Winding down a love affair

Jo Francis
Friday, April 22, 2022

When Rainer Hundsdörfer took over as boss of the industry’s largest press manufacturer five years ago, the world was a very different place.

"You need to love this industry. It’s not very difficult to love it, but it’s mandatory"
"You need to love this industry. It’s not very difficult to love it, but it’s mandatory"

He arrived at the business on a mission to ensure Heidelberg’s operations were suitably primed to take advantage of the profit potential in the trend to digitisation, but Hundsdörfer’s tenure has also included the huge upheaval caused to Heidelberg, its customers and the global economy by the coronavirus pandemic, which five years ago wasn’t part of anyone’s planning process.

Just before stepping down at the end of the group’s financial year, he opened up to Printweek about the highs and lows he’s experienced during his time at the Heidelberg helm, and why he’ll still be attending Drupa 2024.

Jo Francis Is it safe to say you’re leaving the firm on a high?

Rainer Hundsdörfer I think my successor, Dr Ludwin Monz, has a good opportunity. If he continues the strategies we’ve started it’s going to be a long party.

That’s good to hear. What was your biggest challenge in the role apart from Covid-19, the biggest challenge for all of us since 2020.

It was changing the mindset of the Heidelberg team to really try new things. To start believing again in their capabilities even outside of the area where we have been active in the past, because Heidelberg is still an excellent company with unbelievable skills, which are also valuable outside of the print media industry.

Will print always be at the heart of what Heidelberg does, despite the other initiatives and growing new business areas such as e-mobility?

Our core business is back, and we have sized the company perfectly for this business. We did our segmentation in a different way to say: we have print, we have packaging solutions, and technology solutions. All of these businesses are very valuable businesses.

Print of course is not growing anymore. We all know that. But it is still big. It’s still a billion-euro business. And Heidelberg has such a great offering for this business. This will be an important part for Heidelberg also in the future, and we will invest and we will drive this technology forward and Heidelberg will stay the market leader and the technology leader in that field. In packaging we have some opportunities because this market is growing and maybe we can even gain some market share, and we can broaden our product portfolio. And there are environmental issues which are becoming more and more important, and solutions for that can and will give Heidelberg growth.

The next thing which will fly and is almost ready to lift off is printed electronics. And our competency in electronics together [with print] allows us to offer systems solution for that. And I’m sure we will see the first [sales] and the first profits in the next 12-to-18 months.

How has the Covid experience been as CEO of the group? Did it radically change your plans? Can you sum up the whole Covid experience?

I think Heidelberg was in a little bit of a different situation when Covid hit us. If you remember, we just decided and started the restructuring just before Covid. And luckily we did that, because in Covid it wouldn’t have been possible – you wouldn’t get all the bankers together, which we had done just two weeks before the shutdowns.

We said we would accelerate and move further through this pandemic – of course not knowing what the outcome was – but we were optimistic in moving forward fast. And the result is coming to the surface now. It shows it was the right thing to do, that we were brave, and despite the pandemic we moved forward. 

Our new flexo generation was developed during Covid and other things as well – e-mobility was pushed forward during Covid. 

Covid did two things to us. One of course, it threatened us big time. There were moments when we didn’t know how to manage such a decline in orders. But we didn’t run away. We managed and business came back [because] we did the right things. And so I can say at the end we came out stronger than we went in. 

And the transformation plan is still intact. It’s just that we lost basically 2020, because that year was about survival.

And what was the most difficult decision you made during your time as CEO, pandemic or otherwise?

The most difficult decision, because I’m an engineer, was to kill two of the world’s best products. To kill the VLF which also is strategically important, but if you can’t make money from a business point-of-view, you have to kill it. That was hard. And the same with the Primefire. It’s still by far the best digital packaging B1 printing press... But if there is no market you have no choice.

Do you think Heidelberg will step back into digital printing at some point with your own products?

Sooner or later, I think yes. But we are still big time in digital printing. and that’s in labels. In labels it is the growth path. And that’s why Heidelberg takes all that we learned with the Primefire and with the Labelfire, and we will soon be coming out with the next generation which has a much broader scope to the market.

We also conserved the knowhow of digital printing. And that includes not only the machines, but also the ink because you have to have the ink if you want to do good business in digital printing.

With hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?

I would have made a few personal decisions to get rid of some people earlier. I was probably wrong to believe they would change, and we could have been faster. Looking back in hindsight, there are a handful people and if they would have left earlier we would have been moving forward faster.

What’s been the most enjoyable or interesting thing that you discovered about the printing industry during your five years ago here? 

The printing industry is in its whole a very interesting industry. Printing is fascinating. The equipment... the offset printing press is fascinating technology. It’s a big clockwork system with unbelievable precision. So from an engineering point of view of course I like it very much, I love that.

