In a book published about the Austrian family-owned transport group called Gebrüder Weiss there is double fold-out page of the family tree. The tree needs a lot of room because it starts back in 1608 with a man called Adam Spehler, who was one of Europe’s first couriers.
Spehler was a so-called Milan courier who provided a regular express services for merchandise, letters and travellers from Lake Constance, across the Alps and to the capital of Lombardy and back again. These Milan couriers were the forefathers of Gebrüder Weiss, which, apart from being one of the oldest family businesses in existence, is also one of Austria’s most successful companies. These days Gebrüder Weiss employs more than 6,000 people in 150 offices around the world. In 2013, it had revenues of €1.2 billion.
The family business goes back so many generations that current family members are often hard pressed to know exactly how many. “Probably around 20 generations,” says Wolfram Senger-Weiss, who sits on the four member executive board that controls the logistics company. The confusion often arises because of knowing exactly when the business started - there is a record of a Weiss (Wizze) paying tax on a business going back to 1330, but 1436 is also often used as the starting date.
The company we know today - distinguished by the orange and white logo seen on its trucks across the world - goes back to 1823 when Josef Weiss and his two half brothers, Leonhard and Johann Alois Karl Weiss, started trading under a new name: Spedition Gebrüder Weiss. Six generations later in 2005 Wolfram and Heinz were appointed to the executive board, taking over the positions from their mother and father, Heidi and Paul Senger-Weiss.
Gebrüder Weiss, which is based in the Austrian town of Lauterach in the far west of the country near the Swiss border, markets itself as a family company, and the commitment goes deep, as Wolfram explains. "There has been continuous dedication of the family to the business. We always stayed within the same industry and each generation is responsible for their period,” he says.
He adds: "Family members have to understand that they are only part of the chain. They have to learn about the values of the previous generation, adopt them to their times and pass them on to the next." This strong sense of stewardship is a defining factor in the success of Gebrüder Weiss and helps to explain its longevity.
Although the Weiss name is dominant in the business, Gebrüder Weiss is also owned by another family, the Jeries. The two family own exactly 50% of the business each and Wolfram says both families are very close, although the Jeries have no direct management roles within the business. According to reports in the media, the Weiss family are known as the entrepreneurs in the business, whereas the Jerie family are known as the moderators. Given the fact that the have co-existed since the mid 1800s when the split took place, the two would appear to complement each other well.
Despite being a multiple generational business, the Weiss family have never written down a family constitution. Wolfram says there are structures that exist that defines procedures when family members sells shares, but the family have been content to not put another layer of formal control in place. Wolfram’s sister, Elisabeth, doesn’t work in the family business. A lawyer, she made the decision some years ago to not join, but is a shareholder and is involved in the company.
There are no rules defining whether the next generation need to gain outside experience before joining the family business. "For me it was important to work outside of the family business first,” says the 44-year-old Wolfram, who had jobs in the US before doing an MBA at INSEAD. “I didn't want to be dependant on a job in the business and I didn't want the family business to be obliged to hire me."
He adds: "But there is no clear rule that you have to work outside of the family business before joining it." Wolfram says that his role on the board involves being a non-official chief finance officer, but he also oversees family affairs linked to the business. As with so many family businesses in the German speaking world, there is a supervisory board, which has three members: Wolfram’s mother, Heidi, who is the chairwoman, his father Paul, and non-family Sylvia Krieger-Einem.
The current non-family CEO Wolfgang Niessner joined the business in 1997 after working for a competitor and was appointed to the top job in 2005. Despite the presence of a CEO, the tightly knit board - the other non-family member is Peter Kloiber - suggests the big decisions are taken with the consent of all four members, rather than one person dominating that process.
The legacy left by Heidi and Paul is still very evident at Gebrüder Weiss even today. They managed the company from 1968 until handing over to their sons in 2005. During this period the company grew rapidly, especially with the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the business expanded into Central and Eastern Europe. During these years Gebrüder Weiss also expanded into China.
Since Heidi and Paul’s departure, Gebrüder Weiss has opened in Turkey and some parts of central Asia, as well as growing its presence in existing markets. Wolfram says the business plans to grow in the so-called “stans” of central Asia, as well as other established markets.
Last year the postal services of Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Liechtenstein issued four stamps commemorating the Milan courier service, including one that featured the intrepid ancestor whose guts and determination lay the foundations for the the Gebrüder Weiss dynasty. There are many great family businesses, but few with a past so romantic or inspiring that it could be immortalised this way.