived in Canada for a year to learn the language, and then took two further specialist courses in customs clearance issues. Now I’m studying business administration at the HSO School of Economics and Information Technology and hope to graduate in October 2022.

How do you handle challenges and conflict?

I haven’t had a really challenging conflict yet that I had to deal with alone. There’ll always be conflicts, of course, but it’s important to realise that you don’t have to find a solution on your own, but that you can work together with a task force, for example, to find the best possible solution.

What would you do if you had a personal problem with someone in your team?

Anyone can say that they work well in a team, or say that they can lead a group of people to success. However, the most important thing is to remain as objective as possible when dealing with personal problems. Solving the problem isn’t the only aspect that’s important; it’s equally crucial to look at the root cause of any problem.

So I’d seek a conversation with the person and express my concerns. Questions concerning analytical and problem-solving skills are central to my role. I expect many questions from my staff.

I’ll have to visualise and solve human and work-related scenarios. That adds spice to life and work and makes taking responsibility all the more exciting and fascinating.

Are you an analytical thinker?

Yes, I always think and research matters thoroughly and studiously gather the relevant facts. Furthermore, I try to see where I can learn from the knowledge or experience of others, and always ask myself what resources I need for a task at hand.

The best problem-solvers can get to important details and see the essentials, and simultaneously also zoom out and see the big picture and where everything fits in. Of course, it all has to be done expeditiously.

What are your strengths?

Talking about my strengths almost feels a little uncomfortable for me. For example, my infectious cheerfulness, openness, persuasiveness and honesty, both with staff and with clients and agencies, are strong.

I’m self-analytical every day and thus regularly try to reassess my strengths. This motivates me to become better every day.

Or are you actually asking me to show off a bit about myself?

No no, but this leads to the next question – what are your weaknesses?

I’ll only say this at this juncture – that I work on my weaknesses every day. I use the real and secret weaknesses that I have as a springboard. Nobody’s perfect, I know that. I don’t want to fall into too comfortable a rhythm in the first place – so I joined several sports teams and groups 15 years ago, met many people, automatically became very sociable as a result stay very much in contact with all my acquaintances.


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