But mostly I like our customers and the unbelievable loyalty they have to Heidelberg. When I visit customers it’s almost like visiting family. I’ve worked for really good companies before where we also had loyal customers, but not as loyal as Heidelberg’s who are highly interested not only in their business, but also were very concerned when Heidelberg was in trouble. Not only ‘where do I get machines from’, it was as if somebody in the family was sick, you care and that was fascinating.

And what’s been your proudest achievement?

That that we finally made it despite a lot of challenges. That we still, even when it became tough, we could motivate the team to continue on and drive it through. Driving success.

I’m very proud that we managed that. And I’m very proud of our motivated team who did that. 

Then of course, we are also proud that we started subscription despite of course the challenges that we are not a rich company anymore who could afford to put all of it on our balance sheet, and we found a solution for how we can do that.

The new digital business model is definitely something to be proud of. And of course, all the automation we drove forward with workflow, with plate-to-unit for the machine, which allows basically unmanned operation. There are still a few steps to go but we’re closing in and even a complex process, like sheetfed offset printing can be operated unmanned. I think that’s a great achievement.

From your experience of meeting with Heidelberg customers all around the world, what do you think is the key thing that stands out in terms of being a successful printer?

Dedication. I think that is always important regardless if you’re a printer or what business you run. But I think our successful customers think not about the process, they think about the needs of the customer better than others, which leads them to all those solutions we offer such as Push to Stop and all the workflow automations that address the customer needs: to deliver it just in time and to deliver also on a competitive basis, high quality.

Away from industrial print production there’s a lot of ‘new printing’. What’s your view on these diverse opportunities?

Looking a little bit forward if printed electronics, let’s say functional print, takes off the business is going to grow significantly.

And the biggest part, and that’s the focus we have, is sensors because digitisation needs information, and where do we get information from? Sensors. And in order to have many and to have them everywhere, they need to be inexpensive.

If you can simply print on the substrate, which hopefully is organic, and you can throw it away [and recycle it], you do not have an environmental problem like we have today with semi-conductors. That is going to become, I think, in the next few years, a very, very big business for Heidelberg. And it’s print, and printing, but it’s not decorative printing, it’s functional printing.

What are your views on the future trends and the biggest opportunities for the printing industry overall?

I think in commercial it is really for our customers to meet even better the demand of their customers. To print what they need, what they want, in high quality, and I think we have very good examples of customers who do that well.

Another big trend is in sustainable packaging. I believe this will become big. Because if packaging is not sustainable, and 100% recyclable, packaging will become an area where all the brand owners have no way to get out. 

We can take [CO2 info on] the paper, the substrates, the inks, everything. We also know the scrap rate and so you can calculate what is really the carbon footprint. So that could be a USP for the whole of Heidelberg in the future.

The biggest trend, I believe will be printers who really automate their shop – proper end-to-end automation. 

On that topic, I remember Heidelberg announced its first app last year.

Yes, to help our customers to really control and improve their cost situation and performance, we have just developed an app. Everything we develop new is cloud-based to control the whole print shop or print shops. We developed the system collaboratively together with a customer and what he wants makes a lot of sense. He says, ‘the most money I lose is when I produce crap’. And by the way, it’s also not very economical if I trash the paper, because I need 100 or 150 sheets until I’m in good print.

So basically on his smartphone, wherever he is at the moment... he can look up how his operations are performing, and very easily see what is in the range and what is not in the range. It allows him to solve any problems at a very, very early stage. And that’s only one of many ideas where our customers basically say, ‘that is what we really want in order to increase our performance’.

Have you got any advice for the incoming CEO?

He should be brave and not afraid to challenge people with changes. And of course he needs to start to love the printing industry. That’s very important. You need to love this industry. It’s not very difficult to love it, but it’s mandatory.

It definitely is. Mandatory is the right word! What will you miss most about print?

It’s very easy. The technology, the customers... I will definitely visit the next Drupa. And I’ve made good friends with some of our customers so I will also visit them in the future once in a while.

I will miss the dedicated Heidelberg team all around the world. We have so many great people wherever you go. I am going to miss that a lot.

I remember you saying that you had always gone to Drupa, so it’s good to know that we may well bump into you at Drupa 2024. Do you have plans for what you’re going to do next? Relax or take on a new challenge?

I am always 100% dedicated until the last day and this [job] will be no different. I have already for many years had some supervisory board activities. These I will continue. Maybe there are new ideas where I can use my experience of the last few years at Heidelberg.

But on the other hand, I’m turning 65 this year. So I’m probably going to reduce a bit the operational activities. I say that now, let’s see if that’s true!

I enjoyed being part of Heidelberg. I’m very proud to be part of Heidelberg. And I’m very happy that despite all of the challenges, we could manage to stabilise it and to bring it back on a growth path. I’m thankful for the unbelievable loyalty of our customers. That was an awesome experience. And that’s something I will definitely miss. 

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